On the morning of March 22, 2008, Scott Martin was preparing for an NCAA Tournament game against Xavier when he received a call that would change his life forever.
In a hotel room in Washington, Martin, then a freshman guard averaging 8.5 points per game for the Purdue Boilermakers, learned that his father, Scott Sr., had woken up and — more inconveniently than anything — couldn’t open his left eye. It was swollen shut and a sty had begun to grow.
“Originally, you just think it’s an allergic reaction — no big deal, don’t worry about it,” Martin, now a sixth-year senior at Notre Dame, said now, looking back. “But then it never went away.”
The sty would continue to grow larger, and the swelling around the eye would never subside. Eventually, other lesions began to grow, and as more and more doctors failed to diagnose the problem, it became clear that Martin had been wrong — this was a big deal.
Within a month of his freshman season ending, Martin, fearing the worst, made the decision to transfer to Notre Dame to be closer to home in Valparaiso, Ind.
“We knew it was bad, even if we didn’t know what it was,” Martin recalled Friday night after Notre Dame’s 79-70 overtime loss to St. Joseph’s at Barclays Center. “You could tell it was something serious, and I really kind of had the feeling that I needed to be close in case of the worst. I needed to be home.”
Finally, more than two months after that fateful day in D.C., a doctor at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago was able to make a diagnosis, confirming Martin’s fears and validating his decision to leave Purdue. Scott Sr. had cancer — stage 3 cutaneous T-cell lymphoma.
Over the course of the next year, which Martin had to sit out because of NCAA transfer rules, he not only had to adjust to life with his new team and a new coach, but also to his new and unwelcome role as the man of the house and the caretaker for his family, including his mother, Diane, and his younger brother, Andrew.
During that time, Martin made countless drives to and from Chicago with his father so that his dad could receive radiation treatments to combat the cancer. The drives were long and tense at times, and occasionally they required Martin to miss practice or other team events. But they were also therapeutic, and Martin, still unsure of what the future held, used them as an opportunity to grow closer with his father.
“The way up was better than the way back, that’s for sure,” Martin said of the trips. “The way up was good bonding time for me and my dad. He was tough, and he was upbeat the whole time. He knew he could get through it, and I believed in him. But the way back was a little rougher, because he’d usually be sleeping so I was left to my thoughts.”
As the 2009 season drew near, Scott Sr. was still making regular trips to Chicago to undergo chemotherapy. However, his son’s long-awaited return to the basketball court served as a welcome distraction for a family that had been devastated by the anguish of the previous 18 months. But then disaster struck again for a kid and a family that had already endured too much.
On Oct. 1, 2009, during a preseason team workout, Martin suffered a non-contact injury to his left knee. It was later determined to be a torn ACL that would force him to miss the entire season, his second in a row. It would have been easy for Martin to wallow in his own situation, but his father, of all people, wouldn’t allow Martin to feel sorry for himself.
“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t go through my mind, especially with everything going on, but I had my dad and my parents saying: ‘This is nothing; it’s just a setback,’” Martin said.
“You could see him with the treatments and what they’d done to him physically, but he wouldn’t let us feel sorry for him. It kind of drives you. You wanted to do it for him and make him proud.”
The ACL injury sounds like a cruel twist of fate for Martin, to say the least, but as he spent the next year rehabbing his knee — the large scar ever a reminder of the work he had to do — Martin came to view his latest setback as a stroke of luck.
“It was for the best, because I got another year with my brother, to watch him play his senior year, and another year to help my dad,” Martin said. “In a way, it was a blessing in disguise. I got to spend more time with my family and help my dad more than I would have been able to if I had to play every game.”
Finally, in 2010, Martin made his long-awaited return to the court, and over the next two years, started 66 games for the Irish, averaging 9.6 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. As a fifth-year senior last year, Martin was named captain and helped lead Notre Dame to a 22-win season and a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament.
"We were finally able to enjoy it," Martin said. "My dad was starting to get through some of the rougher stuff, and he was weaning (the treatment) down a little bit, and we had it under control. Everyone was happy, and it felt like everything was back to way it should be."
There have been more good days than bad of late. Scott Sr. isn’t cancer-free, but his condition is now considered to be manageable. He takes pills and receives injections, but the cancer is no longer life-threatening. The news only got better in May, when Martin learned that he had been granted a rare sixth season of eligibility from the NCAA.
All of that culminated in Brooklyn on Friday night, when Martin, the unquestioned emotional leader of his team, scored 13 points and had four rebounds in Notre Dame’s loss at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, which raises money to improve upon the cancer treatments that have helped Martin’s father gain the upper hand in his fight with the disease.
“I know I, personally, in my family, have benefited from all of the hard work people have done to raise money for research and to try to beat it, so I’m thankful and honored to be part of it,” Martin said.
A win would have been even better, but the result was of little consequence next to the statement Martin made just by being there. That he was even on the floor at the Barclays Center, having gone through hell to just be with his team — and that his father is still able to watch his son play after going through the a worse kind of hell just to stay alive — was the story of the night.
“After getting through the worst — and when it was bad, it was bad and we were scared — this is nothing,” Martin said. “We’ll take this any day.”