Atencio Martin part of the BC Gyumri team

Former Maine Hoop Star Was Playing Professionally in Armenia at Start of Pandemic: ‘I Just Knew I Needed to Go’

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By Mike Whaley

GYUMRI, Armenia (seacoastonline.com) – Atencio Martin’s unusual basketball journey has taken him from his high school playing days in Kittery, Maine, to two tours of stardom at Southern Maine Community College sandwiched around a stellar season at the University of Southern Maine.

More recently that odyssey culminated with Martin realizing a lifelong dream of playing professional basketball. He spent the past four and a half months starring in the Eurasian country of Armenia for BC Gyumri, which competes in the Super League of Armenia.

Martin’s season was cut short in early February due to the coronavirus pandemic. He flew home several weeks before the league decided to shut down.

“At first I didn’t think too much of (the coronavirus pandemic),” said the 2013 Traip Academy (Kittery, Maine) graduate.

Atencio Martin with teammate Julian Windon, a fellow American

“As Americans we always have the view if something’s going on somewhere (else), … ‘Well it’s not here. I don’t have to worry too much.’” he said. “And then I realized i wasn’t in America. I was in a country that was closer to China, closer to Asia where the coronavirus was really starting to spread.”

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Martin, 24, started to take the threat seriously.

“I have a friend who is in the military who gave me advice,” he said. “He said this is going to get worse before it gets better.”

Martin kept an eye on it and then made the decision it would be better to be home than to be stuck in Armenia, “especially if something happens, a travel ban or something like that,” he said.

In late February, Martin’s team was in a state of flux. It was going through a sponsorship change so its season had been momentarily suspended.

“During that time my roommates and I spoke to our agents and the team. I made the decision I wanted to leave,” he said. “That league hadn’t made the decision (to end the season) when I left. I just knew I needed to go.”
That was early February. Martin has been back in the states ever since, living and working in Portland, Maine. He hopes once the pandemic ends to return overseas to play another season of professional basketball.

Martin’s basketball journey from Kittery to South Portland to Armenia began without much fanfare. SMCC was the only school to recruit him out of Traip, and he recalls being apprehensive. “I think like everyone does when they go to community college at first,” he said. “I’m better than this. Looking back I don’t even have the words to describe how grateful I am.”

Once he got to SMCC, Martin, A three-sport athlete at Traip, learned to love basketball, thanks to SMCC coach Matt Richards.

“I really gave myself to the game,” Martin said. “That’s where I learned to be a real student. Before that I just played. Coach Richards turned me into a student of basketball.”

Richards recalled that Martin was under the radar in high school. “He wasn’t a big basketball club scene guy,” Richards said. “He wasn’t doing all the circuit stuff in the spring and the summer.”

Richards was intrigued by his upside. “When he came here he blossomed. … He’s a match-up problem. He really developed himself with his long, athletic guard skills, but also understood if I need to get a bucket I’m going inside.”

At 6-foot-5, 200 pounds, Martin has a unique skill set. He’s a big guard, small forward type who can drain 3s, but is just as comfortable slashing to the basket. Plus he’s an effective rebounder.

During his final year at SMCC, Martin averaged a double-double (17.0 points, 10.2 rebounds).

Martin developed into a standout for the Seawolves during his three seasons. He scored 1,194 career points and pulled down 668 rebounds. He was twice named a United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA) First-Team All-American as well as a two-time Yankee Small College Conference (YSCC) First Team selection. In 2019 he was named the YSCC Player of the Year after leading SMCC to a 23-7 record and a berth in the USCAA national tournament.

The journey was not seamless. After two years at SMCC, he played one year at Southern Maine. He put up solid numbers for the Huskies (15.9 points, 8.1 rebounds) as they went 15-11, but it wasn’t a perfect fit.

He ended up taking two years off from basketball, one of those years spent at a school in Illinois. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do; although, in the back of his mind he was still toying with the idea of playing basketball professionally.

At first he thought he could do that without going back to school, but he soon realized that wasn’t going to happen. So he focused on returning to school to play his final year and complete his degree.

SMCC was the clear choice.

It was not an easy road back. Martin had been away from the game for two years. “It was hard to come back to the game,” he said. “My body was not where it was. I still played in men’s leagues and tried to stay active. But that’s not game shape.”

Richards was happy to have him back, but Martin said his coach made it very clear: “You really have to put in work to get back to where you were.”

He did that for the entire summer before the 2018-19 school year. “It was just a grind to try to get back in shape,” Martin said. “Get back in the gym shooting. Try to get my touch back. It was definitely an adjustment. By the time the season started, I was ready.”

Martin’s great final SMCC season put him into a position to seriously pursue his dream to play professionally overseas.

He talked with Richards as well as other SMCC players who had played overseas. He emailed his senior year film to FIBA (International Basketball Federation) teams with his hoop resume.

The turning point, however, came when he paid his way to play at a showcase in New York City and Rutgers University. “It was kind of a long shot,” he said. “There were a lot of good players, many from Division I.”

It took place over three days in late May. Martin played a total of five games, and felt he played pretty well.

At the end of the event, all the players were rated, roughly 300, and Martin, much to his surprise, was rated seventh overall.

He spent the rest of the summer working on his game, staying in shape — and waiting. “It got to September and I was getting a little bit nervous,” Martin said.

Richards stayed on him as well, to remind him playing pro was different than college. ”‘This is your craft,’” Richards said. ”‘You have to perform.’ I was pushing him to understand that balance of being a professional athlete. ‘It’s your job now.’ It hopefully helped him when he was over there.”

At that point, Martin had bought a plane ticket to Dallas for an NBA G-League team tryout. Soon after that his agent called to say he had an offer from Gyumri in Armenia. It was a Sunday. He signed a contract on a Monday and flew out on a Thursday.

“I didn’t care where it was,” he said. “I just wanted to get my foot in the door to play professionally. I was happy.”

Gyumri is the second largest city in Armenia with 120,000-plus people, located in the northwestern part of the country.

It took Martin some time to adjust to the Armenian culture as well as the basketball, especially communication, but he came around. He missed his first game when he rolled an ankle, but the second game he made a statement with 29 points and 19 rebounds in a win.

He was one of two Americans on the team along with Julian Winton, a point guard from Kansas.

Games are four 10-minute quarters. There is a 24-second shot clock. The 3-point line is a foot deeper than college and the ball has less grip.

“Everything is faster,” Martin said. “Everything is initiated by ball screens, really.”

That worked for Martin who was used to that style playing for Richards at SMCC. “We had a lot of ball screening and making reads off ball screens,” he said. “There were less sets, less plays. There was more just playing in the flow of the game.”

Although it had no impact on the Gymuri team, the Armenian leagues have a rule that requires that no more than three imported players can be on the floor at any one time.

Martin found himself fitting in with his team. “I think we got lucky,” he said. “A lot of other teams, you could tell, as soon as people got down, the feeling shifted to, ‘I’ve got to make sure I’m looking out for me.’”

Martin said he didn’t feel the pressure to perform that other players on other teams might be experiencing. Of course, he was delivering, which helped. “I was putting up numbers, so in that sense I felt comfortable,” he said.

He averaged right around 23 points, and also elevated his game with his rebounding and defense. “A lot of guys don’t rebound from the guard/wing position,” he said. “I really separated myself in that sense by playing defense and rebounding.”

Martin also found adapting to a different country a challenge, especially the language barrier. “Just simple things like ordering food or getting directions or telling the taxi how to get back to our house,” he said.

He added that where he lived didn’t have amenities he took for granted like a microwave or a dryer. “Things in America we think are necessities are really just luxuries,” he said. “That was hard.”

Since he was playing on the low tier of professional basketball, Martin was certainly not getting rich playing the game he loved. Expenses were covered, mainly travel, housing and food. Game pay was approximately $200 a contest.

The team played two games a week.

Martin is now playing the waiting game, hoping he’ll get a chance to return overseas.

“Right now I’m working out with the intention of going back,” he said. “Just trying to see what the reality is with the whole situation in the world, what the next season is going to look like. If it’s going to start later or what.

“I don’t think I’ll necessarily go back to Armenia,” he said. “But I’ll go anywhere; somewhere that’s a higher level and just continue to get better.”

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