SPRINGFIELD — Rob Kelly felt someone’s eyes on him, but that wasn’t much of a surprise. Kelly is 6-foot-6 — bearded and solidly built. He stands out in a crowd.
It was the first day of the 2011-12 year at Brookings Elementary in Springfield. The building was packed — kids fresh off their summer vacations with new supplies, taking school pictures.
Kelly scanned the crowd and found the small boy examining him. The boy didn’t smile. He just watched.
Kelly was a special education teacher at the school. Later that afternoon, the serious-faced boy into his second-floor classroom.
“Are you a basketball player?” a fourth-grade Taelon Martin asked Kelly.
“Yeah, I play some basketball,” Kelly said.
It was true. Kelly played at prep powerhouse Northfield Mount Hermon before attending NESCAC school Wesleyan University, where he played Division III men’s basketball. To this day, he participates in men’s leagues around Springfield.
“I love basketball,” Martin said. “I’m going to the NBA one day. I need a coach. Do you want to coach me?”
“I’m not really a coach,” Kelly told Martin. “But keep working on your game.”
It was a brief interaction, and Kelly didn’t think much of it.
Fast forward seven years.
Martin and Kelly are crammed into a small booth at Wings Over in Springfield, the same restaurant Martin takes the high-level AAU programs who court him. Martin isn’t much of an experimenter when it comes to food.
Martin is now about 6-foot-3 (he claims he’s 6-foot-4) and one of the best hoops prospects to come out of Springfield in recent memory — an explosive point guard with long arms and offers from UConn, UMass and several other Division I schools. Exactly how long his arms are remains a point of contention between Martin and Kelly.
“I have a 6’10 wingspan,” Martin says.
Kelly shakes his head. He does this frequently when Martin talks, and Martin takes note.
“Do you want to test this out right now?” Martin says immediately. “Do you want to test this out right now? Do you want to test this? I have long-ass arms.”
Martin does indeed have long-ass arms.
“The last time we checked his arms, it was about 6’7,” Kelly says wearily.
“Yeah, that was like two, three, four months ago,” Martin says spluttering indignantly. “I got taller too. I was like 6’2 when they did that. I’m like 6’4 now.”
This computes to an extent — like most teenagers, Martin grows in spurts. He joined the Putnam basketball team as a freshman at about 6-foot-even. By the end of the season, he was visibly taller. Martin seems surprised when he’s told this.
He mulls it over for a second.
“6’7 point guard. Lonzo Ball.”
Kelly believes Martin’s NBA dreams originated from a family member’s off-hand remark about how much professional basketball players make.
Martin grew up with his mother Regina Murphy and her husband Hence Cox. His biological father Michael was out of the picture from an early age, imprisoned for eight years on weapons charges when Martin was six. Michael got out of prison in 2016 but went back less than a year later. Murphy isn't certain what the charge was the second time.
Cox, who became the man Martin knew as a father in his early life, was killed in a trucking accident when Martin was 11. Shortly afterward, Murphy was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, which made her CNA job impossible to continue.
“It’s been hard,” Murphy said. “You want to give your kid everything, and you look at them, and you can’t do so much. It’s the worst feeling in the world as a mother, and I know he’s not a dumb kid. Kids see the changes in stuff going on.”
Watching his mother battle to scratch out a living on her own, Martin wanted to give her everything she needed. To the young child, being an NBA player seemed as logical a profession as anything else.
The clearest path Martin saw to becoming an NBA star was the human mountain of a special education teacher at Brookings, so for more than two months after their initial meeting, Kelly was bombarded by the same request every day: “I’m going to the NBA. I need a coach. Will you coach me?”
Kelly tried to make it clear to Martin how unlikely it was that he would play professionally. Springfield, a city of roughly 150,000 people, has produced exactly one NBA player in 50 years: Travis Best — a once-in-several-generations athlete who is still discussed in reverential tones in the city’s basketball circles. As a fourth grader, Martin’s chances of finding a winning lottery ticket on the curb may have been better than his chances of playing in the NBA.
Martin was not dissuaded. Worn down by Martin’s persistence, Kelly relented and set about leveraging Martin’s desire to play professional basketball into what Kelly saw to be a more obtainable goal: A college education.
But Kelly was serious when he said he wasn’t a coach. He didn’t even know where to begin, and as a fourth grader, Martin embodied a Springfield stereotype: A special athlete with poor grades and an attitude toward authority that reflected his difficult home life.
Kelly approached then-Dunbar Community Center Athletic Director Michael Rucks about putting together a CYO team. Rucks had seen plenty of kids like Martin before.
“As a basketball player, you could see the talent was there,” Rucks said. “As a kid, you could tell he needed some discipline.”
What separated Martin from other talented “wild” (as Rucks put it) athletes was that he had Kelly. The teacher organized a team of Brookings kids who needed an outlet and put together a fourth-grade CYO team that won the city championship. Martin wanted to keep playing after the CYO season, so Kelly organized an AAU squad through the Dunbar system. Before long, Rucks was calling Kelly the head coach (which, Kelly said, was not part of the original agreement).
Buoyed by his NBA dream, Martin flourished. He spent long hours after practice in the gym with Kelly shooting, running ball-handling drills and working on his body. The janitor at Brookings got so used to the duo working late into the night, he started locking the door from the outside so they could let themselves out when they were done.
Martin, meanwhile, began calling Kelly as early as six in the morning for extra workouts. One day, after ignoring Martin all morning, Kelly looked down at his phone around noon to find 22 missed calls.
“When he didn’t pick up, I would start crying,” Martin said, laughing. “I used to call him nine times a day. It was like that.”
“I think early on, (basketball) was like an escape,” Kelly said. “It was getting out of the house and just being able to get away from everything else.”