Kansas State University

Kansas State coach Frank Martin has kept ties to his past

MANHATTAN — As they exit Bramlage Coliseum on a chilly weekday evening, Frank Martin and Luis Colon walk side by side, speaking to each other in Spanish.

Those near the Kansas State coach and player have no idea what the two are discussing, but the smiles and laughter are a hint.

This is what happens when Martin and his Latino players chat. They think back to earlier times when they lived in South Florida, Puerto Rico or outside the United States, and loosen up.

"I really enjoy it when he speaks Spanish to me," Colon said. "It makes things feel like home. It has also helped us bond. That's one of the things I like best about him. Not many other coaches can do that."

Through the years, Martin has used his bilingual abilities and Cuban heritage to his advantage, recruiting some of the best young Latino basketball talent around.

Colon and Denis Clemente, of Puerto Rico, are Wildcat senior starters. When they leave, top-rated junior college transfer Freddy Asprilla, of Colombia, will take their place. And in two years, Angel Rodriguez, a high school junior from Miami who grew up in Puerto Rico, may also join the fold. Martin has offered him a scholarship.

Martin and his staff have worked hard to establish connections and quality relationships in South Florida, an area where the homegrown talent is top-notch and high school prospects from Puerto Rico and nearby countries flock to for exposure.

Together, they have built a recruiting pipeline that goes back to Martin's beginnings. In all likelihood, it will remain open for the remainder of his career.

"Frank is a legend down here," said Miami Tropics AAU coach Art Alvarez, who has ties with each of Martin's Latino recruits. "He went to school here, he coached high school here and he's had a lot of players from here go on to have great success. That stuff comes in big with these kids. They absolutely adore him."

The reasons for that respect are many. Like the Latino players he recruits, Martin grew up in a tough neighborhood with a family that was poor. He knows what it is like to learn a second language and move far away for basketball. He can relate.

At the high school level, he also coached two Miami products that high school players look up to today: NBA players Udonis Haslem and Steve Blake.

"We're going to go recruit kids who are good enough to compete for a Big 12 title and want to represent our program, whether they're from Miami, Washington, D.C. or Kansas," Martin said. "That stuff doesn't matter to me. But Miami has been good to us."

It wasn't until 2000, when Martin took an assistant coaching position at Northeastern, that he fell in love with importing Miami's best Latino high school talent.

Some of that talent goes unseen by coaches outside Florida, and the majority of those who are noticed usually get courted by local schools. Miami, Florida International and Florida Atlantic consistently fill their rosters with Latino players.

For the best recruits, though, national schools get involved. Other teams in the Big 12 have Latino players on their roster and so do teams in the ACC, SEC, Big East and Atlantic 10, to name a few.

Through the years, Alvarez guesses he has been visited by almost every high major college coach in the nation.

But Martin and his staff have a leg up on their competition.

"Other coaches from other regions recruit the area, but I've got to believe Frank has the inside track," Alvarez said. "As far as I'm concerned, he will always get first crack at my players."

That's because he has a history with them. The first big-time prospect he successfully recruited was Jose Juan Barea, who went on to have a strong college career at Northeastern and currently plays for the NBA's Dallas Mavericks.

"He did such a great job with J.J.," Alvarez said. "He played an integral part in his development. After that, I told Frank, 'From now on, you've got an open-door policy down here.' "

That door stayed open when Martin moved on to Cincinnati to work under then-coach Bob Huggins. He continued hitting the Miami area hard and recruited Colon and Clemente.

By the time he arrived at K-State, Martin had already inked Colon. He lost out on Clemente to Miami, but when the guard decided to transfer following his sophomore season, he immediately reached out to Martin.

How did Martin stay so fresh on Clemente's mind? Part of it had to do with their shared heritage, language and love for baseball, but more than anything, it was Martin's recruiting pitch.

When he gave it to Clemente the second time around, he told him he would take care of him and help him become a man. He told the same thing to Clemente's mother in Puerto Rico. He guaranteed her Clemente would earn a college degree and have a home in Manhattan.

The speech was no different when Martin gave it to Clemente as a high school senior. He talked more about academics than basketball.

"When you're young and you haven't matured, you say you don't want to go to school or anything like that," Clemente said. "But as I look at it now, it's much more important to get a degree first and then play basketball.

"I can't even describe how good I feel when I see somebody do what Luis and I did. It's a credit to us, and to Frank. If you could see where we came from, it's crazy to be here right now."

Alvarez said everyone he talks to raves about Martin's unwavering approach to recruiting.

"What puts him over the top is his honesty," Alvarez said. "Everything he preaches he comes through with."

Even the non-Latino players in the Miami area can see that. K-State coaches consistently recruit all players in South Florida. Assistant coaches Dalonte Hill and Matt Figger have found success there, and Brad Underwood used to coach at Daytona Beach Community College.

Those connections landed the Wildcats Martavious Irving of Fort Lauderdale, and high school All-American Wally Judge, who played high school ball in Florida.

"Frank is bigger than all of us, obviously, but we've all got ties in Florida," Hill said. "It's a nice group of people who trust us. We like going in there because they know who we are."

They know who K-State's players are as well. That helped Clemente and Asprilla sign with K-State. Colon and Clemente were friends in high school, and when Colon told Clemente he would like Martin and K-State, Clemente agreed.

Asprilla drew interest from every region imaginable, but K-State was always at the top of his list. He likes Martin and the Wildcats so much that he recently transferred to Cloud County Community College in Concordia to be closer to both.

When he sits behind the bench at home games, Colon and Asprilla regularly share Spanish conversations during down times.

"Now that we're three years in at K-State, and because of the success of Denis and Luis, other Latino players are looking here," Martin said. "They want to come here. It's become a natural progression."

After seeing the wins No. 6 K-State has racked up with Latino players on its roster, Wildcats fans have embraced the pipeline as well. Puerto Rico flags can always be spotted in the student section, and the occasional Spanish cheer is shouted.

In those moments, Martin is only part of the connection to home.