Basketball legend: J.C. Price’s James ‘Duke’ Martin had impressive career

Published 12:18 am Tuesday, June 6, 2017

By Mike London

It was a late-February night in 1958 when the West Charlotte Lions arrived at Salisbury’s Hall Gym to take on the J.C. Price Red Devils.

It was going to be a difficult matchup for J.C. Price regardless, and it got a lot tougher when the Red Devils’ No. 2 and No. 3 scorers, Douglas Heath and Ed Mitchell, weren’t in uniform. They were sitting out for disciplinary reasons.

That put the burden of making it a competitive game on the shoulders of a Price center named James Martin. Since childhood, everyone had referred to Martin as “Duke” because he’d always been ready to duke it out at the drop of a hat. He’d put up his dukes in defense of himself, a friend, or anyone who was weak and needed defending.

Against West Charlotte, the senior with his high school career winding down, would make the fight of his life —31 points on 15-for-23 shooting and too many rebounds for  the statisticians to count. When it was over, when the Lions had survived 54-53, even the visitors were applauding “Duke” Martin. If the high-five had been invented then, they would’ve high-fived him.

In another marquee matchup that season, Martin poured in 27 points on 11-for-19 shooting to lead the Red Devils to an upset of Winston-Salem Carver.

When J.C. Price took on its biggest rival, East’s Spencer’s Dunbar High, on the road, Martin made the length-of-the-court pass to Heath for the winning layup in a 53-52 victory.

When J.C. Price beat Dunbar, 50-43, at home, Martin scored 25 points and yanked down 18 boards. That was his last winning game for a team that would finish 11-6. Price’s season ended sadly the next night with another one-point loss — this one to Concord Logan.

As a sophomore, Martin averaged 11.9 points for the Red Devils. He scored 21.7 as a junior in the 1956-57 season, and while all of the games from his senior season in 1957-58 haven’t been documented, he probably topped 21.7 as a senior.

Martin had to be one of the finest basketball players in J.C. Price basketball history and is a J.C. Price Hall of Famer, but his passing on Dec. 3, 2016, at age 76, went unnoticed by many. He departed Rowan County long ago. His memorial service was held in Columbia, Md.

J.W. Cathcart, a J.C. Price Hall of Famer himself, informed the Post of Martin’s death recently, and there’s plenty of evidence from his college career to suggest he should be a Salisbury-Rowan Hall of Famer.

After graduating from J.C. Price, Martin had academic and basketball scholarships to attend North Carolina College in Durham, a school that’s been known since 1969 as North Carolina Central University.

Martin arrived in Durham after the glory days of coach John McLendon, who coached North Carolina College to a 239-68 record and a .779 winning percentage. The coach who followed McLendon, Floyd Brown, actually won even more games at North Carolina College than McLendon did (251 in 18 seasons).

 Martin played for Brown’s Eagles from the 1958-59 season through the 1961-62 season. His record is impressive.

They didn’t play as many games in a season in those days. Martin would’ve played in just 97 games in four seasons, assuming he was healthy for all of them. He scored 1,454 points, which still ranks eighth in school history, more than five decades later. He had 838 rebounds for the Eagles, which still ranks seventh in school history. He’s not listed by N.C. Central as one of the individuals in the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame, but it looks like he did more than enough on the court to deserve that recognition.

Cathcart says Martin had a tryout with the Boston Celtics — North Carolina College guard Sam Jones was one of the Celtics’ stars then, so that makes sense — but he didn’t make the final cut.

That’s when he entered the service.

Martin became a commissioned Naval officer and played on exceptional service basketball teams.

After being honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy, he became a businessman in Baltimore and owned three restaurants.

Eventually he moved to Orlando for family reasons, and then to Charlotte. He returned to Maryland for his final months.

While he was in Charlotte, he did a lot for a lot of people — repairing homes and cars, landscaping yards, inspiring young and old with his deeds as well as his words.

The program from the celebration of his life states Martin “did everything with purpose, gusto and focus. He was a business entrepreneur, gardening and sports enthusiast, gourmet chef, and above all, a loving man.”

He was married for 38 years to Robin Harper Martin and is survived by his wife and three sons.

Martin was born in Woodleaf, the third child of Calvin Martin and Mary Jane Theadre Fleming Martin.

As the program from the celebration of his life states: Sunrise: April 28, 1940. Sunset: December 3, 2016.