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Kevin Martin and how the NBA is invading the NBL

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Kevin Martin: From NBA star to NBL owner (3:14)

Twelve-year NBA veteran Kevin Martin talks to ESPN about his move into ownership of NBL team the Brisbane Bullets, and the league's rise with LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton on board. (3:14)

Kevin Martin casually namedrops a few NBA stars, past and present: Chris Webber. Kevin Durant. Ron Artest. Russell (Westbrook, but he's strictly on a first name basis).

Another name immediately leaves his lips, without hesitation, when he reveals his toughest ever opponent on the hardwood. "Kobe Bryant," he deadpans, before breaking out into that trademark, high-wattage smile.

"Kobe just has a Michael Jordan mentality," he says in a sit-down with ESPN. "It's something you're born with."

Why is this important? Well, because Martin heads a consortium - which also includes former Memphis Grizzlies CEO Jason Levien - that has purchased a 37.5 percent stake of the Brisbane Bullets, with another 37.5 percent to follow by the end of the 2019/20 season. His investment is further proof the NBA world is watching. Closely.

Martin was the 26th pick in the 2004 NBA draft. Over a 12-year career, spanning stops at the Sacramento Kings, Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Minnesota Timberwolves and the San Antonio Spurs, he averaged 17.4 points per game as a lethal scorer.

Instead of sitting back after a successful NBA career, Martin wanted more. He has always possessed that hunger and drive for success, having grown up in the small town of Zanesville, in Ohio, where as Martin puts it, "a lot of people, where I'm from, you don't get a chance to live out the dreams that you have for yourself when you're 10-12 years old."

His new challenge is now to implement his own business and organisational vision for the Bullets.

"Our vision is to create a very Brisbane-like community - and we know what that is," he tells ESPN, with a hint of caginess. "With a winning tradition on the court."

Along the way, he's more than happy to impart some of his NBA experiences, and how that not only shapes his business dealings, but how that can also enhance a locker room.

"The NBA speaks for itself," he says. "Me, being a player there for 12 years, and preparing my life to get there for 20 years before that, I feel like I can bring a lot of insight of what works in the NBA, coming from a management point of view, and a player point of view."

During his stops around the NBA, Martin studied the likes of the late Flip Saunders, Daryl Morey, and Sam Presti, and their styles and approaches towards handling the business side of basketball.

"So, I have a little bit ... not as much knowledge as them," he says with a chuckle. "But I have a little bit."

By his own admission, he only heard of the NBL two or three years ago. At the time, he was tentatively approached about being involved. Martin remembers thinking the league was "coming along" but didn't think much more of it at the time.

"As you guys have seen, it really picked up speed over the past one or two years," he says.

"We started these negotiations, looking into teams, back in November last year. So, to come here 10 months later, we feel like that we found the right fit for us. We went to the Brisbane community, saw the product they put on the court, and it just felt right for us."

During the consortium's global search for a viable investment option, the group explored all other leagues and their impression was the NBL offered the best overall package. Martin says the No. 1 priority was to find a team within the "second best basketball league in the world."

"We felt like we found that," he tells ESPN. "And then, after that, when you start to put your time into an investment, it would be where you can see yourself spending the majority of your time, the quality of people in the city that you want to invest in, and also, you've got to see what the organisation and the team is like."

During the 10-month process, Martin also spent time with NBL boss Larry Kestelman and the rest of the league office, quickly coming to the realisation that there was genuine passion for the sport, and the city's authentic embrace of the Bullets.

"And very quickly," he says, "the boxes were all checked when we went to Brisbane."

Martin is effusive in his praise for Australian basketball, at large, and the selfless nature it projects.

"Patty's [Mills] definitely a Spurs system kind of player, and I think that kind of relates to how Australia is," he says. "It's that Popovich kind of system - it's about more than just yourself."

Throughout the interview, Martin draws references to "community" and "program", and it's clear that he wants to build a tight-knit, family-oriented brand, where commonality is achieved not merely through the on-court product, but with a fierce loyalty and identification with the Bullets.

"And I think any time you bring winning with the players, the organisation and the community, it's just an unbelievable feeling. I experienced that playing in Oklahoma City. It was really the only show in town when it came to basketball, and they just had a great connection with the team, and also the community."

The work begins immediately.

The group has the backing of the league to operate as full owners of the team. For Martin, his oversight of day-to-day operations essentially commenced last week.

"We're locked all the way in like we own 100 percent," he says. "And I think that speaks volumes of how we feel about the NBL over in the United States, and also locally. We just want to be a part of it right now."

Martin emphasises those last two words, and the immediacy of their need. They want to get their hands on something that is trending up.

"We talk about it," he says of the burgeoning interest in the States regarding the NBL.

Martin will be flying back and forth from Brisbane and the States, and that perhaps encapsulates the flow of influences and dialogue being shared across the NBL and NBA. He only sees interest continuing to grow, globally, for the league - that's why he invested, after all - with the NBA influence upon the Australian basketball landscape blossoming.

"I think that you're seeing NBA eyes and ownership coming from players," he says. "We're taught at a very early stage in our career to handle our money correctly, and learn how to be more than athletes. The NBA strives on us growing as people, not only as players. So, I think that's a testament of where the league is [with] people coming in and investing into your country that is 14 hours away from the United States."

Before taking the plunge, Martin did not necessarily have to consult with those who have experienced this league first-hand as part of his due diligence. But he did anyway.

Quality of life was a major factor in Martin's decision in turning his eye towards Australia, and the NBL.

"This is number one," he says. "It feels very much like I'm home. And then they have great programs within the league too to maximise the player's potential to make it to the NBA."

In particular, he cites Josh Childress - who has invested into the South East Melbourne Phoenix - as someone who he spoke with regularly, which helped to crystallise his own views. ("To me, I feel like he views Australia as his home," says Martin of Childress. "So he's excited to be a part of the new Phoenix team.")

In the end, Martin's decision was very much a gut feel - and it felt right.

"It's just a pipeline to bigger success over [in] the NBA," he says. "Joe [Ingles], Patty Mills ... I'm sure they could talk a long time about what it means to be from Australia and going to the United States and fulfilling their dream."

Martin has great hopes for the league. He does not fret over the passage of time and the cyclical nature of talent that has driven the league's recent success in capturing the public imagination.

There is a school of thought that the spike in interest this season has been boosted by the LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton signings. Where does that leave the league when they depart for the NBA draft?

Martin is bullish on the outlook, regardless.

"I think this league is going to be in good hands when they're even gone," he says. "Kind of like when Michael Jordan and Kobe left, we still had Kevin Durant and LeBron James. I think that's the next big step in all of this."

As an owner, Martin figures to be someone who likes to be intimately involved in the day-to-day minutiae. "Any investment I put money into, and that I believe in, I like to be hands on," he says.

"[But] if somebody is running it better than I can, then I'm going to let them do their job."

He credits his business partner Jason Levien for helping to shape his understanding of ownership and what it entails.

When asked about the specific philosophy he has learned from Levien that will underpin his approach, he says, "do everything and make it successful. And have fun."

As he reflects on his career, he cites the relationships he has built as the most indelible mark of his NBA tenure. Yet equally important were the principles he was exposed to - the devotion and professionalism of star players, and the best-practice endeavours of organisations such as the Thunder and the Spurs - which will guide his business sense.

The term of "program" is something he has repeated often, and it's the prism in which he views his investment. The Brisbane Bullets are not merely a basketball club; the Bullets are a family who will help to shape their members as global citizens.

"Looking back on the journey, I think you learn a lot by just having programs to enhance," says Martin. "I think the better you are mentally off the court, the better you can perform on the court. You've got to have your life in order to maximise your ability on the court.

"On the court, just trust in your head coach that he has a vision. Trust in the organisation that they're there for you."

Owning an NBL club is also not necessarily a stepping stone towards ownership stakes in an NBA team.

"You never know," he says. "I live life in the moment. I'm not using this as a stepping stone for anything. I'm very happy with my investment at the moment, and I'm very excited just to be around the team and learn. Because I have a lot to learn also, this side of the business. And I have a great team around me that will help me out. Just like I had a great team around me when I was a rookie, just showing me how to be a successful NBA player."

Like his playing days, Martin is adamant the key is to surround oneself with the right people - good people - in order to cultivate success. He believes he has that with the Bullets.

"The front office for us was a big key for why we wanted to invest in the Bullets," he says. "They have a great foundation [with] the general manager, Richard Clarke and Coach Andrej [Lemanis]. Those two names speaks volumes across the Australian basketball community.

"It was just a decision to see where we could take our vision, mixed with their vision, because they are quality guys. And we felt very comfortable with what we have already in the front office."

With the pieces set, he's ready for this next competitive stage of his career. Martin has already fulfilled his dream to play in the NBA.

"So now, it's being a successful NBL businessman," he says.