Editor's note: This story appears in the spring edition of Stillwater Style magazine.
These days you’ll often find Brittney Martin on Eddie Sutton Court in Gallagher-Iba Arena.
She practices with the team, sure. That’s important, expected and a big reason why the Oklahoma State women’s basketball team notched a fifth straight 20-win season – an unprecedented success rate for the program.
But the Cowgirls’ senior shooting guard likes the solace of being in the gym alone. Just her, a basketball, a hoop and passing machine under the basket. Sport’s purest form.
She dribbles. She shoots. She thinks.
Still hard to believe she made it here.
Martin chose to be alone.
A standout at Syracuse High in Syracuse, Utah, Martin was the No. 19 prospect in America, according to ESPN. She was a two-time state champion, Gatorade Player of the Year with myriad other accolades.
She committed to Utah as a sophomore, but opened her commitment her senior year. UCLA was knocking and that appeared to be her destination. Playing for the Bruins was a lifelong dream of hers. Her mind was made up.
Then she got a call from Oklahoma State University. Her first thought was, “What the heck is that?”
“I didn’t even think Oklahoma had schools, didn’t know they had colleges,” Martin said.
The person on the other end of the phone was OSU assistant coach Miranda Serna. Martin was cordial on the phone, but didn’t give it much thought. She had little interest in being a cowboy. She didn’t want to go to a school that, for all she knew, was located on a farm.
But Oklahoma State was persistent. It wanted her to take an official visit. So why not go, she thought. Couldn’t hurt, right?
Although officially uncommitted, Martin told UCLA prior to her visit to OSU the Bruins were still her No. 1 choice. UCLA’s only wish was Martin not commit on the trip. Martin agreed. She couldn’t imagine herself committing to a school 1,150 miles from her hometown.
She was wrong.
The Cowgirls pulled out all the stops. Martin met the OSU football coaches, select men’s basketball and football players and attended a football game.
The campus was beautiful, the people were great. It felt right, so Martin committed to OSU, much to the delight of her father, Darrell, who had also fallen in love with the school and had taken a liking to Serna and coach Kurt Budke.
“I just had a feeling when I was here,” Martin said. “I didn’t have a feeling when I was at other schools. I really felt like I was supposed to be here.”
Going after Martin was a huge gamble for OSU. Women’s basketball programs can only budget so much on recruiting, and had Martin chosen another school, the time and money invested would have been for not.
But it paid off. Martin became the highest-touted signing in program history.
“We were thrilled,” said OSU coach Jim Littell, who was an assistant coach at the time. “We knew when she signed that she was going to be an impact player here and a four-year starter. When you get somebody like that, that you know is going to be a program changer, it’s exciting.”
Martin never got the chance to play for Budke or Serna. Shortly after her visit to campus, a plane crash killed Budke, Serna and program supporters Olin and Paula Branstetter. Littell was promoted to replace Budke, his longtime friend.
Martin watched Budke and Serna’s memorial service online and received her first lesson from the university months before she enrolled.
What make the Stillwater and OSU community special are the people and the bond they share. The togetherness she got a hint of on her visit was on display. Going to college so far away from home, she needed that.
When she arrived at OSU to begin her career, she wasn’t a stranger. She was a Cowgirl.
“Miracle from God”
Ask Martin why she plays basketball and she says it comes naturally to her.
She isn’t lying.
Martin stands 6-foot with a longer wingspan and an athletic build. Both her parents were athletes, and her father played collegiate basketball for a year. She was made to play basketball.
But she was also made with a flaw.
Martin was born with a congenital heart defect. She had a coarctation of the aorta, which is a narrowing of the large blood vessel that leads to the heart. This caused the bottom half of her body to not have any blood pumped through it. When she was only six weeks old, her heart stopped. Doctors unclogged the artery to get the blood pumping. She still has a hole the size of the needle in her heart.
After the surgery, doctors told Martin’s parents her growth would stunt. Heart surgery patients can be brittle and not very tall. Martin is the exception. She has no effects from the surgery. She takes no medication, only requiring a check-up once a year.
“It has to be a gift, a miracle from God,” Martin said. “I was supposed to be tiny. I was supposed to be dead. I guess I really did just get blessed.”
Martin is a people person. After every OSU home game, she leads her teammates into the crowd to thank fans for attending her games. The loyal Cowgirl fans are family to her. And she loves meeting new people.
But she is also a brat. Her words.
“I have a bratty side, and I don’t know why,” Martin said. “I have an attitude, I think. It’s not bad. I just say things normal people wouldn’t say. I’m not trying to be mean, but sometimes it comes off that way.”
The 2015-16 Cowgirl squad is the closest team Martin has been a part of. The team hangs out off the court together all the time, goes out to eat together often. The Cowgirls are a tight-knit group, and they know how to keep it that way.
Make sure Martin is happy.
Whether it’s music in the locker room or picking a place to have a team dinner, Martin’s approval is necessary. She tries to be better about it, telling her teammates she won’t object to the restaurant they choose. But she falls back to her picky and bratty side.
“She is strong in her ways,” sophomore center Kaylee Jensen said. “Sometimes, if Brittney doesn’t like it, nobody is going to like it. It’s OK, we love her for it.”
Most don’t see Martin’s bratty side, but that’s because it isn’t who she is completely. While reserved and not one for the spotlight, Martin knows the position she is in. Her role as star women’s basketball player in Stillwater comes with responsibilities off the court. She doesn’t have to be, but she is willing.
“She always makes time for people,” Littell said. “That’s a tremendous thing to do."
Admitting is the first step
Martin is a Cowgirl through and through, but she has some cavalier in her.
And for a while it was more cavalier than Cowgirl.
Martin was good, and she knew it. She was better than most players she stepped on the court with.
So, by her own admission, Martin wasn’t a hard worker for the first 21 years of her life.
Martin told herself she was working hard. She presumed the coaches were wrong to think she could go harder in practice or could run faster during conditioning drills. She was raking up Big 12 honors left and right and averaging close to a double-double.
But it turns out she wasn’t giving it her all. She could do more. In order to be great, she needed to put in more work than she did during practice.
“That’s really sad, but this year I finally realized it,” Martin said.
So Martin took it upon herself to increase her work ethic. She took her conditioning more seriously, beating everybody on the team except speedy point guard Roddricka Patton during sprints.
“To become a great leader, she had to become a really good practice player,” Littell said. “This year, she has been an excellent practice player. She comes to play every day, she leads this group. By working that hard every day, her game has progressed.”
When a coach corrected her on something, she no longer muttered under her breath. She now goes to the gym by herself once, sometimes twice a day, something she would never do before.
“When I leave this place, I want people to say that I worked hard,” Martin said. “I want people to say that I earned things that I have here, records and all that.”
While she wants the reputation of a hard worker, she doesn’t necessarily want witnesses. In the gym alone means zero distractions, and she is more productive that way.
“I don’t like the attention,” Martin said. “Maybe it’s weird, but I don’t want the coaches to know that I am practicing. It’s like a pride thing, I think. I want to do it myself, and I don’t want anyone to know I go to the gym.”
She knows her time is running out. She has won a lot of games in her Cowgirl career. She doesn’t want her last season in an OSU uniform to be a four-year low.
“She knew for us to be successful, she had to take her game to a different level,” Littell said. “She had to have a scorer’s mentality in order for us to be successful. Britt had the basketball I.Q. to recognize that. She deserves every honor she is going to receive.”
There isn’t a better example of Martin’s new mentality than OSU’s Feb. 13 matchup with West Virginia.
With less than a minute until halftime and the Cowgirls holding a commanding 15-point lead, Jensen airballed a jump shot. The ball was for sure going to land out of bounds. Martin, who grabbed 17 rebounds that night, was boxed out of the play.
As an underclassman Martin would have let the ball go out of bounds. A 15-point lead at halftime is good enough.
But Martin tracked the ball, found a seam through the crowded area under the basket and hit the ball off a WVU defender before it went out of bounds. After a 30-second timeout, sophomore guard Sydney Walton hit a 3-pointer to give OSU an 18-point lead at halftime.
Maybe it didn’t make the biggest difference in what was an easy win for the Cowgirls, but it showed something more. OSU’s best player may also be its grittiest.
“I would have gone back on the other end of the court and that was it (in the past),” Martin said. “Little stuff like that I wouldn’t have done.”
With her success and leadership abilities, Martin also finds herself with a voice in the huddle and during practice with the coaching staff.
“Now we have a relationship where I can be like, ‘Coach, this is not working. We can’t run this play right now,’” Martin said. “A couple years ago, (Littell) would have been like, ‘Brittney, shut up and sit down.’ I can talk to him on that level now. I’ll probably talk to him for the rest of my life.”
Littell’s description of Martin as a program-changer was spot on.
Martin is one of four Cowgirls to record 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. She is also the only player in program history to have 1,600 points, 1,000 rebounds and 300 steals. Her list of accomplishments will only grow longer as she wraps up her senior season.
Since Littell took over the program, two Cowgirls have been drafted into the WNBA. Martin should be the third.
“When you produce the way she has in this quality of a league, there is a place for her,” Littell said. “She is too athletic, she is too basketball savvy. She scores the ball so well, rebounds it so well. I can’t imagine somebody isn’t going to want somebody like her on her team.”
Not a fan of flying long distance, Martin has a hard time seeing herself going to play professionally overseas. She might, though, but she chooses not to worry about that now.
“If it is supposed to happen, it’s going to happen,” Martin said. “I’m trying to work hard to get to that point where I get drafted and get the opportunity to play. If not, I have to have other options. I can’t be too scared it won’t happen.”
Martin has come a long way from the girl who cried every night because she was far away from home, or the freshman who didn’t know what direction she was going because she doesn’t have mountains to guide her.
Martin graduates in May with a degree in sociology. She has a job lined up as a social worker in Utah should she chose to move on from basketball. She might pursue coaching, she’ll probably pursue her master’s degree.
Although she likely would not have attended college if not for basketball, the game does not define her. And her greatest accomplishment will be shaking OSU President Burns Hargis’ hand after she receives her diploma.
“I think my parents are more proud that I am graduating than anything I have ever done,” Martin said. “I am, too, honestly.
“It’s going to do a lot for me in my future.”
Follow Kieran Steckley on Twitter @Kieran_Steckley.