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Originally published Sunday, January 23, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Percy Allen

Martin learns to find the words

The words climb from somewhere deep inside, and just as they are about to spring to life, they die in the back of your throat. Then there is an...

Seattle Times NBA reporter

The words climb from somewhere deep inside, and just as they are about to spring to life, they die in the back of your throat.

Then there is an awkward silence, followed by embarrassment and often ridicule.

The words for those who stutter are elusive. They stammer and struggle to communicate and often choose to remain silent rather than expose themselves to mockery.

"When I was in school, I'd rather take the bad grade than get up in front of class and talk," said Denver Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin. "I'd deal with everything at home later.

"As a kid it was hard because people don't know. You get teased and things like that. People don't know. People are ignorant. They feel that if you stutter, then you're slow or whatnot."

As Martin tells me this, he speaks in a deep, unencumbered voice. His stutter, he said, is under control at the moment. But every so often, his words seem as if they are choking him. His eyes close for a split second, and his head jerks violently downward.

Then the words spill out again.

These conversations are never easy for Martin, who is one of the NBA's notorious tough guys. Yet surprisingly, he sat comfortably after a morning practice a few weeks ago and discussed an ailment that has tormented him since childhood.

He was guarded about the subject, until I tell him that I, too, had a speech impediment as a kid and once in awhile the old habit returns at the most inopportune times.

Then Martin flashed a look of shared pain.

"So you understand?" he said. "You understand that sometimes, so many times growing up, people wondered why I wouldn't say anything, and they'd just assume I was this, that or whatever. But really, I couldn't say anything.

"It's like a handicap. ... There's things you want to say. You want to talk to your mom, your friends, whoever, but you can't. And nobody really knows how to fix it. They can tell you this and that, but nobody has ever really figured this thing out."

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The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders defines stuttering as a speech disorder in which the normal flow of speech is disrupted by frequent repetitions or prolongation of speech sounds, syllables or words or by an individual's inability to start a word.

The speech disruptions may be accompanied by rapid eye blinks, tremors of the lips and/or jaw or other struggle behaviors of the face or upper body.

Certain situations, such as speaking before a group of people or talking on the telephone, tend to make stuttering more severe.

According to the NIDOCD, stuttering affects roughly 3 million people in the United States.

It's an affliction of which the cause is unknown. There isn't a genetic predisposition, but 80 percent of stutterers are male. The disorder doesn't discriminate based upon ethnicity or religious preference.

Nor does it matter that those afflicted include professional athletes who routinely must speak in front of television cameras or at public events.

Although Martin said his stutter is under control, there are times when it controls him and there is nothing he can do.

All of the breathing and relaxation techniques that he learned are useless. He tries visualization, a tool that was taught to him in grade school, and that, too, fails.

And the old anxiety returns as his vocal chords tighten and the muscles in his neck and shoulders tense.

Everybody, he feels, is watching him now and anticipating his every word. And a part of him really believes that those around him will burst into laughter, just like his old playmates used to do whenever he stammered.

But then another part of him realizes something else.

"How I got through was by just working at it and taking the time and not caring about what people think of me," he said. "I'm a grown man, so I don't care what people have to say. People that know me know that I'm a good person and things like that. Whatever they are going to say, they're going to say regardless."

Martin isn't the first prominent athlete who stuttered.

Baseball great Ty Cobb and middleweight boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter were enormously popular in their eras, but both were also notoriously reclusive and rarely spoke in public because of their speech disorders.

Oakland Raiders defensive back Lester Hayes and ex-light heavyweight champion Michael Spinks were ridiculed because they talked funny, and the humiliation made them shy away from the public.

Multi-sport star Bo Jackson never shied away from the spotlight, and his disorder didn't prevent him from becoming a big-time endorser.

Former basketball great Bill Walton overcame the disorder and now makes a living speaking on television as a basketball analyst. The same is true for Ken Venturi, a former pro golfer and analyst.

"It doesn't have to control you," Walton told me not so long ago. He said he drew inspiration from Winston Churchill, the former prime minister of Great Britain, a stutterer and one of the world's most famous orators.

"Yeah, he told me that too," Martin said of Walton. "Also told me about Marilyn Monroe."

Ever since he can remember, Martin, 26, has stuttered.

As a child growing up in south Dallas, his mother, Lydia Moore, finished his sentences and his older sister, Tamara Ridley, fought the fights he couldn't win.

"If I wasn't there for him, no one else would be," Ridley told the Denver Post. "It was just he and I. He had other siblings. I had other siblings. But we were the only two that my mom reared.

"It hurts me that people wouldn't view him the same because he did stutter. ... I wasn't going to allow anyone to tease him. If that meant I had to fight every day, I would."

Martin, who stands 6 feet 9 and weighs 240 pounds, doesn't need his sister to fight his battles anymore.

Once his basketball skills began to flourish in high school and he became a collegiate All-American at Cincinnati, he felt the need to address his stutter after being besieged with media requests and invitations to speak at public functions.

He reached out to an instructor at Cincinnati, who reintroduced him to speech therapy. This time, he felt as if "I learned how to talk all over again."

Last year, Walton urged Martin to join the board of directors for the American Institute for Stuttering, and the All-Star forward began speaking at the organization's meetings and appearing in public-service announcements.

His voice in the ads is deep and unencumbered.

"It's always there, man," Martin said of his stutter. "You may not hear it, but it's there. I get caught sometimes. It happens. But for the most part, I'm good with it. If I had a message, then that's my message."

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com

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