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Ian Martinez didn’t just take the long route from Costa Rica to Maryland — he blazed the trail

Martinez is the first Costa Rican to play major Division I college basketball.

Illinois v Maryland Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

The flight from Costa Rica to California, which meant leaving the only place he’d ever called home, felt like an eternity to 15-year-old Ian Martinez. He didn’t know when he’d see his parents or younger sister again. He barely knew enough English to get by. He’d be living with his 17-year-old brother and a host family of complete strangers.

Martinez, now 21 years old, remembers crying himself to sleep on the plane as it left the airport.

And the worst part? He had school the next day.

“It’s not like I went there to chill and get my stuff ready. The next day I had to go to school. I didn’t know what was happening,” he said.

College Park has been Martinez’s home since he arrived in the summer of 2021 to play basketball for the University of Maryland. The journey that led him there spanned thousands of miles and took its fair share of stops along the way.

The town of Heredia is a small one not far from Costa Rica’s capital city of San José. It was there that Martinez, his older brother Avery and younger sister Noa were raised.

“The other places are more touristic, but where I was born, the state that I was born in, is pretty normal, just relaxed. There’s not a whole lot going on, to be honest. Not a lot to do there besides just the sports,” Martinez said.

While Martinez admits that soccer is the most popular sport in his home country, he had his love for basketball instilled in him at a young age. Both of his parents had playing careers of their own, and his father Henry competed professionally in five countries, also putting together a successful career with the Costa Rican national team.

Martinez and his brother were able to use their father’s contacts from his playing days to get an opportunity to play in the United States, but Martinez understands from firsthand experience how hard it can be for international players to get a chance.

“I came to the U.S. to do tryouts and stuff but it was a long process. Long, tough process,” he said. “To just get a chance as internationals is not always easy, you know…It kind of started with my brother. My brother, he’s about six-five and was kind of one of those rare players — you could say that over there — especially from a young age, so he picked up a lot of interest from many different spots.”

Avery, who is two years older than Ian, moved to Atlanta when he was just 13 years old to play basketball there, but after issues with his visa forced a relocation, he ended up in Southern California. It was a year after that when Ian, who played with his brother in Costa Rica, was provided a chance to join him stateside.

Ian was used to his routine of working out, shooting around and practicing with his dad, who had become the basketball coach at the high school he played for. Leaving home meant leaving familiarity behind. He knew he had to take the opportunity, but it wasn’t easy.

One thing stuck out in particular to Martinez when he arrived in the United States: everything was too big. He was used to walking to school, but now had to drive almost half an hour to get there. And once he did, he was overwhelmed by the size of Cantwell-Sacred Heart of Mary High School, which — with an enrollment of just under 600 students — is not a particularly large one by American standards.

Despite all the kids around him, Martinez knew almost nobody, having just arrived from multiple time zones away. When he arrived at his first class, he luckily spotted three kids from the AAU team he was going to play for and instinctively sat with them since they were the only ones he recognized.

What made Martinez’s venture even more daunting was the language barrier. He was used to talking to his friends in Spanish, and when he arrived in the U.S. he couldn’t communicate the way he wanted to.

“I could probably understand a little bit, but it’s not the same to listen to an American in comparison to just another person that speaks the language but it’s not their first language,” Martinez said. “Like in Costa Rica, there’s people that speak English — my dad speaks English, even a little bit of a dialect that’s kind of like a little bit of broken English — but it just wasn’t the same.”

Additionally, Martinez and his brother were living with a randomly assigned family.

“Just a random family that you don’t know,” Martinez said. “So yeah, that’s kind of how they told us we were gonna do it. [Avery] used to be with another family before that and you kind of just switch depending on your situation.”

Before Martinez’s sophomore year, their living situation quickly grew dire, as their hosts said that they couldn’t stay anymore. Faced with nowhere to go, Martinez was desperate to find someone willing to take him and his brother in.

“I transferred to the school Ian was going to, Cantwell-Sacred Heart of Mary. My first time meeting them, it was at a basketball practice,” said Bryce Craver, recalling the first time he met the Martinez brothers. “I saw how talented they were, and I was like ‘dang.’ It surprised me how talented Avery and Ian were, but how humble and inviting they were. So it was easy to become friends with them.”

About three months later, during a game of basketball, Craver was presented with an unexpected proposition from one of his new high school teammates.

“We were just playing around and playing basketball, but then [Ian] told me he needed a place to stay because his landlords couldn’t host him anymore,” Craver said. “They already lived like seven minutes away from me and at that time I was getting really close to Ian, so I was like ‘Mom, we gotta do this. It could be fun to have a best friend around the house.’”

Craver says that it didn’t take more than a day to convince his mother.

“I asked him because I really had nowhere else to go,” Martinez said. “They agreed. They agreed to let me stay with them, me and my brother. That was a big blessing because, you know, I really didn’t know where I was gonna go from there.”

With two new residents, the Craver household was getting crowded. Six people lived under one roof: the Martinez brothers, Craver, his mother and his grandparents. Martinez and his brother stayed in a converted game room that Craver described as “close to a medium-sized room, but for two people it’s not the biggest.”

The addition of two guests meant that Craver and his family had to make sacrifices, but he embraced it.

We had to eat a little less. We would eat pork chops a lot to save money because that was the cheap thing. I had to drink a lot less,” Craver said. “From the grocery stores we’d get lemonade packets and fill a gallon up of water and mix it. Me and Avery and Ian used to love all that.”

At the same time, Martinez made sure to express his appreciation that he had a place to stay.

“It’s never easy for them to just take strangers … For them, that they didn’t know us, and for us that we didn’t know them, of course it’s tough,” he said. “You gotta adjust and just try to make sure we got a good connection and chemistry and communication so there’s no issues at the house. And make sure we’re respecting what they need to do — and of course they need to respect us — but we’re at their house so we make sure we follow the rules, don’t do anything dumb, and just keep it respectful.”

That dynamic lasted a year and half before Martinez and Craver saw their high school coach fired and replaced by one who wasn’t very experienced, according to Craver. The team was dysfunctional and didn’t make it out of the second round of the playoffs, leading to an exodus of the best players.

Martinez transferred to JSerra Catholic High School and Craver to Veritas Prep, which meant that they could no longer live together, but Martinez figured out his living situation as they went their separate ways.

When Martinez arrived at JSerra, his college recruitment took off. It was an exciting and new experience for him, something that he said players in Costa Rica don’t get to experience. Wearing the number 22 on his jersey — his father did the same in honor of Noa being born on August 22 — Martinez was a top recruit in the state of California and eventually committed to the University of Utah, where his father was an assistant coach.

By doing so, Martinez became the first Costa Rican to play major Division I basketball, something he is quick to dismiss as an accomplishment, saying that he’s not the first player good enough to do so, just the first lucky enough to get the chance.

When he got to Salt Lake City, though, Martinez was faced with yet another difficult adjustment off the court. The weather was far different in Utah, the altitude was a factor and his freshman year coincided with the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning that the team had to deal with countless restrictions, all while Martinez was dealing with family issues as well.

“Just a bunch of stuff was going on in my first year and I didn’t know how to handle it very well at the beginning,” Martinez said. “But with time I kept adjusting, kept doing better.”

After a shortened season that saw the Utes finish with a 12-13 record, head coach Larry Krystkowiak, the one that had recruited Martinez, was fired. Martinez, who at the time was considered a top-20 NBA draft prospect by some, wanted to stay at Utah and see the situation out but didn’t feel like the new coach wanted him, so he decided to transfer.

Utah v Washington
Ian Martinez walks off the court after a loss.
Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Toward the end of the transfer process, Martinez began to hear from Maryland, which stuck out for a few reasons.

“I wanted to play at the highest level. I thought Maryland had that,” he said. “I thought [the Big Ten], it’s a really tough conference. That attracted me, there’s a lot of really good teams and [Maryland] is also always ranked high. So it’s something that I thought I needed to keep improving my game to try to get where I want to get.”

Once Martinez made the decision to come to College Park and play for the Terps, it was again a rocky transition; a torn meniscus kept him out of summer practice.

Even when the season started, it didn’t live up to expectations. The team suffered three losses in its first eight games, leading to head coach Mark Turgeon stepping down in what the university described as a “mutual parting of ways.”

The change was particularly difficult for the players, all of whom had been recruited by Turgeon and came to Maryland with the expectation they would be playing for him.

“You made an agreement to come play for somebody, you made an agreement with that person and that person’s gone. There’s kind of like no bond with the new person. So yeah, it was tough,” Martinez said.

Things weren’t smooth for Martinez after that. In the first game under interim head coach Danny Manning, his head collided with an opposing player’s knee, rendering him unconscious on the court. Once he recovered from his concussion, his playing time was limited.

The season, which with the benefit of hindsight he called “a good learning experience,” was arduous for Martinez and his teammates. When it came to a close, he had the opportunity to transfer once more. But when Kevin Willard showed up as the new leader of the program, Martinez felt that he was the right coach for him.

“He gave us a lot of confidence,” Martinez said of Willard. “The whole staff, they always try to keep me up and they generally don’t put me down. And they do that with all the players, not only with me, so that’s something that I really appreciate, especially what we’ve been through.”

“Maryland is really different, just everything I’ve seen,” he continued. “The pride and passion that people have got. We come here and everybody kind of just gets along. We really come together as a team, just the stuff we go through. At Utah, there was just a lot of disconnection, some guys got along, some guys really didn’t. I never felt that before I came here.”

Just one year separates them age-wise, but Craver and Martinez are at different places in their lives. Martinez continues to compete on the hardwood while Craver is a regular student at Prairie View A&M University.

Craver had to settle for a spot on a junior college team after back injuries derailed his promising high school career. Once there, he dealt with a COVID-ridden sophomore year before tearing his MCL in his third season. The opportunity to play at Prairie View A&M was still afforded to him, but his credits didn’t properly transfer to allow him to play once he changed his major to business with a focus in cybersecurity, a career he continues to pursue. According to him, his Division I aspirations “just weren’t meant to be.”

Even though he is no longer playing with them, Craver stays in touch with the Martinez brothers to this day, even if meeting in person hasn’t been an option for a few years.

“We always reach out to each other and see how each other’s doing … I’ll text them. I’ll text Ian. Avery’s big on social media so every time he’ll post something I’ll comment and [message] him like, ‘Miss you bro’ and all that stuff,” he said.

Meanwhile, Martinez is staying focused on his playing career, which has blossomed in his second season at Maryland. He’s getting on the court more than he ever has at the collegiate level — even finding his way into the starting lineup — while playing a key role for a Maryland team looking to make some noise in its first year under Willard, who has complimented the growth he’s seen from Martinez, especially in the classroom.

“Ian has worked extremely hard academically to get his grades in a really good spot. I’m really proud of what he’s done classroom-wise, you know, to progress the way he did, and I think as he kind of got his academic side in order, his basketball side has followed,” Willard said. “I think he’s a little more disciplined on the basketball court. He understands what his role with us is. The biggest thing for me is he’s just, I think he’s just getting more comfortable in what he can do on the court not only offensively, but defensively.”

NCAA Basketball: Binghamton at Maryland
Kevin Willard speaks with Ian Martinez during a timeout.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

No matter whether it’s in the classroom, on the court or elsewhere, Martinez continues to grow from his experiences. He no longer has to do it thousands of miles from his parents, as they now live in Virginia and are able to come to most of the Terps’ home games to see him play.

Martinez still has his sights set on playing in the NBA, which would be another first for a Costa Rican, but he’s keeping a positive attitude no matter what’s ahead for him, keeping family a priority in the process.

“I want to play in the NBA, but that’s just my dream, my goal. Whatever God has for me ahead, that’s what I’m gonna have to take,” Martinez said. “Whatever’s in front of me, that’s what I’m gonna do. I want to have a family. I have a girlfriend, eventually want to get married. Besides playing in the NBA or just playing professionally, that’s also my goal.”

Nothing has stopped Martinez from achieving his dreams to this point, even if it meant being the first to do so. Whatever he faces in the future, he’ll be more than prepared to take it on.

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