If you told Ryan Martin five years that his foundation, the Ryan Martin Foundation, would be where it is today, he might’ve thought you were crazy.
“I played wheelchair basketball professionally in Europe for several years,” Martin said. “In the summer months when I would come back to the states, I would speak at a lot of able-body basketball camps.”
Some of the camps that Martin spoke at were run by former UConn player and coach Kevin Ollie as well as Ray Allen.
“I was always like, ‘Well why isn’t there a wheelchair basketball camp specifically?” Martin said. “When you say something like that people say, ‘Put your money where your mouth is,’ so we started that.”
What started as one camp has grown into much more than that, with Martin running programs in both the United States and Spain, while still doing speaking engagements.
“It was supposed to be just one camp,” Martin said. “Maybe do it annually and it has blown up to where we have a full-on junior program in Spain, because that’s where I spent the majority of my professional career, and then the full-on junior program that we have here in the U.S. as well.”
Martin’s love for basketball began at an early age. Born with Spina Bifida, a birth defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly, he had both his legs amputated at the age of two.
“I was adopted into a rather large family,” Martin said. “We had 12 [kids] and my parents adopted kids with special needs. So, we always played sports growing up whether it was Wiffle Ball or football or basketball and I just kind of took to basketball.”
As he got older, Martin found more ways to get involved with the game that would help lead him to his professional career.
“There was an adult wheelchair basketball team when I was around 14 or 15 that allowed me to start practicing with them so I could learn the sport,” Martin said. “The Connecticut Spokebenders, which was a team comprised mostly of individuals who acquired their disability later in life and/or were veterans.”
From there, Martin would earn a college scholarship to continue to play the sport that he loves.
“That’s kind of how I got my start,” Martin said. “I ended up picking up the game pretty well as a junior level player that I got a college scholarship to go to Minnesota to play at Southwest Minnesota State University.”
After getting his degree, Martin found himself in a situation that he never thought possible.
“I never really expected the basketball path that I took,” Martin said. “I was never like the superstar player, so it wasn’t like I was planning on spending ten years of my life in Europe chasing around the basketball and getting paid to do so.”
While Martin has played wheelchair basketball in the states as part of the NWBA (National Wheelchair Basketball Association) he spent most of his post-collegiate career overseas.
“The only place that you can play professional wheelchair basketball is in Europe,” Martin said. “I played for eight years in Madrid, Spain. Then I did two years, in France, one in the south of France and my last year in Paris.”
Now, he uses his platform to give back to kids who are facing the same challenge that he grew up with.
“I just think, especially in Connecticut, my story is when I was playing basketball I was pretty unique,” Martin said. “Coming with obviously the disability angle but also being adopted into a large family. It was kind of the idea of choosing you own course and setting your own limits.
“I think a lot of times especially with our kids with disabilities, I think the community sets a standard and I always encourage kids to strive for what they want to do but also to set their own standards and set their own limits. I think that’s one of the more valuable things that we talk about with our athletes within the foundation is that everybody is going to chart this course for you and tell you what you can’t do but at the end of the day it’s still your option.”
Martin and his foundation partner with Stanley Black and Decker to put on their annual Hall of Fame Game where they bring together the best roster of wheelchair basketball players they can assemble to benefit the foundation.
The event was held at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield this past weekend and Martin was able to bring together five players with professional level experience, with the rest of the players had participated in high level college basketball.
“We had two Paralympian’s as well,” Martin said. “We put a game on at the Basketball Hall of Fame. One of our initiatives as a foundation is to—I don’t know how to say this politically correct—but to encourage the Hall of Fame to be more inclusive in representing our sport.
“Earlier this summer we did a wheelchair basketball clinic for kids at the hall as well. This is kind of our big fundraiser and it is a great opportunity for a lot of our kids to see the sport at its highest level and also for a lot of our donors and supporters to be able to see the kids that we work with year-round.”
In addition to running his foundation, Martin works as a consultant for the NCAA and universities on their Inclusive Sports Model.
“I consult for a few different universities but now I am employed by the City University of New York athletic department,” Martin said. “I’m tasked with the job of creating an inclusive sports model that can be applied to all of their campuses.
The City University of New York has over 25 campuses in New York City. Martin will end up creating wheelchair basketball programs and other adaptive sports programs at these universities where he says there are over 11,000 students with disabilities and about 4,000 with mobility impairment.
Over time, Martin said that his foundation has taken an approach to be more of a support system to help the kids be student athletes and emphasizing success in the classroom, the workplace and on the court.
“One of the things we do as a foundation is we really encourage the educational piece and the employment piece,” Martin said. “We really talk about being successful in the classroom and we really try to help navigate different links for them to get job shadows and internships and be more successful in employment.”
Working with Stanley Black and Decker and Travelers, companies that Martin says really believe in their mission and want to build an inclusive workforce has helped encourage kids to not only succeed educationally.
“If you told me that we would be consulting with different universities and creating job shadows with Fortune 500 companies for our student-athletes I would have probably told you that’s crazy,” he said. “I think my goal ultimately and the goal our board sets every year is just to try and get more kids into our program and to be able to provide the same level of services to each one of those kids and maintain that consistency.”
So where does Martin see the foundation growing to from here?
“I don’t usually put limits on it,” Martin said. “If you were telling me five years ago that we were going to have a junior program in Spain and a junior program in Connecticut I probably would’ve been like, ‘That seems like a lot.’
“I think we’re starting to see this pay off with more kids going on to college,” Martin said. “We’re seeing our kids graduate college and get into the workforce. Ultimately, that’s what we want to see. We want to see our student-athletes be successful in the other transitional goals of life.”
By using his own experience, Martin is motivating kids to find their passion and use basketball to help them push the limits that society sets on them.
“I always talk about using basketball as a vehicle for greater success,” he said. “I think our goal is to be able to do that for more folks.”