It’s a wonderful life
By Jordan Bishop
Brittney Martin was dead.
Before she became Oklahoma State’s first Big 12 Player of the Year, before she etched her name in nearly every section of the school record books, and before she received a standing ovation on Senior Night, Brittney’s heart stopped beating at the children’s hospital in Ogden, Utah.
Eleven days after she was born, Brittney’s parents took her back to Ogden Regional because their firstborn had shortness of breath. In the operating room, doctors found Brittney’s aorta had narrowed, cutting off the supply of oxygen-laced blood to the lower parts of her body. She had a coarctation of the aorta, the main blood-carrying vessel in the heart.
Other parts of her heart worked overtime to pump blood through the clamped aorta, but it wasn’t enough. The heart stopped, along with everything else. Brittney flat lined on the table from heart failure.
The doctors had to work quickly for her ever to take another breath. Her legs and organs in the lower half of her body had been without blood flow for too long. There was no time for error.
The doctors opened a hole in a wall of tissue found in newborns to allow alternate blood flow beyond the aorta. Brittney’s pulse resumed. The doctors then worked on fixing the narrowed aorta, which involved cutting it off and then connecting it after it had been widened. The results of the surgery left an infant Brittney with a hole the size of a needle tip in her heart that would be there for the rest of her life.
On a concrete slab her grandfather poured, Brittney began capturing a piece of childhood thought to be medically improbable.
Her grandfather, contractor Curt Nations, built the house in Syracuse, Utah, that Brittney would come to call home. When he was done, he turned part of the foundation slab into a basketball court by drilling a hoop onto the side of the house.
Brittney had come a long way from that operating table in Ogden. When her mother Natalie brought 3-year-old Brittney in for a yearly heart checkup, the doctors naturally went to her younger sister Brianna, who was 2 the time. They couldn’t believe the muscle-bound, stocky toddler was Brittney.
“The doctors actually warned us that she was going to be frail, little and petite,” Natalie said. “Most heart patients are.”
As the years went by, Brittney continued to defy the diagnosis. She got taller and taller, eventually growing into the 6-foot athlete she is today. Her heart was never an issue. If Brittney ever had any shortness of breath, Natalie said she would push through it, like she does today.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Brittney said. “I’m a hypochondriac and it hasn’t really ever bothered me.”
Brittney said she shot on that concrete slab for hours on end. She played pickup games against her dad, Darrell, or she played H-O-R-S-E with the family. It was only backyard games and shootarounds, but Darrell said that early on he noticed Brittney had a knack for sports.
Darrell saw how athletic she was. He had to see Brittney play against other kids.
“I said, ‘Dude, we need to try to put you on basketball and see what you can do.”
Brittney joined her first competitive team in the fourth grade. At first, she played awkwardly as expected, but it didn’t take long for her to pick up on things.
Curt, who had played at Weber State and loved the Jazz teams of Stockton and Malone, and Darrell, who played point guard for a year at Eastern Utah taught Brittney drills almost every day. They played until midnight or 1 a.m. sometimes.
“The neighbors would have to tell us to quit shooting around,” Darrell said.
Curt was a big influence on how she played. Brittney said sometimes the practice sessions with Darrell became tedious.
“My dad got to the point and I think every parent does where you know your child’s going to be good,” Brittney said.
She got frustrated a few times because she wanted to hang out with her friends at the mall or go see a movie instead of working on basketball drills. After a while, Brittney came to an understanding with Darrell and devoted herself to basketball.
All of the practicing outside with Dad and Grandpa eventually paid off as Brittney became so good that the city of Syracuse could no longer contain her talents.
Natalie and Darrell started driving her to Lehi, a city about 60 miles away, to play for Utah Flight, a club team, when she was in the sixth grade. That’s where Brittney first saw the places basketball could take her.
Las Vegas, North Carolina, Georgia, California — the list goes on in the locales Brittney got to see with her Flight team. Brittney saw places all across the country, more importantly recruiters and scouts got to see her. All the way through high school, Brittney played with the Flight in the summer, and scouts began to see the potential in this lanky, agile guard.
“That’s the way people really got noticed was playing games out of state,” Brittney said. “You had recruiters who could all sit around and come watch you play.”
Natalie works for an airbag plant and Darrell works at a company making diapers, but each time Brittney offered to get a job to help pay for the travel, they said it was fine. They wanted her to live her life.
As Brittney began to get national recognition, she became a state and local legend at the newly-built Syracuse High School. With Brittney’s height and her unstoppable mid-range jumper, the Titans won two state titles under Brittney, both undefeated seasons.
She was named Utah’s Ms. Basketball after her junior year and the state’s Gatorade Player of the year her senior season. Right about that time, she decommitted from the University of Utah. A decision Brittney had made in her sophomore year of high school, but backed out after feeling she had rushed in too rashly. When Brittney made that announcement, it opened the floodgates for college recruiters.
Brittney was tired of the phone calls. Even months later they continued to weigh on her mind.
They came from all sorts of places: Los Angeles, Oregon and Washington. One day, Brittney got a call from a school she had never heard of, Oklahoma State, and their assistant coach Miranda Serna.
“Hi, I’m from Oklahoma State,” Serna said.
Brittney’s initial reaction what the heck was Oklahoma State and where was it.
“I’m not living in the country, first of all, coming out and living with nothing around,” Brittney said. “That’s what I thought it was going to be, just dirt everywhere.”
Her initial impression of the supposed cowtown in Stillwater didn’t last long, though. Every place she had been on unofficial visits before didn’t feel like the right fit for her. UCLA was too big and bustling. Some of the other schools didn’t feel genuine.
“I’m not going to say that they weren’t sincere,” Brittney said. “But I could tell that they were telling me things I wanted to hear.”
OSU was different. When Serna and head coach Kurt Budke came to Syracuse to see the phenom, they told her she would have to earn a spot on their team. OSU played in the Big 12, the preeminent conference in women’s college basketball. The Cowgirls had made both the second round of the NCAA Tournament and the Sweet 16 within the past five years.
Brittney decided to give the school a shot and planned a trip on the weekend of the football team’s season opener vs. Louisiana Lafayette. She and Darrell loaded up in a Fiat and drove 18 hours through Colorado and Kansas until they got to Stillwater.
Darrell said the Fiat was so small he could reach behind him into the trunk. For two 6-footers, it was an interesting ride, especially with their luggage crammed against their backs, Brittney said.
“He drove most of the time there,” Brittney said. “I would drive sometimes, but I would get so tired and he would just stare at me asking if I was alright. …We didn’t even stop at a hotel, just for gas.”
When they arrived in Stillwater, they found the town was different than they imagined. In fact, it was similar to Syracuse in many ways. Syracuse is a town of about 25,000 people 30 miles north of Salt Lake City. It’s an isolated, burgeoning city not unlike Stillwater.
“It’s an area like Utah,” Darrell said. “That’s why she liked it, it’s so slow out there.”
Brittney fell in love with the size of the city and the family-oriented aspect of Stillwater, even if she didn’t want to admit it right away. Darrell kept telling her she needed to go there because the coaches were so personable and she wouldn’t be able to play as many good teams if she stayed in Utah.
After seeing the football game, walking on Eddie Sutton Court for the first time and hanging out in Stillwater for the weekend, whatever uncertainties Brittney had were gone. She called Natalie and told her she was committing to OSU.
“The people, not just the coaches, but the people cared about me here,” Brittney said. “The people knew me and it wasn’t just because I played basketball, but because I’m going to be part of the OSU family. I think anywhere I went would have been far for me.”
Although it was far, Brittney felt anywhere would be far from home so she decided to go with her heart. As ESPN’s 19th best player in the country, Brittney became the highest-rated recruit in Cowgirl history when she made the commitment official when she signed during the second week of November 2011.
The calls from other universities finally stopped. Her family didn’t want her to play over 1,000 miles away, but they eventually came around to her decision after a lot of googling about OSU. Brittney’s mind was at ease.
A week after committing on Nov. 18, her world was turned upside down when one of her coaches pulled her out of class to see something on the news.
“Thrown into a situation”
Brittney still remembers like it was yesterday.
That Friday morning after she saw Budke and Serna died in a plane crash, Brittney didn’t say a word to anyone. She went straight to her mom’s house and cried. Brittney usually isn’t an emotional person. She’s good at masking feelings through a smile.
Not that Friday.
Natalie had only met the two coaches once, but she knew they were the right ones to take care of her daughter. Having to console her and tell her daughter that it was going to be OK after the crash was one of the roughest days of her life, Natalie said.
“I seriously loved Coach Serna, she was awesome,” Natalie said. “She kind of made me feel like Brittney was going to be taken care of 17 hours away from home. When Brittney came home, she just cried and cried and cried. She kept asking, ‘Is this really happening?’”
Brittney was distraught. She had never played for Budke and Serna, but she respected them and how honest they were with her. Brittney developed a bond with them. Other universities didn’t seem to understand that. The recruiting phone calls came back.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Brittney said. “it just made things so frustrating because I still had people calling me afterwards saying, ‘Hey, you want to come to our school and play for us?’
It was like, you know exactly what we have been through?”
Ignoring the barrage of tasteless phone calls, Brittney went through with her decision to go to OSU.
She was one of eight players on the Cowgirls her freshman year. Although it was an eerie position, she didn’t have any thoughts of transferring.
“Everybody had left,” Brittney said. “I was just thrown into the situation and I kind of just had to make the best out of it I guess. I didn’t really want to decommit or go anywhere else. I wasn’t thinking that at any point in time.”
Although Brittney didn’t want to leave, she was homesick. Like a lot of freshmen miles from home, she felt lonesome and would call her mom every day. Natalie said she would try not to call her a lot because she wanted Brittney to find her own.
Brittney didn’t know if she would settle in. On her recruiting trip, she hadn’t really talked to the other girls on the team and now as the lone freshman, she was going to have to make friends with veteran players. However, her smiling personality and free-flowing play style would quickly win over her new family and community.
It was October 2015, and Brittney was beaming.
It was the preseason media day before her senior year, a season in which pundits have deemed the Cowgirls to finish eighth. They had four players transfer. Seniors like LaShawn Jones and Brittney’s old roommate, Liz Donohoe graduated. The only known factor was Brittney.
Yes, she would put up points and possibly attain another all-conference selection. But that’s all anyone thought you would hear from the Cowgirls.
Brittney’s a scorer, a ravenous rebounder, a defensive menace, but a leader? No one knew. She had always deferred to seniors and now here she was, the lone four-year senior. Brittney didn’t know if she could be the leader, the enforcer or the cantankerous old veteran.
It turns out she didn’t have to be. Brittney had to only be herself, off the court and on.
Through all the uncertainty and questions about a “rebuilding” year, she smiled. Like she would if she made a game-winning free-throw or got called for a reach-in foul. She smiles through it all.
The confidence Brittney has is bestowed upon others on her team. As the newly-minted spokesperson for the team, she seems carefree. Is she worried about how the team’s going to do? Yes. She doesn’t want to be the dictator, though. Brittney knows if the team is going to win with its downsized roster and low expectations, they’re going to have to do it as a family.
Four months later, the Cowgirls are fourth in the Big 12, teetering in and out of the Top 25. They’re the lone team to beat Baylor They swept OU and beat North Carolina. They got their fifth straight 20-win season. They’re a lock for the NCAA Tournament and tied the record for conference wins in a season with 11. Brittney was the force behind most of the victories, but she wasn’t the voice that led them into battle.
Brittney was the one making sure everyone had water in practice, or handing out cookies after fellow senior Roddricka Patton’s birthday. She was even the one, with new roommate Rylie Swanson, who picked up two stray dogs and adopted them as pets (Their names are Bronson and Stanley and Brittney is taking them with her after she graduates.)
Practices this season are more of a marketplace of ideas. They maintain a structure, but everyone has a voice.
In games, she’s played at a higher, more well-rounded level than any player in school history. Brittney leads the Big 12 in points, rebounds, steals and double-doubles.
Brittney has gone from the freshman wing from Utah to being a Cowgirl legend. Coaches around the league praise her including rivals like Oklahoma’s Sherri Coale. Her own coach, Jim Littell, said Brittney is one of the most athletic players he’s ever coached.
A New Prognosis
The twilight may be falling on Brittney’s collegiate career, but her journey is far from over.
Life is full of choices and the decisions made could be minor or major. For Brittney, the decision after she graduates is a little simpler than most.
After the season is over, she is projected to be taken in the second round in the WNBA draft. Although the WNBA has less teams and roster spots for players, Brittney has a solid chance of continuing her basketball career, even if it’s overseas.
Her only detriment is the lack of a 3-point shot, something Brittney has never tried to add to her game.
“All the little kids just want to go out there and shoot as far as they can,” Brittney said. “I guess I never really had that drive. I want to take people off the bounce, I want to pull up in someone’s face. The way I shoot is really hard for me to shoot from outside.”
Brittney isn’t worried about lacking a 3-point shot because it’s not the end of the world. Her dynamic skill set for a guard is more valuable than the lack of a shot.
What feels like the end of the world to her isn’t the WNBA or graduating with a degree in nutritional science. It isn’t missing out on being able to play on the white maple of Gallagher-Iba Arena. Rather, it’s leaving her second family and once again going out into the world alone.
“It’s really going to be hard for me to leave with everything I’ve been through here,” Brittney said. “I can’t believe it’s over.”
Brittney’s accomplished a lot of things in her life that many thought to be improbable. Her greatest accomplishments are not behind her, though. Destiny lies before her. Life is a gift and Brittney was given a second chance at it. It’s a second chance that she’s made the most of, but it’s also far from over. She’s barely begun.