Written by Walter Hines
Francisco "Kiko" Martinez was already a sports legend when he arrived at NM A&M in 1936 at the not so tender age of 24. He was destined to lead the Aggies to national basketball prominence.
Martinez first gained fame at El Paso High where he led the Tigers to great success in basketball in the late 20s. A clever, smooth player, Kiko was a purist who loved the game from the first time he played. On the dusty, rough-and-tumble playgrounds of El Paso, he played endless pick-up games. When alone, he practiced tirelessly and mastered the fundamentals--dribbling, passing, footwork and set shooting. But it was his strong will and coolness that stood out. Teammates and opponents saw the confidence and knew that Martinez didn't buckle under pressure.
His parents, natives of Mexico, moved to El Paso where Kiko was born in 1911. This heritage bestowed young Martinez with dual Mexican-American citizenship -- a situation he fully enjoyed.
Following high school, Martinez went to work in El Paso and played amateur basketball on evenings and weekends. In the early 1930s, Kiko was offered a job in Chihuahua. Part of the deal was to play for Los Dorados, a club team sponsored by wealthy Mexican businessmen. At the time, Mexico was struggling to field a basketball team to compete in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. At those Games, basketball was for the first time to be an Olympic sport.
Kiko and several Los Dorados teammates were selected to the Mexican National team. Traveling by boat to Europe in summer 1936, the Mexicans arrived in the ominous, though festive, atmosphere of Hitler's Germany. An aged Dr. James Naismith, inventor of the game, was on hand as a special guest to witness basketball's first international championship. Naismith was in tears at the pre-tournament ceremony as the teams marched by, dipping their flags in his honor.
Played outdoors on a clay tennis court dusted with sand, sawdust, and salt, Martinez and the Mexicans were used to the conditions and played well. They finished with the Bronze medal behind the U.S. and Canada.
Following a celebration with the Mexican team in Chihuahua, Martinez turned his thoughts to college. He wanted more basketball, but he also wanted a career. Kiko was a bright student with a dream to be an engineer.
Recruited to NM A&M by Coach Jerry Hines in 1936, Martinez was a star from the first day on campus. In 1936-’37, he teamed with Aggie legends Anastacio ‘Hooky’ Apodaca and ‘cousin’ Lauro Apodaca on a squad that went 22 and 5 and won the Border Conference Championship. Hooky and Lauro both made All Conference that year.
For the next two years, team captain Martinez was at the throttle of the great fast-breaking Aggie teams that included Pecos Finley, Pucker Wood, Joe Jackson, and Mel Ritchey. All were New Mexicans or West Texans. They won two more Border Conference titles and compiled a sparkling record of 42 and 7. From 1936-39, the Aggies were undefeated against New Mexico (12-0) and Texas-El Paso (10-0). Kiko was All Border Conference in 1938 and 1939, and finished a close second in conference scoring in both years.
Invited to the 1939 NIT Tournament in New York City, the Aggies played the role of colorful rogue cowboys. They came bedecked in maroon silk shirts, neckerchiefs, `A' letter jackets, white ten-gallon cowboy hats and boots. Accompanied by cigar-chomping regent, Dan Williams, and Coach Hines' wife, Nona, they had a bash. They toured the World's Fair site, the Empire State Building, Radio City, and had dinner at Jack Dempsey's Restaurant.
Kiko had a good sense of humor and bamboozled the "sophisticated" New York sports writers covering the NIT. Evidence a NY Times column of March 15, 1939 by John Kieran entitled A Riot of Color. At a pre-game visit to the Garden, a tour guide told Kieran :
"... this fellow is Kiko Martinez. He played on the Mexican Olympic basketball team at Berlin."
Kiko. That was a funny name for a Mexican.
"Oh, I'm not a Mexican," said Kiko with a grin. "I live in New Mexico."
Well he had played for Mexico in the Olympic Games. He had to qualify as a citizen or resident of Mexico to do that ... Kiko laughed and said:
"I live right on the border, I can jump either way in a hurry. I jumped the other way just for the fun of going to Berlin."
The Aggies were a sensation in Madison Square Garden in the opening game against the unbeaten Long Island Blackbirds of Coach Clair Bee. They rocked the crowd with their flashing fast break, jumping off to a 20-10 lead in the first half. Late in the fourth quarter the game was tied 42-42. At that point, the Blackbird depth, the smoky Garden air, and the fouling out of Finley and Jackson did the Aggies in. They lost in the last minutes to the eventual tournament champions, 52-45. Their performance demanded an encore several nights later, where before 18,000 fans Kiko sparked the Aggies to victory over Roanoke College, "The Champions of the South," in a consolation game.
The Aggies returned by train, first to Washington D.C. where they lunched with Senators Dennis Chavez and Carl Hatch. On March 23rd, they arrived to pep bands and a big crowd at El Paso's Union Station, and then were convoyed to Las Cruces. Kiko and the Aggies had made New Mexico, El Paso, and Mexico very proud.
Following college, Martinez saw duty as a civil engineer with the Corps of Engineers at military airfields in Clovis and Carlsbad during the war years. After the war, he moved his family to Los Alamos where he worked for the Zia Company at the Labs for more than 20 years. His first love, basketball, still drove him. He played amateur basketball into the 1950s, once scoring 21 points in a span of 4 minutes. He also became the top high school referee in New Mexico and regularly worked the State Championship Tournaments each spring.
In the mid 1960s, he moved his family back to El Paso where he worked as a civil engineer with the R. E. McKee Company and, later, the NM Highway Department until his retirement. He passed away in 1993.
Kiko Martinez left his family, his two countries, his two states, and his alma mater with precious memories. If Dr. Naismith could see his Aggie Hall of Fame picture in the Pan American Center, he'd probably sigh and say, "Kiko Martinez. There was a basketball man!"
Walter Hines has a BS and MS in Civil Engineering from NMSU ('66,'67) and is a Senior Project Manager with the consulting firm, CH2M HILL in Albuquerque, NM. Born in Las Cruces, he is the son of Jerry Hines, former Aggie athlete, head football/basketball coach and athletic director at New Mexico A&M, now known as NMSU, from 1929-40, and 1946-47. Hines' mother, Nona led the women's sports program at New Mexico A&M from 1933-40. Walter won the 1999 James F. Cole Award for service and the 2000 Distinguished Engineering Alumni Award from NMSU in 2000. He is also the author of the book Aggies of the Pacific War: NM A&M College and the War with Japan.