The NBA playoffs always have unlikely heroes, but even by those standards, the story of the Miami Heat’s Caleb Martin is particularly Rudy-esque. As broadcasters love to mention, he’s one of nine undrafted players on the Heat roster, and the one who has aided them most during the postseason, becoming a crucial factor in the team’s surge through the Eastern Conference. Over the course of 18 games, Martin has helped a Heat team that barely squeaked into the postseason make its way to the finals, averaging career highs across the board and shooting the ball with mechanical precision. And it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that he might not be in this position at all if not for his unlikely connection to a superstar rapper.
In an ESPN article published May 27, Martin spoke about his connection to J. Cole, and how the North Carolina MC helped Martin get signed by Miami during the 2021 offseason. Martin was undrafted, coming off two low-impact years with the Charlotte Hornets, and didn’t have a home in the NBA going forward. Fortunately, Cole had been close with Miami Heat assistant coach and former NBA All-Star Caron Butler since name-dropping Butler on “The Autograph,” a fan-favorite cut from Cole’s seminal 2010 mixtape Friday Night Lights.
“There are certain people that when they call you about particular people, the message and the favor is a little louder than others,” Butler told ESPN about Cole recommending Martin. Martin grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and was a standout player at North Carolina State before he and his twin brother transferred to Nevada. According to Martin, he and Cole played pickup basketball in the same gym when Martin was at NC State, and they’ve known each other since 2014.
“It shows that even though he’s accomplished a lot of things–and he’s got so many other things to worry about–he worries about his people. And it’s dope he considers me one of his people,” Martin told The Charlotte Observer back in 2021. “He knew my situation. He saw me working in the gym every day and you could just tell he appreciates guys who [grind] like he does and so that’s a blessing, for him to lend a hand out there and do what he could.”
Cole, an avid basketball player himself who in recent years has played with the Basketball Africa League and the Canadian Elite Basketball League, has a history of supporting North Carolina-born basketball players. He famously shouted out Dennis Smith, Jr. on 21 Savage’s “A Lot,” and Butler told ESPN that Cole also called him about Smith.
Martin had a string of stellar games in the Heat’s upset win over the Boston Celtics, including a 25-point performance in Game 2, and another strong line in Game 3, which ultimately gave the Heat a 3-0 cushion that proved insurmountable last night for the heavily-favored Celtics. Martin told ESPN that after the third game, Cole was particularly enthused for his friend.
“He was jumping up and down, man. He was hyped just like everybody else,” Martin said. “And he don’t want no type of attention for it. Not saying that he doesn’t like it or whatever like that, but he’s a guy that’s so out of the way.”
The Heat have a long track record of developing diamond-in-the-rough prospects into valuable contributors, with their 2022-23 roster including multiple undrafted players like Martin, Haywood Highsmith, and Gabe Vincent.
Martin’s deal with the Heat carries through the end of the 2023-24 season, but if he continues to shine on the NBA Finals stage and into next year, his free agent contract could put him in the same tax bracket as the star rapper who helped him make it to Miami. Cole, meanwhile, continues to showcase a fine eye for hoops talent, as Smith, Jr. had a career-saving year with the Hornets. The MC loves flirting with retirement; when he finally hangs up his mic, he should consider going into NBA scouting full time.