Fernando Martinez Sierra made a bet in 2012 over a basketball game. The end result sees him playing lacrosse for Spain’s national team.
In the summer of 2012, the United States and Spain faced off in the basketball gold-medal game in the London Olympics. The significance of a gold-medal game doesn’t need to be explained, but this one had ramifications even the players couldn’t have known.
In Charleston, West Virginia, Fernando Martinez Sierra took a gamble. After spending his sophomore year of high school abroad from his home in Madrid and pledging to be in America for two more years, he moved in with the Wright family. He wanted to play travel soccer, so that summer, he made a bet: if Spain won or kept the game within six, his host brother would take up soccer. If the Americans won by more than six, Martinez would try his hand at lacrosse.
The Spaniard didn’t think much of the bet. If he won, he would enjoy watching his host brother learn the sport in which his country had just won back-to-back Euros and the previous World Cup. If he lost, he would spend a season learning something new.
With 12.1 seconds to play in the game, USA led 106-100 with James Harden walking to the line. His first attempt slide around the rim and out, holding the margin at six and Martinez’s sports future in the balance. Harden cooly shrugged his shoulders and exhaled to loosen up for his second try. This time, the ball ripped through the net.
Four seconds later, Sergio Llull pulled up from three in desperation, but Martinez’s final chance to escape lacrosse bricked.
“My life changed. I would not be here,” Martinez said. “My life would be totally different right now if I had not lost that bet.”
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Martinez is in Netanya competing in the World Championships as Spain’s face-off specialist, winning more than 50 percent of his draws. These are his second World Championships after going with Spain to Denver in 2014. He recently graduated from Wheeling Jesuit after playing lacrosse there for four years, which is what convinced him to stay in America for four more years rather than continue his schooling back home, becoming the first Spaniard to play college lacrosse in the United States.
Through his work, Martinez has become one of the main faces of Spanish lacrosse. He has been on national radio twice to talk about the sport and encourages fellow face-off men Javier Perez-Coca and Antonio Gavira through videos, instructions, encouragement and friendship. Despite being only 22, he is a leader within the Spanish squad and someone many of his teammates look up to.
“Everybody who plays lacrosse in Spain knows who Fernando is,” Coca said. “When Fernando tells anybody they need to do that or this, everybody listens to him.”
When Martinez has been back in his home country, he has consistently done what he can to grow the game in Spain, from going to schools to helping run practices, Spain head coach Mike Bartlett said.
“He’s absolutely pivotal to everything we do,” Bartlett explained. “He has the right temperament. He has the right leadership qualities. He knows his role within the team. He knows his standing within Spanish lacrosse, and he works in a positive way to influence everybody.”
Bartlett said he couldn’t imagine what his team and lacrosse in Spain would look like if Llull had made that three-pointer and Martinez won the bet.
“(We would be) hugely different, not just from his individual ability, but his ethos and the way he has glamorized the FOGO role,” Bartlett said. “When most guys in Spain pick the sport up, they don’t look to be the face-off guy. It’s kind of the last piece of the puzzle; whoever has the quickest hands just steps up. He helped grow that role and glamorizing it in a way that people start respecting the technical aspects. If he hadn’t done that, I genuinely don’t know where we’d be in terms of face-off guys.”
Martinez said he feels a responsibility to grow the game in Spain, the country that molded him in his youth. Now that college is behind him, he will move back to Madrid and restart life in his original home. There seems to be plenty of lacrosse included in those plans.
“It’s a duty, and I don’t say that as a bad thing or a boring thing,” Martinez said. “If I’m the first one who had the opportunity,my duty is to give it back because otherwise it would be a waste. I have all this knowledge I learned, I have all these contacts back in the States that I can talk to, but if I don’t put that to use and give back, then what good am I to my teammates, my country, to help grow the game?”
After finding the game by mistake with no prior knowledge or understanding of the sport, it’s natural to ask what kept Martinez coming back. For many lacrosse players, it’s because it runs in the family, because they love the physicality, because of the community or any combination. For Martinez, it has been the challenge.
“When I started playing, I was the last freaking guy to play. Everyone had been playing for a while,” he explained. “In college, it was a huge change. Every single person has been playing for at least 10 years. There I am, the least skilled guy. In order for me to get there, I needed to do much more work and grind more. If that means spending two hours every day in the weight room, then that’s what it means.”
The unknown world of lacrosse the Spanish basketball team thrust Martinez in to wasn’t too different from the similarly unknown world of Charleston he found himself rooted in. West Virginia is certainly not known for its Spanish influences.
“When I first got there my sophomore year, I did not understand barely anything,” Martinez said. “I was in Charleston, West Virginia. I didn’t understand people. The grind you go through, like today was hard as shit but tomorrow’s going to be easier. You get sick and your parents aren’t with you, so you’re like, ‘Okay, I have to toughen through it.’”
The independence and discipline Martinez learned from forging life in a mysterious new land translated to lacrosse.
“You get to college lacrosse, and it’s like, ‘I’m not making a catch, and, I’m losing this face-off and this other face-off,” he said. “Then you keep grinding, you keep hustling, and that’s all you can do.”
Martinez now has to find work in Spain, and he isn’t worried if he starts behind the curve. He has full confidence in himself to prove his worth, master whatever skill necessary and push through the difficult times.
“That’s what lacrosse has taught me. I think that’s huge in my life,” he said. “I feel sorry for the people who don’t have this of experience. It teaches you consistency, trust in yourself and grind.”
Six years on from the bet Martinez can’t forget, he has a much more nuanced view of gambling.
“Sometimes you win, and sometimes you learn,” he said.
This article was originally published July 19, 2018.