In middle school Nick Martinelli was a huge UFC fan.
He grew so fond of the sport that at one point he even thought his interest would turn into a profession.
“I wanted to be a mixed martial arts fighter,” Martinelli said. “Everything was UFC. I was a huge Connor McGregor fan. In eighth grade, I got sick during the (basketball) season, and that’s when I would go in my basement and punch this little dummy guy that I had.”
Even though Martinelli never pursued his mixed martial arts aspirations, that fighter’s mentality has stayed with him.
His competitiveness needed to materialize early in his basketball career because he was always competing with his two older brothers, Jimmy and Dom Martinelli. Both had successful careers at Glenbrook South and went on to play collegiate basketball.
Jimmy — the oldest — was two-time all-conference and named the team MVP his senior year at Glenbrook South and went on to be a four-year starter at New York University. Dom finished as the Titans’ all-time leading scorer and just wrapped up his freshman season at Northwestern.
For Nick Martinelli, seeing his older brothers’ accomplishments was sometimes difficult to deal with.
“To be honest, I felt a little bit in his shadow (Dom’s) and Jimmy’s too when I was younger,” Martinelli said. “It’s just hard when you have older brothers that were as successful as they were.”
But now, the youngest Martinelli is making a name for himself. As a full-time starter in his junior season, the 6-foot-7 wing averaged 21.8 points and 5.9 rebounds and shot 57.7% from 3-point range in 18 games. Martinelli was also named to the Central Suburban League All-Conference Team.
In his first game as a starter, Martinelli scored 28 points in a 69-49 victory against Hersey. It begin an 11-game win streak to start the season for Glenbrook South. In the ninth game of the season, against New Trier, Martinelli dropped 34 points in a 60-53 win.
On offense, Martinelli’s left-handed jumper and ability to secure rebounds for second-chance points made him difficult to defend for any team. Often in opposing team huddles coaches can be heard saying, “We have to do a better job against Martinelli.”
Defensively, Martinelli’s length forced players to take tough shots and required them to make precise passes. He finished the season with 10 blocks and 15 steals.
Although Martinelli has quickly emerged as one of the better upperclassmen in Illinois, it didn’t come without him having to overcome obstacles.
Heading into Martinelli’s sophomore year, he thought he made the necessary improvements in the offseason to earn a varsity spot. But Glenbrook South coach Phil Ralston started Martinelli on the sophomore team.
“It just lit a fire up in me to be honest,” Martinelli said. “When he (Ralston) told me I was on sophomore, I felt a little confused.”
After playing five games on the sophomore team, Martinelli was moved up.
“Nick had to earn everything and he did so admirably,” Ralston said. “When we lost Joe Shapiro last year, Nick was the first guy off the bench and was getting what I would term ‘starter’s minutes’ in many respects. That was something he had to earn.”
Martinelli embraced his new role and helped the team anyway he could. Glenbrook South finished the 2019-20 season 29-5 and split the Central Suburban League South title with Evanston. The Wildkits did eliminate the Titans in the Class 4A Elk Grove semifinals.
Still, Martinelli gained valuable experience in his sophomore year. And a lot of those lessons can be attributed to the one season he played with his brother Dom.
“He wanted to win at every single drill,” Nick Martinelli said. “If you want to be great, you can’t take off drills, you can’t take off days, you always have to be the last one in the gym. I learned a ton of characteristics and good habits from him that are obviously going to benefit me in the future. I owe a ton of my success, which hasn’t been much, to Dom.
“The way that he constantly fought,” Martinelli continued. “He played when he was sick. He played when he was hurting. And how much he wanted to win obviously showed me what I needed to do to take the next step.”
Though Dom Martinelli graduated, everything was looking promising for Glenbrook South moving forward. Nick Martinelli and point guard Cooper Noard — who started as a sophomore on varsity — would be back to help lead the Titans the following season.
Then COVID-19 hit. And everything changed.
“The unusual aspect of having to deal with COVID is that we didn’t have our normal summer routine where we were able to work with kids in a team atmosphere and an individual’s environment,” Ralston said.
Despite the coronavirus’ impact on and off the basketball court, Martinelli still saw an opportunity for himself to improve his game over the summer so he would be ready for his junior season.
Every morning Martinelli and Dom would shoot for roughly two hours at their friend’s gym, which features a shooting gun, a three-quarter basketball court and a weight room. Throughout the summer, it was common for the Martinelli brothers to be at their friend’s house for 4-to-6 hours. After a long day of doing basketball drills and working out on the turf field, the two would jump in the hot tub to recover.
Dom also invited some of his teammates from Northwestern to train.
“Something that I think got Nick to another level to where he is playing at now was being able to play with some of my teammates from Northwestern,” Dom Martinelli said. “Being able to compete with Big Ten players, I think that is one of the reasons why Nick has gotten so much better this offseason.”
Along with the workouts, Martinelli watched a lot of film over the summer.
From Dom’s senior season at Glenbrook South to Florida Gulf Coast and several Big Ten teams, to NBA players Luka Doncic and Doug McDermott, Martinelli dissected different basketball styles and tried to pick up bits and pieces from everything he watched.
All the hard work Martinelli put in during the offseason translated on the basketball court. And Dom Martinelli, who was able to catch some of his brother’s games in person, could see the progress his brother made.
“I think his confidence has skyrocketed since last season,” Dom Martinelli said. “I think that’s just due to all the work he has put in … I think he has gained confidence in that aspect. I see it in every single game.”
And for Nick Martinelli — who has had to work for everything he has accomplished — he, Noard and senior big man Justin Lesynski were the leaders for the Titans this past season.
“I think Nick is very much a leader by example,” Ralston said. “I want Nick, Cooper and Justin to assert themselves as leaders on the team … It’s kind of hard for me to not say to guys like Nick and Coop, ‘You guys are the ones that have put in as much time as anyone in this offseason,’ so it’s hard for me as coach to not go back and say, ‘Hey, this is your team. You guys are the leaders of this team. We are going to go where you take us.’”
The 2020-21 Glenbrook South team finished with a 16-2 record and as back-to-back CSL champions. In the condensed season, the Titans also set a school record for winning percentage at 89 percent.
At the end of the season, eight teams had the opportunity to participate in the Chipotle League of Champions tournament. Evanston was initially selected as the Central Suburban League representative for the tournament, but the school offered it to winner of the division. Glenbrook South overtook that spot when Evanston lost to New Trier on March 6.
Two days later, Glenbrook South traveled to face the Trevians, with an opportunity to extend its half-game lead on Evanston. The Titans dominated for the majority of the first two quarters and at one point had a 22-point lead. Martinelli led all scorers with 12 points at the half. But the Trevians made a miraculous comeback and had a 63-61 lead with 47.8 seconds remaining in the game.
After a 10-second violation, Martinelli was fouled under the basket with 10.8 seconds remaining on the clock. The junior stepped up to the free-throw line with an opportunity to tie the game.
Martinelli took his one dribble and shot. The ball hit the front of the rim and bounced left. Martinelli’s second shot hit the rim and bounced right.
“That’s definitely one of my worst moments in basketball,” Martinelli said. “Honestly, the worst part about it was I trained for moments like that. I don’t train for making easy layups against bad teams. I train for making big shots against good teams and in important moments … But it’s a learning experience. Everyone misses shots. Michael Jordan has missed shots. Big shots. I have to work harder and patch up some things.”
The Titans lost 64-63 to the Trevians. Glenbrook South rebounded with back-to-back wins against Glenbrook North to end the season. However, it was Evanston that went on to play in the end-of-the-year tournament.
Martinelli acknowledged that it was “painful to watch” the teams competing in the Chipotle Classic. But he does believe Glenbrook South has the players to do something special next season — as long as the team has the right mentality.
“I think that we are going to be really deep and really skilled next season,” Martinelli said. “It all comes down to if we really want to put in the work to become state champions, and if we want to buy into what coach wants us to do.”
Martinelli’s routine now involves waking up before school to shoot at his friend’s house to reach his daily “300 makes each morning,” then getting a workout in once school is over.
With the high school season finished, that doesn’t mean Martinelli gets to take a break. In April, his AAU season will begin and Martinelli will compete against some of the best players in the country.
Martinelli does all this because he is a competitor, a fighter. He has been this way since day one.
“I want to become a high-major player,” Martinelli said. “That’s my goal. My goal used to be to become a Division I player, but now it’s moved to something bigger because I want to strive to be the best player, the best person that I can be.”
Main image courtesy of Braeden Schmidt