MADRID (Reuters) - Pau Gasol hailed Fernando Martin as the "pioneer" of Spanish NBA players on Wednesday, the 25th anniversary of the former Portland Trail Blazers center's death in a car crash in Madrid.
Martin, who spent most of his professional career at Real Madrid, became the first Spaniard to play in the NBA when he joined Portland in 1986, although he barely featured and returned to Real the following year.
His death in 1989 aged 27 on Madrid's orbital motorway, when he lost control of his car at high speed, shocked Spain and the basketball world and Real retired his number 10 jersey in homage to the man they called "a leader and an icon".
"Fernando Martin is an emblematic figure in Spanish sport and, above all, in basketball," Gasol wrote in his column in Spanish sports daily Marca.
"He was the pioneer among Spanish players who made it to the NBA and that will last forever," added the Chicago Bulls forward, one of the most successful Spaniards in the NBA along with younger brother Marc.
"A lot of importance must be attached to his audacious attempt to make the leap at a time when the gulf between the two basketballs was very wide," Gasol said. "Martin dared and that deserves all possible recognition."
Martin won four Spanish league titles with Real and helped Spain to silver medals at the 1983 European Championship and the 1984 Olympic Games.
"Apart from his quality in front court play, Fernando Martin won over the fans thanks to his fighting character, courage and personality," Real wrote on their website (www.realmadrid.com) on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Iain Rogers, editing by Peter Rutherford)