David Adam

Sunday Conversation with Juan Martinez

Juan Martinez stands outside a farm on the Larry Ippensen property in Quincy, where he lived as a foreign exchange student when he attended Quincy High School in 1995-96. | H-W Photo/David Adam
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jun. 3, 2018 12:01 am Updated: Jun. 3, 2018 1:24 am

One decision changed Juan Martinez's life forever.

Martinez came to Quincy from the Dominican Republic as a foreign exchange student in 1995. His success and skill on the basketball court at Quincy High School eventually helped him get chances to play at Indian Hills Community College and Western Illinois University, and he later played for seven years professionally overseas. He also became very close with the Larry Ippensen family, who were Martinez's hosts when he attended QHS. Even now at age 40, he regularly visits the Ippensens.

Martinez now lives in Humeston, Iowa (pop. 494), with his wife, Jennifer, and his children, Carlee and Kaylin. He became a U.S. citizen in March 2016.

Tell me about Humeston and what you do these days.

Humeston is pretty small, close to 800 people. I work for Hy-Vee (in Chariton, Iowa). I train new employees, and I help load the trucks. Jennifer and I will be married for 15 years in July. My daughters were playing basketball on Saturday mornings, a little basketball challenge, for seven weeks. Now they're playing softball.

How do you like being a father?

I love it. It's one of the reasons I quit playing basketball. I don't want to have my kids overseas, and it was time to start a family.

When did you start playing basketball? And how did you end up in Quincy?

I grew up in Yaguate. I started playing basketball when I was 9 years old. I went to Argentina with the junior Dominican team. One of my friends, his name was Hector, he helped me get to Quincy as a foreign exchange student. It was the biggest blessing of my life, especially to stay here with the Ippensens. I was supposed to go to New York, and it never happened. Hector said, "Well, I've got this thing in Quincy." What's funny is when I went to get my visa to come to Quincy, the guy who interviewed me was from Quincy. He was working in the embassy in the Dominican Republic. He told me, "Get ready. You will see a lot of corn." He wasn't lying.

What do you remember about your first days here?

I called the Ippensens one day before. I was late getting to Quincy. I got here about Sept. 12. I left a voice message on the answering machine, and I said, "Hey, I will be there tomorrow." I came with $300. When I got to the airport, I thought nobody was there to pick me up, so I thought I would go get a taxi from St. Louis to Quincy. I had an address. The Ippensens had a sign that said, "Welcome home Juan." People in the Dominican know me by Carlos, so I just walked straight past the sign. Gerri (Larry's wife) came after me and said, "Hey, are you ... ?" It was awesome.

So do you prefer to go by Juan or Carlos?

I don't care. I always go by Juan now. I didn't like Juan at first because it was my grandpa's name, but I guess it stuck. I guess it was just easy.

How was your English when you arrived?

I didn't know any English. Thank God one of my friends from Spain helped me out a lot. Coach (Jose) Quintero (an assistant on the basketball team) also helped me out a lot.

So what words did you know?

Cheeseburger. French fries. That's about it. It's kind of funny now. People would ask me questions, and I just smiled. "Juan, do you want to take a shower?" I would just smile. I didn't know what they were saying. but I just smiled. That got me a ways. I was learning, learning, learning. I had a tutor who helped me a lot. Little by little. When I came (to the United States), the Ippensens picked me up and brought me a basketball and a dictionary. That's all they brought. I came here to go to school and to play basketball.

How did you fit in as a foreign exchange student?

It was easy to fit in. It was a little bit different. How can I say this? You start playing in the Dominican, and you've got to play with older guys. When I was here, I was playing with people my age. I just fit in. The first game was at the Thanksgiving Tournament. When the Blue Devil (mascot) came out, I was like, "Wow." I looked up and saw the cheerleaders. That was for real. It was amazing. I had 34 points in the first game. It was something. That's a memory that always will stick with me.

Was the plan to return to the Dominican after your year in Quincy?

I thought it would be a one-year deal, but Larry (Ippensen) was like, "Do you want to stay here?" Coach (Loren) Wallace asked, "Do you want to stay here?" I stayed for four years before I went back to the Dominican. it was during my junior year at Western Illinois. I only came with $300, and my parents can't send me any more money, so I helped on the (Ippensens') farm. I became an expert a baling hay. Then I went to Indian Hills (in Ottumwa, Iowa). I was supposed to go to a school in Florida, but Indian Hills was close, and I wanted the Ippensens to stay close to me. They didn't miss a single game at Indian Hills in two years, and when I went to Macomb, they didn't miss a game, either.

How often do you get back to the Dominican?

I just got back from there two weeks ago. I saw my mom. Now that I have a family, I get there once a year. It's fun to go home. I see my friends who I grew up with. I played (professionally) for six years in Spain and one year in Brazil, and I played in a summer league in the Dominican. Pretty much, I was playing year-round.

Playing basketball professionally and travelling around the world ... sounds like a perfect life for you.

At the time, my wife -- she was my girlfriend at the time -- used to come along with me when I played in Spain. i'd go to practice, I'd drop her off at the beach, and I'd go get her later. She was having a good time, too.

How did you meet your wife?

We met at Indian Hills. It's a great story. She used to be a volleyball player. I went to the gym, and I saw her there. She was taking pictures for the team, and I don't know, but I like to go for the kill. I asked her if she had a boyfriend, and she said yes. Then i asked her if she wanted another boyfriend, and she didn't like that. But now she's my wife.

When did you stop playing professionally?

The last time I played was 2006. I wasn't feeling it any more. I wanted to start a family. Of all my friends, I was the only one with no kids. I kind of lost the love for basketball a little bit.

What would you like to tell people about what it's like to play overseas that they might not understand?

It's a different world. You're by yourself over there. When you watch TV, and if you're a regular American guy, there are no English channels. The people in Spain are a little bit rude. When you're there, you practice more than what you play. You have to be really dedicated. You probably play once a week. You play Friday, Saturday or Sunday, and you practice twice a day for five days. It's not all fun. If you don't do good in a game, you have to wait a week. Thank God I played for six years and never had any problems changing teams. I started with a team, and I would finish with that team.

So how did you land in Iowa?

Everything happens for a reason. It's God's plan. I was in Brazil and thought, "It's time to start a new life." My in-laws had a house in Iowa, and it was empty. When they showed it to me, I thought to myself, "I like this place." We're still there.

My guess is everybody knows you in Humeston. It's probably hard to hide when you're 6-foot-8.

I kind of like it there. It's quiet. It's been good to me. No problems at all. I go to work, spend time with my girls, spend time with my wife. I've been living there for 11 years. Maybe once or twice a year I go out, but that's not my thing. I like to lay back and relax. We go to the park a lot and shoot hoops. The pool is pretty close. Because of our jobs, I watch the girls during the day, and my wife is with them at night. It keeps the marriage fresh.

Why did you decide to become a U.S. citizen?

One of the reasons was that I've got two girls here, and if you pass away and you're not a U.S. citizen, you can't be buried here. I don't know if that's true or not, but we're all going to die, and I would like for my girls to come see me if I die. It took about a year. It was more waiting than anything else. You have to take a test, and it was easy. What's funny is that my little one said, "Yay, Daddy graduated," when I passed my test.

How important was becoming a U.S. citizen?

It's very important for me. It's like living the American dream. I've been here for so long, I'd better do this. I didn't do it before because I was playing overseas. I had a green card, and I was a resident, but if I go to the Dominican and something happens, they could cancel my resident card, and maybe I couldn't go back.

Is it difficult not getting to see your parents very often?

It's hard. My mom was supposed to come here, but she's sick now. She can't walk. My sister and my nephew have been to my house. I was there two weeks ago for 12 days. Mom had a little stroke, and she's not doing that good, My mom is now 64. My sister is there with her to keep an eye on her.

Do you pick up a basketball much these days?

I do shoot around, but the last time I played, I was sore for three days. I learned my lesson. I don't do that any more.

It sounds like you have put basketball in your past.

I think it's a different chapter of my life. Right now, the NBA playoffs are going on and I might watch that, but between a regular season basketball game or a baseball game, I'll watch baseball. I kind of lost all my interest for basketball. It's kind of coming back, because I'm teaching my girls and I'm teaching some of the people in Humeston. We'll see what happens.

You seem to really enjoy coming back to Quincy to see the Ippensens.

They are like a second family. It's been 20 some years since we've been together. It's so peaceful here. I am very happy with my life. I can't ask for more.

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