In 2009, The Star’s Sam Mellinger wrote a column about new Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin when Martin was coaching at Missouri State detailing Martin’s fight through difficult times, including a bout with cancer.
Cuonzo Martin bites a whistle in his mouth and holds a yellow apple in his hand as he stares down the opportunity of his professional life, right here in front of him. He is pacing, stalking, his feet never sticking to the hardwood basketball court at Missouri State more than a half-second or so.
He shouldn’t be here. Not statistically, not medically, and not realistically. Guys who see what he’s seen and lived what he’s lived just don’t become head coach of one of biggest surprise teams in Division I basketball.
But here he is anyway, spreading his personal gospel of motion offense and nasty defense and especially about being tough. That last point is a way of life for Martin. His Bears, 9-0 and No. 23 in the RPI, are catching on quicker than anybody expected.
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“I’m from East St. Louis,” he says. “We scratch. We fight. We make it work.”
All coaches talk about being tough, of course, but this is different. Those other guys never walked past a dead body on the way to school. They didn’t hear a doctor say their knee wouldn’t make it more than a year or two through college, and that if it went longer, it might cost the ability to walk.
And they never got diagnosed with cancer at the age of 26, four months of chemotherapy breaking their will to live while their infant son takes his first steps.
Martin’s players don’t know the details about any of this. He doesn’t like to talk much about his problems. Everybody has problems, he figures. He’s from East St. Louis, he’ll tell you, and where he’s from, people beat their problems with a don’t-mess-with-me swagger. Martin’s players know all about the swagger.
On the line! he screams, and his players get on the baseline while their leading scorer runs a suicide for lazy defense.
Practices can get tough. Martin makes sure of that. He sees it on their faces sometimes. That’s when he glares back, the whistle popping out of his mouth.
You think this is rough? he’ll say. Come to my town. Where I’m from.
Cuonzo Martin’s basketball team is made in his image. You see that right away in just his second season. The Bears went 11-20 last season, a miserable run in which some friends worried about him, even as he told them, “I’ll never get beat down like this again.”
Missouri State is paying him $300,000 a year and opened a $67 million arena in Martin’s first season. That’s big money anywhere, especially for a Missouri Valley program, and it comes with a certain expectation.
The Bears were picked to finish ninth in the 10-team league this year, a fact that’s printed on a piece of paper hanging just above Martin’s office desk. Missouri State’s start includes wins over Auburn and Tulsa — which beat Oklahoma State by 21 points — creating a sizeable buzz locally, and even some nationally.
They are doing this, the players say, largely because of Martin. There are no future first-round picks on this team, nobody capable of scoring 20 a game or dominating inside or making the other side think about going box-and-one. There is no glitz for Missouri State, not in a blowout win over Tennessee-Martin last week that’s typical of their success.
Kyle Weems is the Bears’ leading scorer at 14.8 per game, but he passes off on a two-on-one fast break.
Adam Leonard — the Lee’s Summit North graduate who played two years at Eastern Kentucky — is the second-leading scorer at 13.4 points per game, but he lets his offense come largely on three-pointers and back-door cuts created from a motion offense.
Jermaine Mallett is third with 7.7 per game, but even after scoring his team’s first seven points, he passes on the Bears’ next possession.
There is nothing fancy about Missouri State’s early success. They shoot a much higher percentage than their opponents (46 to 39), and have a much better assist-to-turnover ratio. Those are advantages Martin sees from toughness, not necessarily talent, and it makes him feel good that his team is learning those lessons faster than he expected.
“Toughest guy we know,” Weems says.
“It gives me chills just talking about it,” Leonard says.
Cuonzo Martin doesn’t like to say too much about the things he saw as a kid. Through conversations with family and friends, the sad cliché of growing up in the projects emerges. Gangs. Drugs. Prostitution. Guns.
“We did some things that other people probably got in trouble for,” says Marco Harris, Martin’s best friend growing up. “We just didn’t get caught. I think God had a different plan.”
Martin likes to say that people in his hometown look out for those trying to make good. It’s a rough place, and maybe this is a strange dynamic, but he thinks his hometown protected him, helping him make it.
His mother dropped out of high school at 16, after both of her parents died. She had no money, so she moved to the projects and worked two jobs to pay rent and help support three younger sisters. Cuonzo was born the next year, and by the time Sandy Martin was 21 she had three kids of her own.
People ask her all the time how she managed, how she was able to keep things straight enough that now her oldest son is a published author, her youngest son a successful basketball coach, her older daughter a day-care manager and her youngest daughter has a Ph.D.
She doesn’t have a magical answer, other than emphasizing school and church. She never accepted excuses about being sick, and posted constant reminders of her children’s blessings with notes on the refrigerator. All these years later, it makes her smile to see her children do the same with their kids.
Then again, she never had to worry much about Cuonzo. The adults in the neighborhood used to say he carried himself with a confidence like he’d seen it all before. He took a milk crate and hung it on a tree behind his building, spending hours shooting at the makeshift basketball goal.
He got pretty good — and tall, too — so when a neighborhood father figure teased him about sitting on the bench in high school, Cuonzo snapped back, I’m not sitting on anybody’s bench.
“And he was right,” says Norman Stevens, still laughing at the memory. “He started four years.”
When Cuonzo was in the ninth grade, he was showing off one day in gym, trying to dunk a volleyball. He slipped, breaking his kneecap, the fall so bad that bone punched through the skin. He mostly ignored his rehab instructions — “I didn’t know what rehab meant,” he says now — which he thinks is why he blew out his knee his senior year.
That’s two major surgeries to the same knee before high school graduation. Purdue coach Gene Keady offered him a scholarship anyway, then winced when the school’s head trainer said Martin’s knee was “like a blown tire” that was going to blow any day.
“Son,” trainer Denny Miller remembers saying, “this knee is why you’re going to have to quit playing basketball someday.”
Per Miller’s instructions, Martin did most of his conditioning in a pool or on a bike, saving his knees, but still ran steps at the football stadium when nobody was watching. Playing alongside eventual No. 1 overall pick Glenn Robinson, Martin helped Purdue win two Big Ten titles.
He shot 500 jumpers a day the summer before his junior year, and then hit 179 of 390 three-pointers his last two years after going zero for seven his first two seasons.
There were brief stints in the NBA before he signed in Italy and led his team in scoring. That knee never gave out.
Unfortunately, his pro career was halted for something much more serious.
Cuonzo Martin gave up. He won’t — or can’t — say it in those words. But that’s exactly what happened.
It started one day in practice. Martin had trouble breathing, nothing more than short, quick breaths, like mountain climbers in thin air. That’s when he crumbled to the floor. He never lost consciousness, but he couldn’t move or communicate well. They rushed him to the trainer’s room, took off his clothes and put him on a scale.
Martin had lost 35 pounds, down all the way to 180 on a 6-foot-5 frame. He always figured it was because of the extra conditioning and his distaste for the European food. The trainer spoke very little English, but he turned to Martin and stuck his pinky out, gesturing, Martin says, “like you came here big, now you’re very small.”
They ran some tests and told him it was just bronchitis. But Martin was suspicious when his teammates started praying for him, and the team put him and his wife and infant son on a plane back to the United States the next day.
Martin carried his baby boy as he walked through the door of his Indianapolis home and collapsed. He remembers stretching his arms out to drop the boy on the couch, saving the impact. His wife rushed him to the hospital, where they ran tests and X-rays. He’ll never forget the doctor’s voice.
“I don’t know if you’re going to live or die,” he said. “This is very serious.”
Two more weeks of tests, and the doctors diagnosed advanced non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He told almost no one, preferring to fight alone. He says telling his mother was the hardest thing he’s ever done, like he somehow let her down by getting cancer. Even Keady found out only after a nurse spread word about the tall patient who wasn’t doing well.
They put him in chemotherapy immediately, so the next 4 1/2 months are still kind of a blur. Martin had two tubes sticking out of his chest to save his arms from all the shots. He remembers going in for treatment and asking about other patients.
“They’re gone,” was too often the response.
Monday treatments were the worst. He usually had a week or two off after, so they turned up the machines and left Martin so weak he couldn’t make it up the stairs when he got home. He slept on the couch.
He remembers opening his eyes at times, watching his baby boy crawl, or try for his first steps. Then Martin would go back to sleep. His swagger was gone. The boy who beat the streets of East St. Louis and a doomsday knee gave up.
“You never like to say that,” he says. “But the reality is there was nothing left in me. There was a lot of prayer. I knew I couldn’t win that fight by myself.”
But Martin did beat the cancer, recovering enough that he returned to basketball and led his CBA team in scoring. He was set to play again in Italy when Keady called with an offer to be an assistant coach.
Martin accepted immediately.
A Livestrong bracelet pokes out from under Cuonzo Martin’s right sleeve as he points to where he wants Jermaine Mallett. Doctors tell Martin the chances of the disease coming back are small now, so his focus right now is basketball, just as he likes it.
The problem is that Martin wants Mallett to trap the ball-handler, and Mallett knows this, but comes up just a half-second too late. Martin stomps his foot.
“C’mon,” he shouts, before pumping his fist when the Bears get the stop anyway.
This is the up-and-down business of college coaching, especially coaching a program that needed as much help as Missouri State. Martin is proud of his team. They’re better than anybody expected — at least so far — but still only 70 percent of what he wants. He figures that last chunk of improvement will be equal parts athleticism, experience, and of course more toughness.
Even so, his team is 9-0 a season after winning just 11 times. Their next game is in St. Louis, just across the river from where Martin grew up and learned the toughness to beat the streets, a bad knee, and cancer.
If he can make it here, to coaching one of college basketball’s best stories, he dares you to think he can’t go even further.
“You can’t waver from tough,” he says. “Not where I’m from.”