Note: This story first appeared in The Kansas City Star on Jan. 13, 2008.
MIAMI | All Frank Martin wanted was a car.
Long before he would command big bucks as a Division I head coach, before he would cruise around Manhattan, Kan., in a black Mercedes, Martin rolled up to a suburban car dealership in South Florida hoping he could afford a Volkswagen.
He was barely 20, with little money in his pocket and less of an idea of what was going to happen next in life. His father -- the man he was named after -- had left the family when young Frank was 9, and things had been tough ever since. He had seen him only once in nearly 15 years.
On this day, there would be one more cruel twist.
Sitting down at a salesman’s desk in a busy showroom, Martin looked around casually.
Then he saw it. On the desk was a framed picture of his sister. His sister? His mind struggled to process the meaning. He looked closer, noticing another picture.
It was him.
Then the nameplate. This couldn’t be right. It read: Frank Martin. His father.
"He was trembling," says childhood friend Victor Rodriguez, who was with Martin that day. "He couldn’t talk. I’d never seen him like that."
Angry, almost irrational with emotion, Martin left without saying a word.
Frank Martin marches across the basketball court at Bramlage Coliseum, his limp pronounced, his voice rising. He’s thick around the waist and shorter than most of his players. He looks mad enough to start grabbing kids and tossing them around. And this is only practice.
"I don’t like this half-speed crap!" he screams. "I SAID I DON’T LIKE THIS HALF-SPEED STUFF! PLAY!!"
His players try again -- Michael Beasley, perhaps the best freshman in America, and Bill Walker, a 6-foot-7 specimen of talent and speed who just might be an NBA lottery pick.
"THAT’S WHAT HAPPENS!" Martin screams again. "THAT’S WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU PLAY!"
People think they know Frank Martin. They think they know him because they know how he got the Kansas State job: by Bob Huggins’ unexpected departure and the need to retain key recruits such as Beasley and Walker.
He’s a stopgap. A fire-breather. A first-timer whose future rises or falls on this season.
But the fact that Frank Martin stands on this court at all, leading a major-college basketball program, stems from something much more complicated than good timing and Bob Huggins.
"Our dad leaving was huge for Frank," says Lourdes O’Keefe, Martin’s sister. "What it did is create an interesting blend in my brother.
"It would make him all those things -- a good father, someone who cared about his players, a good son, someone trying to be a father figure to his players. My father’s departure made him aggressive and ambitious and loving and caring."
Those who know him will tell you that Frank Martin’s story really starts on that day when he was 9 years old.
It was 1975, and the Birchwoods apartment complex northwest of downtown Miami was nice and clean and larger than what the Martins were used to.
Palm trees rose above used but reliable cars. A small canal flowed near the chain-link fence that overlooked the Palmetto Expressway.
Frank’s mother and his younger sister got ready for another day. His father kissed his wife and left the house.
He never came back.
"After his father left, we had to move out," says Frank’s mom, Lourdes Perez Martin. "We moved into a very little two-bedroom apartment close to Miami High."
So started a new life. From his childhood until he moved out on his own, Frank lived in about 15 different homes, mostly in or around Little Havana.
"He never sent a dime," Frank says of his father. "My mother never asked him for a dime. She battled by herself and with the help of her brother, Joe, who’s been my father figure, and my grandmother, to support us."
These were the people left to raise Frank and his sister: Lourdes, who had only a high school education; his grandmother, who had never worked; and his uncle Joe, still a kid in high school. But all of them had to step up. All had to work, so much that they eventually stopped counting the hours.
"My mom never fought (my dad), never took him to court," Martin says. "She just said, ‘I gotta go figure out a way to raise my kids.’ That’s where I get my approach. I take the hand that’s dealt, and I work and try to figure out a way to make it happen."
So Martin was 9 years old, angry and hurt, and now the man of the house. He watched his mother cry often. Thirty-five years later, she still loves the man deeply, and because of that -- and because now her priority must be her children -- she’ll never love anyone again. That chance left when her husband did.
This moment, more than many others, molded Frank into the man he would become -- all of it, the good, the bad, the passion and the rage. The things people see and the things they don’t.
"That’s what made him the man he is," his mother says.
Through everything, there was always basketball. After his dad left, the game became an outlet.
"As long as I can remember, he’s been playing basketball," his sister says. "It’s a part of who he was: basketball fanatic."
Start with the courts near the Orange Bowl, near the glory of the Miami Dolphins and the promise sports holds and the decay of inner-city Miami. If you compete enough, if you work hard enough, the life that plays out under the lights and before the crowds can be yours.
"Frank was a bulldog," says Rodriguez, his lifelong friend. "Frank was overweight, with a big Afro, and we’d call him Ronald McDonald. But it didn’t matter. Frank liked to throw his weight around, his elbows."
So start at the courts near the Orange Bowl, and move on to the courts at a nearby elementary school, and later to those outside Miami Senior High School. See Frank compete with frantic energy and anger, banging bodies, shooting endlessly, sure he will make a life out of this game.
"It’s something that was very important to me," Martin says.
Just one small problem. Martin isn’t any good at basketball.
The Dairy Queen where he worked would often get robbed. Separated from the assailants only by black iron bars, Frank would always refuse to hand over the money, not sure when the bullets would come.
"Every week," Martin says, "people would come in to rob us. Every week. One guy, he came in every week. He had his hands in his pockets and he’d say, ‘Give me your money.’ "
These were tough hands dealt, even for tough young Frank Martin. He was a child in an adult world, just trying to help support his family.
There were so many jobs in those days. He washed pots and pans, sold newspaper subscriptions and even learned to hustle pool a little on the side. He can’t even remember all the jobs now.
The Dairy Queen was just another of them. Small and cramped, the store had a night manager with a simple business plan: Hire a desperate kid. Leave him alone to run the place. Swing by at the end of the night for the money.
"That Dairy Queen was not in an ideal spot," Rodriguez says. "You’d walk over there, and there’d be just clouds of smoke from marijuana."
At night, after refusing those men with guns, the kid left the relative safety of the iron bars, got back on his bike and, through the dark, pedaled the four miles to his home. There, he’d begin to study. Sleep waited.
"We were poor," Rodriguez says. "That’s our motivation. We were afraid to fail. That fear has been a great motivator for us. We come from fear."
That fear pushed him to stay on the basketball court, throwing elbows into better players’ ribs, throwing his weight against bigger boys. This afforded him a chance to play high school basketball and -- his dream -- college ball.
But he was not good enough.
"I never got in a game in high school," Martin says, without a hint of regret. "After high school, my high school coach said to me, ‘I can get you a scholarship to the University of Florida to be a manager.’ "
This is where the story should turn. Where Martin, nearing the end of high school, having worked more hours than most 30-year-olds, should see things clearly. He didn’t.
"I didn’t want to do that," he says. "I wanted to play. So I went to Miami Dade College and paid my own way. I took morning classes, held a job at a bank. I was doing all that trying to make the team there."
He didn’t. He was not good at basketball. Really. He stayed anyway, hoping to make the team his sophomore year. He didn’t.
"In December, they had about eight players flunk off the team, so they had an emergency tryout," Martin says.
Finally, a sure thing.
They were so desperate, they’d take anyone. Martin tried out. He felt confident while he waited for word. But the following Sunday afternoon, at a pickup game at Miami Senior High School, he blew out his knee.
Playing basketball -- just hoping to play basketball -- slipped away through the surgeries and pain. All that remained is a limp, one he’ll have the rest of his life.
And so Martin found himself in this place: no school, no career, no choices. He sat alone at home, wondering whether everything he’d worked for had led nowhere. One phone call would change everything.
It was 1985, and Frank was 19, still lost, when the phone rang. His old high school basketball coach, the one who never put him in a single game, said, "Come help with the JV team."
Frank had never coached. He knew nothing about coaching. He said yes.
Just after he agreed, the JV coach left. Which made Martin the JV coach.
"That’s how I started my coaching career," he says.
Once again, the man his father made him came through. Martin cared so much for the high school kids, he’d coach in the area for the next 15 years. He became frantically involved in their lives. Are you studying? How are you getting to practice? What are your plans for the future? Are you happy? Are you OK?
And yet ...
He yelled at them, screamed, bullied and pounced and demanded from them every last thing they possessed. He became so animated, friends sat behind him at games just to listen to the things that came out of his mouth, Rodriguez says.
"All I knew was if I could scare them, that they’d be more inclined to compete," Martin says.
This goes back to his father. Always, again and again, it goes back to his father and that day.
"Having him leave Frank at a young age gave him the ying and the yang," his sister says.
The ying is Frank obsessing over basketball, staying up all night to study tape, turning down friends’ invitations to go to clubs on South Beach and still being awake, studying that tape, when they return around sunup. It’s being a father figure to kids like him, kids without dads.
The yang becomes letting the anger pour out of you, loving these kids but needing them to win, so you and they can be something. The yang means banking on fear -- the same kind that drove him.
Which is why, when his father appeared behind the bench at one of Frank’s games -- the first contact between father and son since the father had left and three years before that chance encounter at a car dealership -- Frank did not look at him twice. Or talk to him. Or agree to see him.
There was already too much of his father in his head.
"My dad never gave us any of himself," Martin says. "And we decided we wouldn’t give him any of ourselves, either."
Then basketball went bad.
After so much success in Miami -- eight years as Miami Senior’s JV coach, three years as the head coach at North Miami Senior High, those years from 1995 to 1999 as head coach at Miami Senior, where he won three consecutive state titles and posted a 102-10 record -- came the fall.
There were questions about rules violations surrounding the recruitment of players to the school. The Florida High School Activities Association called it one of the most blatant violations in state history. Martin maintained that he did nothing wrong, but he and the athletic director were fired. Martin was 33.
After a short stay as a coach at Booker T. Washington Truancy Program, Martin left in 2000 to become an assistant basketball coach at Northeastern University in Boston. In 2004, Huggins hired him at Cincinnati. When Huggins moved to Kansas State in 2006, Martin came with him.
"Everything that happened, it wasn’t fair," his mother says. "But it was a blessing."
Then, like that day years ago, things went crazy. One day, Huggins was the man in Manhattan. The next, he was gone to West Virginia.
There were questions, a feeling that promises had been broken, and people were angry, hurt. And there was another question: What now for Huggins’ prized recruiting class, the one that was supposed to pull Kansas State out of its malaise and to the pinnacle of college basketball?
For once, Martin was standing in the right place at the right time. He was the solution and suddenly the head coach at Kansas State.
Frank Martin’s mother sits in a booth at a restaurant near her home in Miami. She is 62, a short Cuban woman with kind eyes and a grandmother’s voice. She wants to tell you about Frank. About how good he is, how loving, how faithful. This she can do.
"People don’t know," she says. "He loves his kids."
She relates how Frank has three beautiful children and how he’s the father his dad never was. She wants people to know that he’s learned from all this, that he’s applying his life lessons to fatherhood.
In some ways, that was the easy part. Forgiving and forgetting has been harder. Recently, his father’s family e-mailed him to make contact. He didn’t respond, and it’s clear that some bitterness remains. That’s part of who he is -- an expression of the ying and yang within him.
"I am so proud of him," his mother says. She stops to cry. "So proud." Pauses. "What he’s done ..."
There’s still much to do. After Saturday’s win at Oklahoma, K-State will have to continue playing some strong basketball to realize the dream of Martin’s team and Wildcat fans. Experts believe they’ll have to go at least 9-6 through the rest of Big 12 play -- maybe even 11-4 -- to be a near lock for the NCAA Tournament.
But that’s the future. Frank’s mother is still thinking about the past.
Earlier this season, when she and Frank’s childhood friends arrived in Manhattan for his first game, Lourdes sat in the bleachers, waiting, barely able to breathe.
As a high school coach, Frank always looked for her in the crowd. Each time, when he found his mom, he gave her a thumbs-up. It was their private message. It meant, "We made it."
So she sat in Bramlage, waiting for the game to start, thinking about everything he’d gone through to get here. Then Frank walked in, the crowd started cheering, his friends hollered and she just smiled.
For that moment, it didn’t matter what anyone else thought. The second-guessing, the questions, his passion and temper, the expectations, those remain -- all that could be discussed later.
For that moment, Frank Martin searched the crowd for his mother. Their eyes locked. The tears came. Smiling at her, he raised his thumb.
To reach Bill Reiter, sports reporter for The Star, send e-mail to email@example.com