Vahe Gregorian

Vahe Gregorian: Cuonzo Martin is right on time for Mizzou

If the University of Missouri had its way, Cuonzo Martin would have become MU’s basketball coach in 2011 after former Purdue teammate Matt Painter spurned the Tigers at the altar.

But amid the belief among some close to Painter that he would leave Purdue for Mizzou because of contractual and other issues there, Martin couldn’t be persuaded to idle in a figurative anteroom as the ante for him was going up after three seasons at Missouri State.

By the time Painter rejected Missouri, Martin said during a visit to The Star on Wednesday, “The train was already moving with Tennessee.”

Not so far down the tracks, though, that MU didn’t make another overture.

Even after Martin signed his memorandum of understanding with Tennessee, he was in a Houston airport during the Final Four when he took a call from a go-between not employed by MU who suggested an offer remained.

“Would you take it?’” he recalled being asked.

Then he was further nudged that surely he could get out of his deal with Tennessee: “ ‘They’ll talk about it for a week, (and then the talk) will be over.’ ”

All things being equal, Martin knew MU would have been a more sensible fit — particularly considering the connections he’d built between growing up in East St. Louis, Ill., and coaching in Springfield, Mo.

But honoring his word was imperative to Martin, who motioned straightforward as he told the story because that’s the only way his compass seems to point.

He wants to stand for integrity all the more acutely because of assumptions he believes people make about the harsh place he comes from, a place he likes to say he wears on his shoulder every day.

Moreover, living with no uncertainty about who he is became part of him since fighting cancer 20 years ago this fall, when doctors discovered a tumor about the size of a baseball in his chest and diagnosed advanced non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

At first, that was a “why me?” moment:

After enduring poverty and growing up without a father, and his mother working two jobs to make ends meet, and his brother going to prison, and seeing “stuff at 15 years old that only men should see” … and now cancer?

Then it became “why not me?” — albeit with coaxing from the religious faith of his mother, Sandra, during his months of treatment.

“It got to the point in my life where instead of running from the lion, I just felt like I needed to be the lion chaser;” said Martin, 45, who is in remission and last underwent a cancer treatment 19 years ago next month. “And if God needs to use me that way, then use me.”

He added, “Whenever hard times are presented to me (now), I embrace (them). ‘Thank you.’ ”

All of which maybe helps explain why two weeks ago MU at last became the right job at the right time for him — and perhaps the fit that Mizzou has been seeking and unable to get and hold on to since Norm Stewart retired 20 years ago.

For one thing, he took the job because of, not despite, the challenge of revitalizing the program.

Because Martin understands something about how his own outlook and background meshes with solving what he’s facing on and off the court.

As he started speaking of why he left the University of California after three seasons to return to the Midwest, he alluded not just to the appeal of the region where he spent most of his life but, in fact, to the racial strife on MU’s campus that erupted in the fall of 2015.

“That means you have the (diversity) on campus to have friction,” he said.

Meaning he knew even then there was something to build on in that controversial area.

Especially for someone who has made coaching his life’s work because he feels like he is “a builder of men,” somebody who wishes the world could look like the diversity he saw in the Bay Area — and who surely believes he can help heal the distrust and wounds that linger among many constituents of MU.

Admirable as that is, of course, he’s been hired to win games for a school that went 27-68 overall and 8-46 in Southeastern Conference play in three seasons under Kim Anderson before he was fired earlier this month.

Martin apparently already has made vast inroads toward that goal: Michael Porter Jr., who grew up in Columbia and became the top recruit in the nation, last week announced that he would play for Martin and his father, whom Martin hired as an assistant.

By NCAA rules, Martin can’t speak publicly about recruits before they sign their national letter of intent.

He also noted he was excited to build a relationship with C.J. Roberts, a 4-star combo guard who signed last fall with Anderson, and Martin hopes to convince to still come to MU.

Meanwhile, he has met with returning players, in whom he sees “great camaraderie,” and praised his predecessor for creating a foundation that makes him believe MU is not “that far off.”

Martin has also been a self-described “whirlwind,” largely around the state, working to strengthen long-time relationships and build fresh ones as he recruits and sort out the rest of his staff.

(And, yes, he would like to establish annual games in Kansas City and check out whether the rivalry with Kansas can be resumed one day.)

Busy as he’s staying, something he learned his first year at Missouri State is still with him into his fourth head coaching job (”God willing,” he said, “this is my final stop as a coach”).

He signed four players that year almost immediately … only to have all four gone within a year.

“So, slow down,” he said, “and gather yourself.”

If that sounds like a healthy perspective, Martin’s been working toward that one way or another all his life.

Having traveled the world plenty, including playing professionally in Italy when he fell ill, Martin won’t tell you he grew up poor.

“I know what poor looks like,” he said. “We didn’t have a lot of food, we didn’t have a lot of clothes. But we had a roof over our heads, (so) we weren’t poor.”

In the housing project he lived in, most of the kids had about the same means and family structure: He estimated about four in 200 homes had both mother and father living there.

“Growing up in it, it didn’t seem like tough times because that was my everyday world,” he said. “ … You’re just going; you’re just living.”

But he understood this:

His mother as of age 16 began raising four children on her own — starting with Martin’s older brother, Dale, who served 10 years in prison on drug-related charges but now owns his own barber shop.

His sister Valencia is an assistant principal and sister Jamikka teaches special education, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

All because their mother was a strong and determined woman, who forged in him a certain tenacity.

Managing cancer was another matter, which started with collapsing while playing in Italy and being sent home to hear this from a doctor:

“ ‘I don’t know if you’re going to die, but this is life-threatening.’ ”

He could only glance at his wife, Roberta, not wanting to make full eye contact.

Then he met it as directly as he could, motivated strongly by his then-4-month old son, Josh:

Martin prayed just to be allowed to see him turn 18 years old.

Josh is 19 now, and so Martin calls this “bonus” time.

For a bonus chance at the Mizzou job, as it turns out, this time as the choice from the start.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian