Twenty years ago this fall, Cuonzo Martin was playing professional basketball in Italy as his 26-year-old body abruptly and mysteriously started betraying him.
With precipitous weight loss came such a struggle to breathe that he felt “like a hunchback” running down the court, he told me in 1998.
For a while before he collapsed on the court, they wondered if it was bronchitis or an ulcer or maybe even the change in food.
But by the time he returned to Indianapolis at Thanksgiving to be examined, he was throwing up blood daily and suffering chest pains that rendered him almost inaudible: Mere feet ahead of him at the airport, for instance, his wife, Roberta, couldn’t hear him asking her to slow down.
They found a softball-sized mass between his chest and lungs, and fluid had gathered around the heart that had been his signature coming out of the despair of East St. Louis and having three knee surgeries and willing himself to be Purdue’s best defender and then-career 3-point percentage leader (.451).
More heart, Purdue coach Gene Keady once said, than any player he’d ever coached.
Heart that defines him still, 20 years later as he prepares for his first season coaching at Missouri as a survivor of advanced non-Hodgkin lymphoma, an aggressive cancer that can rapidly spread through the body.
At first, he thought, “If I have to die, let me die in my sleep. Because I don’t want my family to see me die.”
Then, for a flicker, he thought, “why me?” until his mother, Sandra, convinced him that he’s no exception to the rule that “cancer knocks on everybody’s door.”
Then he came to his biggest reason to take on the fight of, and for, his life: His wife and then 4-month-old baby, Joshua.
“Instead of running from the lion,” he came to feel, “I just felt like I needed to be the lion chaser.”
A few months later, through surgery and chemotherapy and the port in his chest and losing 40 pounds (and his eyebrows and trademark goatee), and using all the energy he had just to get up his stairs at home, Martin was in remission.
He has been ever since April 20, 1998.
But 20 years ago is never far from his thoughts — or from informing his outlook and persona as a man and a coach.
“Without a doubt, because it’s real,” he said at the recent Coaches vs. Cancer season tipoff at Bartle Hall. “Every day I look in the mirror, I see it. I see the scars … It’s a reality.”
A reality he knows could have played out differently.
He still calls this “bonus time” in his life, and he knows in a deeply personal way how important it is to contribute to the cause.
“If somebody didn’t raise funds 20 or 30 years ago,” he said, “then I probably wouldn’t be here today.”
He still thinks about the 20 people who were in the oncologist’s office beginning treatment around the time he did. When he went in for his last treatment, he said, “There were seven people who were in there when I started, and most of the ones who weren’t in there didn’t make it.
“So you don’t take those things for granted.”
So it’s also probably no coincidence that when you ask him about the keys to his much-anticipated first season at MU, with a star-studded first recruiting class highlighted by the nation’s most coveted freshman, Michael Porter Jr., Martin says this:
“I think the biggest key for us is how you deal with adversity,” he said. “How you deal with tough times.”
It’s also perhaps no coincidence that Martin has a no-nonsense demeanor, one that can be daunting until you get to know him.
When he was asked if had any concerns about compliance issues in his program after news of the FBI probe of college basketball broke a few weeks ago, he said, “I am compliance.”
“Probably the toughest coach I’ve ever played for,” Porter said a few weeks ago. “He holds me accountable. He doesn’t let me get away with anything. And he’s getting me better and better. I mean, I’m a completely different player than I was when I walked through the doors.”
Said Porter’s brother, Jontay: “When I first met him, I was, like, intimidated; I was kind of scared. But I’ve gotten to know him as a dude. He’s a really nice dude. Really cool. On the court, really serious, but I think that’s perfect for our team.”
The broader “dude,” and his desire to give back, is why Martin will make for an excellent keynote speaker for the “High Aspirations” 2017 Mentors Challenge dinner on Nov. 1 at the Kansas City Marriott.
“His intelligence is ridiculous,” Jontay Porter said. “He thinks about everything. When you have a conversation with him, you can tell he’s deeply thinking about things. Whatever he says, you better listen, because his insight is great.”
Martin won’t say having had cancer, a word he still resists saying, makes him a better coach.
But he does believe it makes him a better person.
“It helps you understand in those bad days, those tough days, that there’s something else that you can be going through that’s not very nice,” he said.
Not that he wasn’t grounded to begin with.
Martin grew up in a housing project without much food or many clothes, but he didn’t consider himself poor because he had a roof over his head.
His mother, Sandra, raised four children on her own. He saw “stuff at 15 years old that only men should see,” he said when he visited The Star a few months ago.
But his mother and Lincoln High coach Bennie Lewis somehow stabilized everything for him.
That included steering him away from college recruiters offering extra incentives, he said, to prioritize his integrity and education.
“That’s why I say today, ‘There is a God,’” he said. “Because when you’re 18 years old, growing up in that environment, when you’ve heard other stuff coming from other programs — man, we could really use this — to be able to pass on those types of opportunities … that just speaks volumes about her.”
Kansas State coach Bruce Weber at the time was a Purdue assistant and recruited Martin, and he believes Martin’s Purdue career in some ways spoke to the determination that steeled his resolve against cancer.
For instance, Weber recalled the Purdue trainer saying that Martin would never be able to play more than 20 minutes a game because of his knees.
Martin averaged 30-minutes plus his last three seasons — never mind if the only time Weber recalls him being able to dunk was in an exhibition game in England on an undersized rim.
And after Martin missed the only seven 3-point attempts he tried his first two seasons, Weber remembered Keady colorfully telling him never to shoot another 3-pointer.
Martin worked tirelessly to improve from outside the arc. He hit 179 of 390 his last two seasons, including eight of 13 in Purdue’s 83-78 NCAA Tournament victory over Kansas in 1994.
“Cuonzo took it as a challenge,” Weber recalled at Big 12 media day, adding, “When people say he can’t do something, that’s when he gets the toughest.”
Weber still remembers being in the Purdue offices in December 1997 when he got a call from Martin, surprised he was home from Italy.
“He said, ‘Coach, I’m in bad shape,’” Weber recalled.
It’s funny how things work out, though.
Coming home led to Martin going back to school to finish his degree and becoming an assistant coach at West Lafayette High and starting under Keady as “assistant weight coach, or whatever,” as Weber put it. He had found his place in life.
“He has values and he cares about people and helping them,” Weber said. “And you can’t have a tougher dude. I mean, that guy’s tough. He’s a survivor, and he’s going to keep battling and fighting.”
And now he’s on his fourth collegiate head-coaching job, going from Missouri State to Tennessee to California with a 186-121 record — and a Sweet 16 appearance with the Volunteers — as he tries to rejuvenate a Mizzou program that went 8-46 in Southeastern Conference play the last three seasons.
That work is clarified and energized by a past that’s always with him — and an appreciation of every minute of every day, even 20 years later.
“Those things,” he said, “I don’t take for granted.”