The grim East St. Louis, Ill., housing project in which Cuonzo Martin grew up was known as “The Hole.” Not knowing what he was missing when he was very young, though, he’ll say, “For me, it was like Beverly Hills.”
But his mother, Sandra, wanted him and his siblings to understand there was so much more beyond the poverty, violence, drugs and gangs that surrounded them.
So as she worked multiple jobs to raise four children, she’d also take them on simple but profound field trips a few times a year.
Since she didn’t have a car, they’d bus over to affluent St. Louis suburbs like Clayton and Chesterfield and visit open houses.
As they got their glimpses of what comfort looked like, every so often they might even lie down on a luxurious bed just to experience the sensation — even as people asked, “What are you doing?”
Martin laughed as he told the story on Wednesday night at The Kansas City Marriott, where he was the keynote speaker for “High Aspirations,” a mentoring organization for African-American males.
But it’s also an emotional tale for Martin, the first-year University of Missouri coach whose team opens the much-anticipated season against Iowa State on Nov. 10 in Columbia.
Because of what his mother was trying to establish:
“Dream big,” she’d tell them. “This can happen for you one day.”
Martin wanted to drive home the same point on Wednesday, so much so that he took off practice to be here.
“I owe it to (the youths) to give them everything I have,” he said.
As he spoke, his sincerity and strength and eloquence were as evident and compelling as his rich, deep voice.
It was easy to see how he can lead young men, and why you’d want him to, especially because he’s living testimony to the power of character to navigate adversity.
Beyond growing up in a tight-knit but perilous environment, one that doubtless was a factor in how his brother Dale spent 10 years in prison before straightening himself out, Martin also endured four knee operations and is a cancer survivor 20 years this month after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
“‘I don’t know if you’re going to die, but this is life-threatening,’” the doctor told him that night.
It was, he added, “a powerful, powerful thing to go through.”
So was listening to Martin on Wednesday.
Among the messages he delivered, tailored to the young men in the audience but telling of something more:
▪ “Your greatness is in the mirror,” he said, invoking a term his late grandmother used to use and that took him years to grasp.
▪ “Value your parents, value your moms, especially when you get a little older, little bigger … I can’t live without my mom to this day,” he said, then asking the audience to give a hand for all the mothers.
▪ Under the recurring theme of don’t give up, Martin offered a light version of that: his disappointment during the 1995 NBA Draft. As he waited to hear his name called, he was dismayed to hear the first syllable of his name called by the Los Angeles Clippers at No. 53 overall … only for them to have picked Constantin Popa. But the Atlanta Hawks selected him four picks later.
But the essence of a riveting talk that commanded the room was at the end.
“Everyone’s journey in life will have periods of adversity, sometimes one obstacle after another and also some changing events that will bring you to your knees,” he said. “You cannot allow them to force you to give up.
“Because some things in life will bring you to your knees. But you have to stand strong. …”
With no excuses.
“I think it’s an excuse when you say, ‘Well my dad wasn’t around,’” he said. “You still have an opportunity because you can control whatever it is you can control. You can control that. … Don’t make excuses. …
“The other thing is you are not defined by your failures or your mistakes but instead by how you behave during those times of adversity and despair. You can’t give up.”
Leaning again on the wisdom of his grandmother (with a dose of Friedrich Nietzsche), he added, “What doesn’t destroy you will only make you stronger, more resilient and make you a better person. IF you continue to fight. If you continue to fight.”
Then there was this important thought: He urged the youth not to let their gauge of success be a pat on the back, because not everyone wants to see you succeed and not everyone is encouraging and because you need to learn for yourself what is right and good.
“Because when you look in the mirror,” he said again, “there’s your greatness.”
He closed with this burst of four traits he holds important — and that make for mighty fine words to live by for anybody.
“You can have character – you can fight for your character,” he said. “Fight for a level of toughness, because you need that (to get through) hard times.
“Also have humility. Doesn’t matter where you come from, the level, stats, money, whatever you have — have a level of humility to you.
“And even in your bad days, have some compassion. Because somebody else is going through something too.”