Vahe Gregorian

Why Mizzou men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin loves being from East St. Louis

Cuonzo Martin: Times have changed in his old East St. Louis neighborhood

In front of his childhood apartment, Missouri Tigers men's basketball coach Cuonzo Martin talks about how things have changed in his old neighborhood.
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In front of his childhood apartment, Missouri Tigers men's basketball coach Cuonzo Martin talks about how things have changed in his old neighborhood.

By now, perhaps you know Cuonzo Martin grew up in a housing project known as “The Hole.” And maybe you know it was infested with drug dealers and roaches and other hazards and splotched with broken windows and boarded-up apartments.

You might also know about how his mother, Sandra, toiled at numerous jobs to provide for her four children. And how even without owning a car, she occasionally took them via buses to gorgeous homes for sale in affluent St. Louis suburbs.

“‘I just want you to see what you can have,’ ” she would tell them, stressing the hard work it would take.

What you might not know is that Martin’s housing was called The Hole less because of the gloom the term implies but because the complex sits at a slight downward angle — and that Martin wouldn’t have had the childhood that forged him any other way.

What you might not know is that this says everything about him.

“The things that I had to go through, they were tough. But they built the fibers of toughness to help me get through it so now I can handle any obstacles,” Martin, the second-year University of Missouri basketball coach, recently said as he approached his old neighborhood. “If anybody would give you a choice (instead) to grow up in a $20 million mansion and have somebody waiting on me head to toe and a chef and travel all over the world, nice cars, I think most would say, ‘I like that lifestyle.’

“But for me, I can truly say I enjoyed how I grew up. Because there is a testimony in that journey where you can help somebody else.”

Going back, giving back

So Martin and his staff, including childhood friend Marco Harris, went to East St. Louis the other day to conduct a free clinic at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center, where he was greeted with a hug and the ever-radiant smile of its namesake.

That was one of several such sessions they conducted in the region over a three-day period, including one at The Boys and Girls Club of Greater Kansas City.

But it surely was the most meaningful for Martin, whose audience included East St. Louis mayor Emeka Jackson-Hicks, Martin’s mother, his sister Valencia and a major father figure in Norman Stevens — Harris’ father.

Olympic great Jackie Joyner-Kersee of East St. Louis speaks about fellow East St. Louis native, and Mizzou men's basketball coach, Cuonzo Martin.

This is where Martin funnels the work of a charity he started with Harris and other friends, Bonded Together. And being an easy drive from here is part of the appeal of Mizzou for Martin, who 20 summers ago — before he entered into coaching — held a weeklong clinic in his hometown even as he was recovering from treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

“These are the things he was doing as a youngster, not looking for anything in return,” said Joyner-Kersee, the three-time Olympic gold medalist who considers herself a “big sister” to Martin and admires his “pay it forward” mindset.

Patty Leake, who worked for years in the school system and has known Martin since childhood, started to tear up as she considered the meaning of his presence here: “ ‘I grew up here, and I am now over here, and if it happened to me, then it can happen to you.’ ”

Indeed, as with JJK, appearing here makes him less of a vague figurehead than someone kids can reach out and touch that signifies tangible hope.

For more living proof, Mizzou sophomore-to-be Jeremiah Tilmon, an East St. Louis native, came by and took part in a Q-and-A session with Martin before the 40-plus campers — many of whom were riveted to every word.

Mizzou men's basketball coach Cuonzo Martin conducts a Q&A with MU sophomore Jeremiah Tilmon at a clinic in East St. Louis. Each is a native of East St. Louis.

That dovetailed nicely with the fliers Martin’s staff handed out emphasizing the importance of being trustworthy, treating others as you’d want to be treated and learning to contend with adversity. Sure, they went through some drills and learned some fundamentals, but basketball was just a vehicle for Martin to “pour into” kids he urged to be extraordinary.

“Everyone know what ‘extraordinary’ means?” he told them. “You’re special. It’s a beautiful thing.”

‘The sun is shining’

Iron-willed mother, loving family and coaches and friends notwithstanding, Martin’s extraordinary path from poverty to a playing career at Purdue to coaching success and credibility as a role model largely reflects his own resilient and resourceful perspective.

That’s evident in how he contended with multiple knee injuries and all the more so for how he took on cancer 20 years ago and processes it to this day at his fourth head coaching stop after Missouri State, Tennessee and California. Even in remission, it’s something he thinks of every morning as he looks in the mirror at his scars and appreciates “bonus time” with his wife, Roberta, and children Joshua, Chase and Addison.

He knows he’s mortal, but he knows this, too: So much can go wrong in life, but “it’s like if I’m worrying about all that stuff every day, I’m not even living.”

So the devout Christian doesn’t kid himself that Mizzou basketball wouldn’t somehow go on without him, doesn’t walk around thinking somebody owes him something.

Instead, he thinks about things like what he heard on a podcast a while back, about striving to live a life where anything you might say could be your last words and being accountable to always do the right things.

“That’s hard to do,” he said, smiling. “I’d like to grow up to be that one day.”

Meanwhile, he appreciates ... everything.

“Like this right here — the sun shining,” he said as Harris drove back to Columbia. “Aw, man, it’s beautiful.”

Just like he thinks of a childhood marked not by what they didn’t have but what they made it into.

‘He had a plan’

As he arrived in his old neighborhood this day, Martin lamented what it’s become. Now, it’s like a ghost town where guns are so prevalent he urges caution and moving on fast in the few minutes spent there. (On the way here, in fact, Harris and Martin drove by a cordoned-off scene in downtown East St. Louis they knew was trouble and later learned was the site of a murder.)

It’s not the idyllic place he remembers in his mind’s eye, a place where you had to be aware of your surroundings but could maneuver. A place where they always had food and clothes and a code of order — thorny as it might be — just before the “dust kicked up” and gangs and drugs started to seize hold.

This was where Martin and Harris and friends played football in the street, where if you dropped a pass you might find yourself body-slammed or in a figure-four leg-lock from the quarterback/wrestling aficionado.

This is where they’d wade in the muddy water that would flood one end of the complex, near where they’d all play corkball and four-square and many other makeshift competitions.

“We made up all kind of crazy games,” said Harris, with whom Martin often stayed when Harris later moved into a duplex a few blocks away.

Some were less hospitable than others, such as “chase” — in which older kids would try to catch them and give them a pounding in the arms and legs and perhaps chest if they found them.

You could hide blocks away, or in the tall weeds behind the projects, but you couldn’t leave without paying the consequences once caught.

“You can’t be soft,” Martin said, adding, “All those things that they did to us, they really taught us a lot. You talk about toughness, fighting through, not complaining, not making excuses.”

Some of that abiding attitude was imprinted by piercing experiences they’d rather not elaborate on publicly anymore.

Suffice to say, they lost friends and family members and witnessed dead bodies and once felt bullets so close that Harris said he could feel particles disintegrating.

Which doesn’t change the essence of how they view home.

“Rugged and rough,” Harris called it, “but it was still all love.”

Meanwhile, whatever was swirling around him, Sandra Martin said, her second son was “always serious, even as a little person.”

“He had a plan,” said Sandra Martin, who now works for American Airlines, recalling how he’d dribble a basketball in the house for hours.

That focus speaks to how Martin and Harris avoided becoming entangled in the drug culture. In fact, they often felt protected by dealers.

For a long time, Martin also felt protected by older brother Dale, who, alas, later spent 10 years in prison on drug-related charges before turning his life around and becoming a barber.

In fact, the prevailing direction of the family is giving back. Martin’s sister Valencia is the director of the teacher and school leader program for the East St. Louis School District, and sister Jamikka is a special education teacher.

“They have a passion for it,” said Martin, whose also has a half-sister, Ebony, and notes his decent relationship with his father, Pete Whittier. “They feel bad days when kids have bad days. That’s a good thing.”

Standing in front of an apartment building in which he lived as a child, the Mizzou men’s basketball coach sees his upbringing in East St. Louis as a point of pride as well as a source of empathy for those living there now. Vahe Gregorian

That sense of empathy helps define Martin and explains a lot about what he is doing in coaching and seeks most to get out of it.

The job is what he does, not who he is, though in many ways he has merged those together. And who he is is a lot about where he’s from — a world you can’t comprehend unless you’ve lived it.

That includes the deep feeling of pride in emerging from East St. Louis but never leaving in spirit.

Because he wants others to see what they can have, too.

“I always made it clear, wherever I went, that I’m East St. Louis, through and through,” he said, later adding, “I don’t get a lot of joy in knowing God has provided for me and left so many kids where I grew up struggling.

“When we give back to these kids, that’s for my soul.”