Cuonzo Martin Q&A: Part One
Cuonzo Martin's life - all 39 years, two careers, three countries and three universities of it - has been full of adjustments.
They range all the way from the transition of living in crime-riddled East St. Louis, Ill., to the relatively posh settings of West Lafayette, Ind.; to playing alongside an eventual No. 1 pick in the NBA draft and then leading the same team on his own to similar accolades; to living a life without cancer and living one as a cancer survivor.
The latest adjustment occurred Sunday, when Martin left a successful three-year run with Missouri State to take over as Tennessee's new men's basketball coach. It's one that Martin said he hopes is a final destination to a career that's stretched the map from Vancouver to Italy.
"He will push (UT) to that level to get them to understand that there's more they can be doing," said LaPhonso Ellis, who played 11 years in the NBA and also alongside Martin at Lincoln High School in East St. Louis.
"I'm not saying that because he's a personal friend; I'm saying that because I value his coaching experience, I value all that he's learned, I value his tactical approach to the game from both sides of the floor and I feel Tennessee has found a gem."
Ellis, now an ESPN college basketball color commentator, was the 6-foot-8 star in the middle at Lincoln, which won three consecutive Illinois state titles in the late 1980s.
Martin, though, was the leader, said Bennie Lewis, who coached the tandem.
"He was just so tough, followed instructions," Lewis said. "He took the guys and made sure everybody stayed together."
Lewis said he often field would calls from Martin on Sundays, the team's lone off day.
"He'd say, 'Coach, we've got nothing to do, why don't you come up to the gym?' " Lewis said. "As coaches, we would just sit and watch those guys practice, and they would go so hard against each other - we thought it looked like they hated each other."
Ellis, who went on to star at Notre Dame and was the fifth overall pick in the 1992 NBA draft, was the one blessed with all the height, raw athleticism and talent. Martin, Ellis said, was the one who had to figure out unique ways to get to the basket, constantly reinventing his style of play based on what the other team would let him do.
"He had the ball-handling ability to break you down and get to the rim, but he wasn't one of the guys that was going to dunk it on you on our team," Ellis said. "He had to come up with creative ways to beat people."
That creativity was elevated to a completely different level at Purdue, when Martin, once again, was sharing the court with a superstar. This time it was Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson, who was the first overall draft pick in the 1994 NBA draft after leading the Boilermakers to the Elite Eight.
Martin didn't struggle by any means in his first two years at Purdue, as he averaged nearly 12 points per game as a sophomore. But he wasn't slashing to the basket with the same ease as he could at Lincoln, a source of frustration that prompted Martin to spend hours in the gym honing a 3-point stroke that simply didn't exist through the first 20 years of his life.
After two years with the Boilermakers, Martin was 0-for-7 from beyond the arc. By the end of his career, he was Purdue's all-time leader with 179 3-pointers.
"Cuonzo was not only a good player, but he was one of the most popular players," said Larry Clisby, Purdue's longtime radio play-by-play announcer. "He just had a way about him and endeared himself to the masses."
Bill Rowe had heard all about those endearing qualities when, in 2008, he embarked on one of his final coaching searches as Missouri State's athletic director. He talked to Gene Keady, the legendary Purdue coach, Matt Painter, the current Purdue coach, and even longtime official Eddie Hightower to make sure Martin didn't "scream, cuss or raise hell" from the sidelines.
They all said the same thing. At 36 years old, Martin, who already had grown up in one of the toughest cities in America, played professionally in two countries, survived cancer and served as an assistant under Keady and Painter for a combined eight years, was more than capable of handling life as a head coach.
"He came in and did exactly what he planned . . . he went from the bottom to the top," Rowe said, referring to Martin's brief but productive time at Missouri State that resulted in the school's first postseason title in 2010 at the CollegeInsider.com Tournament and the first Missouri Valley Conference regular season championship in 2011.
"If I had been raised in East St. Louis, I don't know if I would be as good of a person as Cuonzo Martin."
That's where it all started for Martin, who grew up in a single-parent home with his mother, Sandra, one brother and two sisters. And that's where Martin constantly retreats to whenever he has the chance because "that's one of the reasons why I'm standing here today."
"The things you go through, the things you see and how it develops you into a person, I appreciate the fact and I applaud the fact that I'm from East St. Louis," Martin said. "I wear it with honor."