CHATTANOOGA — As youngsters from kindergarten to sixth grade arched their necks upward toward the Baylor School rafters for instructions on Monday, Cuonzo Martin remembered back when he had to look up.
"I was always in awe of them," the University of Tennessee men's basketball coach said. "I identified with those older guys. If I didn't know their name, I knew their number. ... I wanted to be a part of that."
Growing up in East St. Louis in the 1970s, Martin idolized the high school ball players on the neighborhood blacktops. He didn't have the luxury of a Division I program setting up shop and conducting a clinic.
The wide-eyed youth at Baylor were given exactly that Monday. Approximately 60 children from the Chattanooga area worked for two hours alongside Martin, members of his coaching staff and a handful of UT players including Skylar McBee and Kenny Hall.
Drills were run. Fun was had.
"We're here to give back to the state of Tennessee," said Hall, a rising senior.
Monday marked the first of four camps dubbed the Volunteer SHOT Clinics (Statewide Hoops Outreach Tour). Martin says it's a chance for his basketball program to offer instruction and life lessons to children statewide.
On the surface, it's exactly that.
Peel back the tarp, though, and SHOT is a building block in Martin's long-term goals. Ultimately, his end game is to make himself the face of Tennessee basketball and fortify all angles of the Tennessee basketball brand.
"I think for us to take this a step further when it comes to men's basketball, the brand of Cuonzo Martin, of Tennessee basketball, or whatever that brand is, needs to be strong," Martin said. "It's really a lifestyle, day to day, of who I am. I think
the fans and the supporters identify with that and embrace it."
Martin's next clinic is scheduled for Wednesday in Nashville. Two more will follow in Greeneville on Friday and Memphis on June 27.
After a year as UT coach, Martin is battling to paint the edges of the state orange. Any program wanting to pull a recruit out of the state will have to go through UT first — a luxury long enjoyed by the University of Memphis inside its city limits.
That changed last season when freshman Jarnell Stokes cast aside Memphis allegiances and signed with the Vols.
If that was the first domino in Martin taking ownership of the state, it was a big one. He believes grassroots efforts like SHOT will nudge over some more.
"The most important thing is relationships and here we have 60 or so kids that want to be a part of our program," Martin said. "This is how it starts."
Amid a sea of boys draped in oversized UT basketball T-shirts, Mark Pancratz, the team's video coordinator, asked, "What did you learn during those drills?"
A high-pitch voice rang out, "The backboard is your friend."
Standing off to the side, Hall responded with two thumbs up.
"Yeah," he exclaimed, "that's what I taught him."
After the clinic wrapped up, Hall said players can have role models at any age. He hopes the campers look up to him the way he looks up to Boston Celtics star player Kevin Garnett.
"Kids want to look up to players and I want them to look up to me," said Hall, whose 6-foot-9 frame towered over the campers. "We can teach them. We can help them."
Asked how he wants young players in the state to view him, Martin offered this hypothetical response from a player, "I want to play for Coach Martin. I want to be in that program. I like what those guys are about."
Pointing out to the court covered in screeching sneakers, he added, "We want these guys to be a part of the Tennessee brand."
After the camp, Martin signed an autograph and posed for a picture with each camper. All of them looked up at him.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/BFQuinn