Dreaming big: Cuonzo Martin's mother provided plenty of incentive

'Tao of Sandra' gave Martin plenty of incentive

Brendan Quinn/News Sentinel
Tennessee men's basketball coach Cuonzo Martin rides on a boat with his mother, Sandra, on Aug. 14 in Lake Como, Italy, during the team's Italy exhibition tour. Growing up, Martin's mother placed in him the desire to fight to escape from a tough area in East St. Louis and follow his dreams. While the outside world was tough for Martin growing up, inside his home was filled with love created by Sandra.

Brendan Quinn/News Sentinel Tennessee men's basketball coach Cuonzo Martin rides on a boat with his mother, Sandra, on Aug. 14 in Lake Como, Italy, during the team's Italy exhibition tour. Growing up, Martin's mother placed in him the desire to fight to escape from a tough area in East St. Louis and follow his dreams. While the outside world was tough for Martin growing up, inside his home was filled with love created by Sandra.

Cuonzo Martin speaks to reporters during a news conference, Monday, March 28, 2011, in Knoxville, Tenn., after being named the new men's head basketball coach at the University of Tennessee replacing Bruce Pearl. Martin was head coach at Missouri State, an assistant at Purdue and a college basketball player.

Photo by Wade Payne

Cuonzo Martin speaks to reporters during a news conference, Monday, March 28, 2011, in Knoxville, Tenn., after being named the new men's head basketball coach at the University of Tennessee replacing Bruce Pearl. Martin was head coach at Missouri State, an assistant at Purdue and a college basketball player.

Dropping down into the mattress, Cuonzo Martin exhales.

"Ahhhhh."

He spreads out like a starfish.

Quizzical strangers peer in the room, eyeing the 10-year-old and his brother and sister making themselves at home.

The "For Sale" sign outside the house reads seven figures. Stiff-collared husbands and dolled-up wives stroll the hallways. They consider buying.

Then there is Sandra Martin. The single mother is hoping Cuonzo, Dale and Jamikka are buying her sales pitch.

"You can live someplace like this one day," she says to the three. "You have to dream big."

It's a long walk from the open house to the nearest bus stop. The 45-minute ride is longer. Flashing by the window, the plush front lawns of Chesterfield, a to-do St. Louis neighborhood, disappear. Crossing the Eads Bridge, the Mississippi River flashes past, running all the way to the horizon.

Entering East St. Louis, reality reappears.

Destitution and drugs. Grime and guns. Windows hammered shut with splintering plywood. Hopeless faces lost to the streets.

Hopping off the bus near North 10th Street, the Martins stroll along together. The St. Louis Gateway Arch hovers over the western sky.

Walking into the Norman E. Owens Housing Project, the Martins file into a cramped apartment.

The Section 8 housing is known to the neighborhood as "The Hole." No one knows why, but the name fits.

The American dream

A picture of Cuonzo and Roberta Martin posing with their three children might as well come with the frame.

Chad greene/special to the news sentinel
Cuonzo Martin, center, sits next to his family during his introduction as the new Tennessee men's basketball coach on Monday, March 28, 2010.

Photo by Chad Greene

Chad greene/special to the news sentinel Cuonzo Martin, center, sits next to his family during his introduction as the new Tennessee men's basketball coach on Monday, March 28, 2010.

One currently hangs in the corner office — the University of Tennessee basketball coach's office.

It's the type of picture that melts Sandra Martin.

"The American dream," she said, "and it doesn't happen to anybody. What you put in is what you get back."

Cuonzo Martin's dream was fostered by all those weekend bus rides.

"We'd go to those open houses all the time," he said. "I remember it to this day."

East St. Louis doesn't concede to dreams. It eats them. It chews them. It spits them out.

Sandra Martin stood up to East St. Louis.

And because of that, Cuonzo Martin walked out of the shadows of his old neighborhood, went to Purdue University, met his would-be wife, earned his college degree, played professional basketball, beat cancer, is raising three talented children, became an up-and-coming basketball coach at Missouri State and now, all these years later, holds a multi-million dollar contract as the coach of the Vols.

His face is on billboards.

His name is on the corner office.

His house? Even the folks in Chesterville might be jealous.

"Nothing was in concrete, but I knew I had to be successful because ultimately in the back of my mind it was how can I make my mom happy," Cuonzo Martin said. "At the end of the day, that was it. I knew I didn't want to get caught up in the streets and that lifestyle. I had to keep pushing.

"There were a lot of prayers and a lot of people hovering over me, keeping me out of certain situations. I put myself in some compromising situations growing up and was probably in some areas where I shouldn't have been, but I was able to get out of there."

It wasn't easy.

Wear it on my sleeve

Cuonzo Martin has a knack for intertwining life lessons and prudent credos into everyday conversations.

Ask him how his day is.

"Any day above ground is better than under it," he'll say.

Talk to Sandra Martin and it becomes glaringly clear where he gets it from.

Dale, her oldest child; Cuonzo, the second oldest, Jamikka, a cousin adopted so early she might as well be her daughter; and Valencia, the baby of the four; grew up with it. They couldn't avoid the Tao of Sandra.

Cuonzo Martin closes his eyes during his introduction as the new University of Tennessee men's basketball coach on Monday, March 28, 2010.

Photo by Chad Greene

Cuonzo Martin closes his eyes during his introduction as the new University of Tennessee men's basketball coach on Monday, March 28, 2010.

"When you're in the wilderness, you have to have that deep desire to get out," she'd say.

The wilderness was East St. Louis and a constant theme in the Martin household was that greatness can come from East St. Louis as long as you work and believe.

That's what she would tell the kids on those nights when they'd climb into beds at the Mayfair Hotel in downtown St. Louis. They were too young to stay in the apartment without a babysitter. So Sandra would tuck them in and slip out after eyes fell shut. They'd sleep while she cleaned the hotel, clocking in for the late shift after working during the day as a bartender at The Celebrity Room, a local bar.

Young Cuonzo grew up quickly. Around seventh grade his focus shifted from baseball to basketball. Talent on the court soon materialized.

Suddenly he was a somebody.

Two types of people got respect in East St. Louis — those with wads of bills and those with loads of talent. Cuonzo Martin had the latter, which meant the former kept an eye out for him.

The 20-block walk from "The Hole" to Lincoln High School meandered through different projects. Cuonzo Martin knew which streets to duck and which alleys to dodge, but didn't do so out of fear. He did so because it was his neighborhood and that's the way it was.

"For me it's a great place and I still identify with it and I wear it on my sleeve," he says to this day.

As Cuonzo Martin became a star on the floor — teaming with LaPhonso Ellis to lead now-defunct Lincoln to back-to-back Illinois state championships — it wasn't acknowledged at home. Mom didn't talk about it. Neither did he. A bum knee always loomed.

The first surgery on Cuonzo Martin's degenerative knee came in ninth grade. It grew worse. Following a second surgery after his senior year, a doctor told him the arthritis in his knee was that of an 80-year-old man. No one was banking on riches of an NBA career.

Cuonzo Martin understood what reality looked like and it was this: No NBA meant no exit strategy out of East St. Louis, no exit strategy meant getting sucked into the streets.

That was all too easy.

Dale Martin got sucked in. Ended up losing nearly 11 years of freedom for it. Thankfully he didn't have to serve the full 21-to-55 year sentence he received on drug charges.

Nowadays he runs a barbershop and authored a book, "A Story For Real," about his time in prison. In it he writes, "I realized that I had been in prison long before I made it to the tangible walls."

As for Jamikka and Valencia, Sandra Martin brags on them as much as she does Cuonzo. Both have their masters in education. Both are teachers.

"I told all my kids that dreams are real," Sandra said. "I'm sure back then they'd say, 'I just wish mamma would stop talking and talking.' But I kept talking because I knew there was a better life for them — a comfortable life, a good life."

Do the right thing

Cuonzo Martin couldn't slow down his mind on the night of March 5, 2011 — the eve of the Missouri Valley Conference championship game in St. Louis between Missouri State and Indiana State.

The Missouri State coach sat down with his sister, Valencia.

The two agreed. Valencia would go to dad's place. She'd give him a ticket to the game. She'd tell him it's his last chance.

Growing up, Cuonzo saw Pete Whittier in spurts. A little bit in seventh and eighth grade. A little bit in high school.

As an adult, Cuonzo hadn't seen Pete in about three years when he introduced him to his grandson, Joshua, in 1997. Five more years passed when Cuonzo returned to introduce his dad to another grandson, 1-year-old Chase. Baby Addison came five years later, in 2007.

So on the night before the biggest game of his coaching career, Cuonzo decided to give Pete an opportunity to do the right thing.

He showed up.

Missouri State lost, but the Martins won.

Cuonzo and Pete have been working on a relationship ever since.

"There was never any hate there — I never hated my dad, my mom didn't raise us that way," Cuonzo Martin said. "It wasn't an ultimatum or anything. In life if you love somebody, you want them to love you back. It's a two-way street."

Father and son are speaking again. Progress is being made, slowly.

"Some questions are best left unanswered," Cuonzo Martin said. "Sometimes you don't want to know the answer, you don't need to know the answer. You just keep moving. Time passes."

Pete or no Pete, Sandra Martin emptied her tank for Dale, Cuonzo, Jamikka and Valencia. Food on the table and clothes on their backs. Some local coaches and teachers served as male role models for the boys.

Tennessee men's basketball head coach Cuonzo Martin, right, talks with assistant coach Marco Harris, seated, as associate strength and conditioning coach Nicodemus Christopher, left, looks on during media day at Pratt Pavilion Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012. (ADAM BRIMER/NEWS SENTINEL)

Photo by Adam Brimer

Tennessee men's basketball head coach Cuonzo Martin, right, talks with assistant coach Marco Harris, seated, as associate strength and conditioning coach Nicodemus Christopher, left, looks on during media day at Pratt Pavilion Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012. (ADAM BRIMER/NEWS SENTINEL)

One was Norman Harris, the next door neighbor who worked two jobs as a firefighter and Greyhound bus driver. Harris was the closest thing Cuonzo Martin had to a father. His son, Marco, was Cuonzo's best friend. It's still that way today. Marco is on Cuonzo Martin's staff as the student-athlete welfare coordinator.

Even with Norman Harris' greatest efforts, though, the ultimate responsibility of raising boys without a man always fell upon Sandra Martin's shoulders.

Remembering back, she smiles, lets her eyes drift upward and says, "I knew there was someone bigger than any man. That's who I depended on."

"There was a lot of love in my household," she adds warmly. "There was a war outside, but inside was laughter and much love."

That war and that house ultimately teamed to shape Cuonzo Martin. Now as a husband, father, teacher and coach, he's an externalized embodiment of the good that can come from East St. Louis.

Sandra Martin was right all along.

Dreams are real.

Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn

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Comments » 20

miatatom writes:

I am so thankful that Cuonzo Martin is our basketball coach.

wigmeister writes:

What a great and very real story! Her quote "The American Dream doesn't happen to anybody. What you put in is what you get back" is so right on. Too bad so many people in this country just don't get it, and want everything handed to them for free. Kudos to Mrs. Martin and the family she raised. We are proud to have her son as our coach!

movol53 writes:

Writing from Springfield, Mo I already knew about CCM when he coached here at MoState. I'm from Knoxville (Farragut)and a I've been a VOLFAN for 50 years. I'm very proud that the Martin family has allowed UT to be a part of their family history. Martin and family are wonderful people. GO VOLS!!!!

underthehill writes:

His presence at UT is a huge much needed boost to the image of UT sports..

FeelVol writes:

Very inspiring story and feel fortunate that we have Cuonzo and his staff to lead our BB team.

VictorKruger writes:

Fantastic story, Brendan! So glad to have you writing basketball stories again.

Cuonzo Martin exudes strength and character. Regardless of what happens on the court, his players will be better men having played for him.

Now it's time to beat Oakland. Fortunately their player that dropped 35 on UT last year is gone, but I'm sure they still have a competitive team.

BolivrBob writes:

Zo

RockVegas writes:

I'm glad they told the story,it's very touching.Coach Zo knows how it is coming from those type of places,so I feel he can relate to the players better than most.It sound crazy but many times when these young players come to school and make,what we call a stupid mistake.To them it's not so stupid because they never had anyone to tell them certain things that will make them a better person.They just know how to be the best at what ever it is their doing good or bad,I know that sound's crazy but it's some rough cities,and that's just the way it is.Many of these places are worse now than 20-30 years ago and that's sad.Thank you coach for sharing your story...GBO.

TommyJack writes:

Great piece, Quinn.

jt45 writes:

Excellent article, maybe the best ive ever read on this site. Having spent some time in the East St.Louis area I applaud coach Martin for what he has accomplished so far, an inspiring story by any standard.

Thank you for sharing.

formervol1950s writes:

What an absolute encouraging,classy family saga . The University of Tennessee is blessed.

madrigal writes:

Coach Zo has class, something that is not born but learned. Kudos to his mom who raised her kids right in the face of overwhelming odds.

mocsandvolsfan writes:

Wow. Great story.

Go Big Orange.

NatanElias writes:

What an inspiring story! Shows what a difference 1 person can make (along with some help). Oh that every mother and father were like Sandra Martin.

ivyvol writes:

Terrific story. Wish he could coach football too.

gobigorange5090 writes:

Couozo is a class coach and is a WINNER!

FanNotSheep writes:

Great story. Hope it gets picked up in national media. It is a great testimony for him, for her -- and it's unbelievably good press for the University of Tennessee at a time when it is desperately needed.

Would be wonderful if posters could keep it positive and not tear down other coaches, players and sports with ties to the athletics program. Probably too much to ask.

Ichabod writes:

PROUD

VolGrad writes:

Word.

johnlg00 writes:

The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. After reading this, it is easy to see where CCM's character comes from. You just know he blows most parents away on home visits. As the team improves and the word gets around, his recruiting will take off like a rocket.

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