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June 7, 2012It had to be true. Otherwise, perhaps one of the most serendipitous pick-up lines would have been for naught.
Cuonzo Martin wanted a second chance to hang out with Roberta Jones following their initial introduction at popular fast-food joint in the Chauncey Hill community near Purdue University. He wanted to spend his birthday with Roberta. Her birthday, she explained, also rested just days ahead on the calendar.
She told him the date. He laughed. September 23.
Same as his. Or so he said. Naturally, she was a bit skeptical.
"That was probably a week after we met at Arby's, and I said 'Today's my birthday.' And he said, 'Today's my birthday,'" she recalled. "I was like, 'No, really. Come on.' But we do in fact have the same birthday."
Of course, it wasn't nonsense.
"I think maybe the next weekend or two weeks later after we met, it was actually my birthday," Martin remembered. "I called her and said 'You know, you want to hang out?' I might have said 'What you got going on?' And she said 'Well, it's my birthday.' I said 'Yeah, it's my birthday too.' She thought I was joking. She thought I was trying to give her some type of line, like 'Oh, this guy's trying to give me a line.' But it was my actual birthday."
Though he's got a Joker-wide smile and a sense of humor that helps keep Roberta his best friend after a remarkable two-decade journey together, Martin is known for his deliberate approach.
No pretense. No false front.
The package Martin presents --- a subtle charisma, a demanding approach and an intentionally unintentional cool vibe --- as new University of Tennessee Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics Dave Hart notes is the person Martin is. Probably even when he's sleeping.
"Cuonzo doesn't have any chameleon in him at all," Hart said. "What you see is what you get. I really like that about him. He knows how to go about his task. He is a firm believer in building character in the young men he works with. It's not all about winning. He's going to win. He wants to win. He's extremely competitive.
"But he knows there are bigger things in the growth process of the young men he works with. I have great admiration for that, because it's so genuine."
That approach is Cuonzo Martin, borne of Martin making sure people know his hardscrabble East St. Louis roots are a key fabric of the almost-41-year-old man he is today but not worthy of some woe-is-me rhetoric. A man who married the girl from the Arby's parking lot, survived cancer with her at his side for every treatment, most takes pride in a daily journey to be a good father and husband and now helms a Tennessee program that could be on the cusp of a return to the NCAA Tournament with arguably the SEC's top front-line.
It's been quite the ride for both the head coach and first lady of Tennessee basketball.
According to a bevy of online statistical data, Martin's native East St. Louis dubiously projects the nation's highest crime rate. The census bureau notes that 41 percent of its residents live in poverty. Neighborhoodscout.com statistics reflect that East St. Louis is safer than zero percent of U.S. cities.
Martin isn't hearing it. Nor is he inclined to provide some stylized portrait of his youth.
"Well you know the thing about growing up in East St. Louis, I didn't think it was a bad place to be. You have your rough spots; there were things that took place growing up. Things you've probably read about. But for me growing up in that environment, it wasn't bad because I was just more or less living like the person next to me," Martin said. "Even though it was project housing. You didn't really know you had it rough and that life was that bad because of everybody around you. They lived the same way, so to speak.
"You were just growing up. Because at that time as kids, you were just playing whatever sports you could and you had to be in the house when the light's came on. So those things, but you were still a kid."
Martin was a kid in, as he noted, government housing with his mother, Sandra; an older brother and two younger sisters. Some seven years is all that separates the four siblings. They looked out for one another, Martin knows, but more so simply as part of their family dynamic.
The gift of hindsight, however, affords Martin a different viewpoint.
"As I got older, there were things I saw and witnessed and experienced and now I look back as a 40-year-old man and some of the things I went through, there's no way in the world my sons could even fathom that or experience that or put themselves in those types of positions," he said.
Martin points not to what he didn't have but rather the opportunities he did find in East St. Louis. His first athletic love, after all, wasn't even basketball.
So while Martin, an avid moviegoer who routinely taped films to VHS in college, could appreciate Tom Hanks imploring the girls in "A League of Their Own" there's no crying in baseball, he missed the memo for basketball.
"The first time I really picked up a basketball, outside of kind of just messing around as a little guy, was fourth grade. I was a pretty good baseball player, and that was my favorite sport at the time growing up," said Martin, whose notoriety --- even in Destin, Fla., --- prompts an impromptu photo with elder fans from Martin's Midwest roots who admire his success. "The elementary school at the time went from kindergarten to sixth grade and they actually had a team. And a pretty good team. I was in the fourth grade, and the coach of the time, who was very close to me, made me try out for the team. I really didn't want to. And I tried out for the team. I think I had two points. I think I hit a long shot. But I was just a role guy more than anything. I cried when I first went out for the team because I didn't want to do it."
Of course, though, Martin did. Nobody likes everything. Nobody wants to do everything he or she does. Martin, however, does nothing halfway.
By 10th grade Martin gave up "the baseball thing" --- despite a love for the St. Louis Cardinals, the powerhouse that featured Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, Terry Pendleton and others --- and began to focus on the hardwood at East St. Louis Lincoln High School.
Lincoln High School already was a power, a defending state champion and the talent pipeline wasn't ebbing. So when Martin made the varsity as a sophomore --- his first year of high school --- he began to see basketball as an avenue to college.
"Basketball was a big deal. They were just coming off a state championship in 1988. That was like our NBA team," Martin said of the program. "As a little guy growing up I got an opportunity to play for East St. Louis Lincoln. And when I made the team as a sophomore, because our high school started in the 10th-grade in East St. Louis, we had success. Our team won the state championship. And it was a great experience. I think at that point, I just felt like man. Playing in the NBA, that wasn't talked about for high school guys then. Having the opportunity to play college basketball was the most important thing, and I got an opportunity to play college ball and be a part of a successful program. That was the biggest thing for me."
It was near the close of Martin's prep career that he first became inadvertently linked to Bruce Pearl, the man who would be fired and replaced by Martin nearly a quarter century later at Tennessee. Then an Iowa assistant, Pearl was key in the NCAA melodrama that engulfed the Illinois program that had enjoyed frontrunner status for Martin's services.
"I had bags [of college mailings and scholarship offers]. (Laughing) A lot of times, especially back then, you don't know what was what from a scholarship offer standpoint. So many coaches talked in roundabout ways," Martin said. "I knew my final schools, the schools I really liked. Those were like Connecticut, Purdue, Illinois. Illinois was probably my favorite. The thing about Illinois was that they had those NCAA issues going on, so then I had to make another decision. Then it really came down to Purdue and Connecticut."
Martin, of course, picked Purdue; helped the Boilermakers win multiple Big Ten titles and, most notably, met his future wife and best friend in West Lafayette.
Martin can, with the ease he displayed as a 3-point marksmen for the Boilermakers, recall with seemingly no effort how he first met his future wife.
"I met her the first weekend of our sophomore year in college, fall of '92. We were at an Arby's. At Purdue, there's this place they call it Chauncey Hill, where you would hang out Friday and Saturday nights. I think was a Saturday night, if I'm not mistaken," Martin said. "We just kind of, one of the guys (Rodney Dennis) that grew up with her, kind of like a family member to her but really wasn't, he was on the football team. He came to me and said, the way I see the story and how it went, he said 'My sister wants to meet you.' And I met her. I think that's how it went. Now, Roberta might have a different version."
She does, albeit only slightly. Here, it is better to show the entire exchange; to see two people with a still-instant connection play off the situation:
Roberta: Don't you remember I was in the parking lot talking to Rodney, and you came up to us? Do you remember?
Cuonzo: Well, I guess I remember.
Roberta: No, I mean, really. Rodney and I went to high school together and we were just standing in the parking lot talking. You came up to us.
Cuonzo: I wasn't saying you were coming after me. I just remember Rodney talking to me. Seriously.
Regardless, they have been inseparable since. Through the close of Martin's fabulous Purdue career, a multi-league, international professional basketball journey, the joyous births of their three children and the harrowing, life-threatening battle with cancer.
Drafted into the NBA but beginning to carve a niche in Italy, Martin was 27 and off to a fabulous start to his 1997-98 season overseas. The European style of play fit Martin's game, and vice versa. Twenty-point nights became somewhat commonplace for the rangy Martin.
Until it became nearly impossible for him to generate anything in the second halves of games.
Until he dwindled like a blighted tree, shrinking from 215 pounds to 180. Maybe a plate of lasagna less.
Until one day at practice, Martin trotted to midcourt and collapsed.
"I don't know, just somewhere in my mind I thought that I was losing weight because of the food in Italy. Because I would hold food in my mouth for a long time and I'd put it in my napkin and I wouldn't eat it. And I wasn't sure what it was for a long time. It got to a point where, it was early November and I was really struggling," he remembered. "A couple of days before, the owner of the team called me and he was more or less saying to me that I was playing so well early in the season but now I was struggling. I was hitting maybe 11 or 12 points and maybe two in the second half. I just couldn't do anything. Early in the season, I was getting 20 in the first half and I was playing well. But what happened was, I was losing energy and losing weight. And I was really struggling with my breathing."
After he collapsed, a trainer examined Martin. He was surrounded by teammates; told he had bronchitis. Martin was skeptical from the outset.
"I was breathing [Martin simulates gasping for oxygen] and I just dropped. A trainer took me back in the locker room and he couldn't speak any English. He was using with his hands to more or less say 'You were big when you first came over here. Now you're small.' So that night they did all types of tests and X-rays on me. Over there, they told me it was bronchitis. And I don't think the wanted to scare me. So they just said bronchitis," Martin said. "There was a guy named Terry Dozier, who played at South Carolina, and he was my teammate over there. The way he was looking and the way he was praying for me, it was hard for me to believe it was really bronchitis. And there were other guys that were Italian players who had played college basketball in the United States. So they could speak great English, and they said 'Make sure you call us when you get back. Make sure you go to the hospital right away.' And I was just thinking to myself, 'If this is bronchitis, these guys are panic mode.'"
Martin, Roberta and their four-month-old son, Joshua, quickly flew home to Indianapolis. The path was Rome to New York to Indianapolis to the emergency room once Martin collapsed that night at home.
"I think it was around 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning that we got back to our home and as soon as I walked through the door, and I was holding Josh, I just kind of passed out. Luckily our couch was right there. And then Roberta said 'We need to get to the hospital right away,'" he said. "Probably the toughest thing I ever heard was when the doctor said this is life-threatening. Because they did a lot of tests and x-rays that night. He said 'This is life-threatening.' But he couldn't say what it was. He saw the baseball-sized tumor between my chest and lung area. So he did see that. So it was enough for him to say this is life-threatening. That was probably the toughest news I think I've ever had to hear, because I had no control over the situation. Once they did all the tests and x-rays, they found it was Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, which is a form of cancer. I did chemotherapy for about four-and-a-half months. My last treatment was April 20, 1998."
Roberta was there every step of the way, from the gut-wrenching first night back through the painstaking wait for an precise prognosis and ultimately to yet another of Martin's arguably unexpected victories; the one where he beat back a baseball-sized tumor to now be cancer-free now for nearly 15 years, a decade coming since Martin last had to visit an oncologist.
"It was pretty scary because we were so young. We thought we were old, but we were really very young," Roberta explained. "I still remember the day of us flying back from Italy and we had an infant son and I just remember the doctor already realizing it was something very serious going on. It took us about a month to actually get the hard diagnosis. That was the longest month. And you just don't think, not in your 20s, that you're going to be battling cancer."
The disease, in retrospect, could not have known the fight it was in for. The tumor was located in Martin's chest, near his heart. Bad location against a guy who approaches life as a daily fight and knows his best friend stands at his ready.
"Oh, it's great. I think when you're doing this, and what I call it --- and I like to equate everything to a battle or a streetfight, because that's how I get my mind programmed --- in this profession, you're in a battle every day," Martin said. "So for me, to have my right hand, my partner right there, safe to say is my best friend in the world, just a good person, I just think you know? And not that we agree on everything. She'll tell me when I'm wrong, tell me 'I don't know about that idea.' That part is good. Not that I probably want to hear that, either. Sometimes I don't want to hear it, but she makes me understand or she gives me her opinion and ultimately we'll make a decision. It's good to have somebody in your corner that's genuinely for you, and I think that goes a long way. I don't know if many people can truly say that, and I think I can say that."
So, too, can Roberta.
"I think it's probably a good thing just dealing with the profession he is in, but I also think it's just a good thing in being in marriage that way," she said. "I often tell people that I never laugh harder with anybody than what I laugh with him. It's just that we can joke around. Call each other out for the things that we maybe can improve on. Laugh about it and keep going."
GOING TO KNOXVILLE
When Pearl was pushed out and Martin had just guided Missouri State to the 2011 Missouri Valley Conference title, he wasn't thinking about Tennessee. Or leaping to the sport's grand stage.
Once Tennessee approached, however, Martin didn't need long to contemplate.
"For me, it was just the right move for us. Obviously there are a lot of things that we pray about, but it was just the right move for us because of everything that was going on," Martin said. "There were other opportunities out there. But also I think the perception is that 'Oh, you have the chance to go to a BCS school. Jump and make that move.' But I was happy where I was at. Missouri State, we had success, won a conference championship and had some good players returning. It was something we really had to think about, but at the end of the day I thought it was a great opportunity."
Added Roberta, "For me, I was not familiar with the SEC. I like to say, we grew up in the Big Ten. I was like 'Tennessee? OK.' And he actually accepted the job without me having ever been to Knoxville. I'd never been there before. I was like 'OK, if this is the right thing to do, let's go.'
"I think Cuonzo has the ability to be able to make decisions quickly and be able to make the right decision and be able to wade through things. Me, I'll sit there and churn it. So when he says he feels like something is the right thing to do, I'll say 'OK, let's go.'"
SEASON OF GROWTH
The first-year Tennessee coach, replacing a figure in Pearl who remains wildly popular today, saw early-season struggles on Rocky Top give way to pronounced growth. Saw a five-star prospect come on board midseason and help the Vols to a second-place SEC finish. Saw, most importantly, his team grow.
The wife saw her nerves remain the same, game in and game out.
The new leader of the athletics department, the man who replaced the man who hired Martin, saw much reason to be encouraged by the Vols' 2011-12 season.
"What Cuonzo has been through and in terms of what he has overcome in his life, he's been dealt some tough blows but he's never not gotten up. That quality alone is very, very real in Cuonzo Martin. And his players see that," Hart said. "It was interesting and really fun for me to watch the growth of our basketball team this past year under Cuonzo. There was that resistance early on. 'What if I don't want to play defense that hard?' 'Well, there's a seat over here next to me for you.' Once that buy-in process took place, the transformation of our team was really exciting to be a part of. And I think our fan base bought in because we played so hard. And it paid off. There are bright days ahead for our basketball program."
Martin wants the wins, knows he could rediscover his 3-point shooting stroke and challenge his players if he wanted and stoke that competitive flame with the gasoline from within. More importantly, though, he wants the bigger picture.
"For me, it's been a good first year. To have the opportunity to really develop young men more than anything and to see our guys really develop the way they did, and competing from the start of the season to the end of the season and see how guys grew as young men on and off the court, see guys make progress in the classroom, to really put forth effort to try to be the best they can be in all areas was really good for me as a coach," Martin emphasized. "You'll get wins and you'll have tough losses, but I think when you see guys grow as a team --- not one or two guys but the majority of your team grow --- and all of a sudden they're pointing in the same direction, you've got a chance to be a successful program.
"But I think the key is to maintain it. It's been good. And like I've always said with my family, as long as we're together, we'll be alright. That's the most important thing. This job is taxing; it will take a toll on you. But it's just what we do, and I'd like to feel like I'm built to do it."
Roberta believes that Martin is built to take Tennessee back to the NCAA Tournament, especially on the heels of a season in which her husband and his band of misfits largely overachieved.
"As far as the first year in regards to basketball, I had already mentally prepared myself that it might be a tough season just because of the transition and getting a new coach," she said. "I knew Cuonzo's style is a little different for people when they first get to know it. So I had buckled down and was like 'OK, this might be a hard season to live through.' So it was pretty exciting to get to the SEC season and then go on that run. It doesn't make me any less nervous. I think I feel the same when we're on a winning streak or a losing streak. I'm a nervous wreck at every game, but it was a pretty exciting finish.
"I wish we could've made the (NCAA) tourney this year, but we'll get there next year."
Not that either Martin is peeking too far into the future. The humility his mother, Sandra, instilled in him now permeates the family.
"For Cuonzo, he mentioned a little bit about his mom, but I think for me he gets his humble nature from his mother and if you ever met her, you'd only have to speak to her for five minutes and you'd know that's exactly where it comes from," Roberta said. "Me being grounded, I think I get it from him. He's always constantly in my ear. 'Just remember where we came from. Remember where we started.' So, it's nice."
More than anything, Martin remembers daily to simply live life.
"I just think it's a case of appreciating life, more than anything. And I was this way before I had cancer. A lot of people think I changed because of cancer; I was always the same," he said. "For example, having LaPhonso Ellis on my team in high school. I enjoyed that. I embraced that. He was a great player. In college, playing with Glenn Robinson who was a great player. I looked forward to playing with him. It didn't bother me that he was a great player. I wanted to see him be successful. So for me, I never had a problem or struggled with seeing someone else have success. I don't have a problem with going up against a rival team and acknowledging the fact that the coach did a good job. Because it goes back to the fact, we're all battling and competing for the top spot, but there has to be a level of humility in you to say 'OK, I applaud this guy's effort. I like the way he goes about his business.' Because I know where I come from. I don't need to walk around with my fists balled up to say I'm from East St. Louis to say I'm a good coach. I know who I am. I don't have to wear it on my sleeve so people say 'OK, this guy's a tough guy.' I know who I am."
He knows the criteria for which Martin will judge himself.
"Really, for me, it's just one day at a time to be totally honest with you. Nothing is really guaranteed," Martin said. "You've got to have fun as much as possible. In this profession, it doesn't allow a lot of fun unless you're the last team standing. For me, you have to create your environment. You have to create the fun and exciting times. I mean, if my family is happy then I'm fine. If my players are graduating and having successful careers, then I'm fine. It means I've done my job.
"But for me as a coach, my grade is 'How am I doing at home?' And I think there's a lot of work for me to be done there. Roberta obviously holds the fort down and does a great job. So there's a lot of things I feel like I have to improve upon as a father and husband. My sons are getting older, so it's a different language I'm speaking to them. Just help equip them with the necessary tools to be successful. And in this profession, you've got to always continue to recruit. Graduate your players. Do all those things. It never really stops in this profession."
In that regard, coaching might be the only profession that can keep up with Martin.