New Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin learned from cancer scare
BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — Cuonzo Martin has a certain way he does things. No staying late after games to rehash film into the wee hours as is customary for so many college basketball coaches, only to return first thing in the morning to do so again. He avoids finger-pointing at one player in the heat of the moment, instead choosing to critique a specific area in which his team struggled while speaking individually with a young man when necessary.
A cancer scare for Missouri’s new coach 20 years ago largely affects how he coaches and lives today.
“It’s a fight. You learn to value what’s important. Life’s too short,” he said.
At 26 and playing professionally in Italy, Martin collapsed one day. His team immediately sent him home to the U.S. for further tests, which would reveal a baseball-sized tumor. His life soon flashed before him. Martin had a 4-month-old son and didn’t know if he was going to die and leave baby Joshua behind. Even for a hardened new father from East St. Louis who had seen it all growing up, the news was shocking and frightening.
His eventual diagnosis: advanced Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, with an aggressive treatment regimen of chemotherapy to follow.
“The only time, if scared was the word, I had fear, it was fear that I would be gone from this world. Here I am, you have a 4-month-old son — he was a little over 4 months old — and you’ll be gone from this world completely,” Martin said in an interview with The Associated Press. “So that part was hard. The thing that was the toughest thing for me to hear in that process was when the doctors said, ‘I don’t know if you’re going to die, but this is life-threatening.’”
Martin had flown from Rome home to Indianapolis and it wasn’t until the early morning that he received results from blood work and X-rays. He hadn’t had a full-body scan since March, when he was still with the Milwaukee Bucks.
“This was probably 2 o’clock, 2:30 and that’s when he said, ‘I don’t know if you’re going to die, but this is life-threatening.’ So that part was hard,’” he recalled. “Even growing up in East St. Louis, stuff you heard, you might have seen and all of that, this is the first time I had no control of the situation. Nothing.”
He no longer lets every loss bring him down. That’s the old Martin.
“There used to be times my wife, it would be hard to get me out of bed after losses. My body would almost shut down,” he said. “So just constant prayer, and just like my prayers I prayed a lot with my knees I wasn’t having an opportunity to really play in the NBA for a long time, if I was blessed to even get it. I just really prayed so when I’m done playing to be done and not let it linger one where you can’t sleep. I’ve seen guys fall to drugs, alcohol because they didn’t want to give it up.
“If it’s a loss, learn from it and try to shut it down as fast as possible to move forward because it used to eat me up. ... Going through the cancer scare and almost losing my life, it just made me understand what’s important.”
He has done a lot of praying over the years. For his health. For his family.
A coach so intense he often wanders well onto the court during games and regularly chugs water from a bottle perched nearby on the scorer’s table, Martin is set to take on a daunting new challenge in his home state .
At least one friend and colleague is confident Martin can do anything with all he has endured.
“One, he’s an outstanding person. Somebody with a heart of a lion,” said Kansas State coach Bruce Weber, who was on the Purdue staff when Martin played there. “He overcame pain, went and played professional basketball, had cancer, overcame that, got into the coaching profession and he’s done great. ... I know he will do it right.”
The date of Martin’s final treatment still rolls off his tongue — April 20, 1998.
In August 2015, he posted a photo on Twitter and wrote : “My cancer diagnosis in 97, I prayed to see my baby turn 18. Today I celebrate with him in Australia. #prayeranswered.” Joshua is a freshman at Purdue.
The 45-year-old Martin will be introduced in a campus celebration in Columbia on Monday afternoon.
Just as he now handles everything in life, he is sure to keep the moment in perspective.
“Without a doubt,” he said, “just really because you never know when it’s your time when you go through something. It makes you value life and appreciate the little things.”