Marco Harris is sitting in his office at Mizzou Arena. He’s asked the last time he remembered a season like last year.
He didn’t hesitate with his answer: the 2015-16 California basketball team.
Harris, the director of basketball operations on Cuonzo Martin’s staff at Cal before joining him at Missouri, recalled Bears’ starting point guard Tyronne Mitchell breaking his hand in the last practice before leaving for the NCAA Tournament. In warmups, just before a first-round game against Hawaii, another starter, Jabari Bird, was ruled out because of back spasms.
“We couldn’t believe what was going on,”Harris said. “We had a good team, a really good team. … For it to go the way it went. It was unbelievable.”
Martin, a friend of Harris’ since their days growing up in East St. Louis, reacted the same way he always does. He moved on and went back to work, although Hawaii went on to upset fourth- seeded California 77-66. It was the same reaction Harris saw when Missouri faced adversity last season.
Martin never seemed fazed, because he wasn’t.
“He’s been through worse,” Harris said.
Martin grew up in a rough environment in East St. Louis, he battled through knee problems in his playing career and a life-threatening battle with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.
All of that has made him, along with other factors, the perfect person to lead the basketball program, Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk said. Especially last year, when things got tough.
“He’s not afraid of adversity,” Sterk said. “He embraces it and comes out stronger because of it.”
If he comes out stronger it’s because by now, everything he’s been through has built him to deal with it. Perhaps the best example of Martin’s attitude came after his cancer diagnosis. Most people ask, “Why me?” Martin had a different approach.
“When I was going through it I just said, ‘Why not, me? Why not?’” Martin said. “Who am I that I am different than somebody else to go through this, because it’s going to be somebody. So learn from it and embrace whatever challenge it is and deal with it, because I think even in struggle there is a story to tell.”
Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series about the state of the Missouri basketball program. It will look back on Martin’s first year in charge and what those events might tell us about the future of the program. Part one of the series ran in Friday’s print edition, while the final installment will run in Sunday’s newspaper.
Growing up in “The Hole,” a nickname given to the East St. Louis projects where Harris and Martin grew up in, wasn’t easy.
“Walking down the street, you might get into a fight,” Harris said. “Going down the street to play basketball, you might get into a fight. It wasn’t all bad, but if you wanted to play sports you had to have something to you.”
Martin gravitated to basketball, but this wasn’t rec center basketball. This was outdoors, without referees or supervision.
“You had to go out to the basketball court,” Harris said.
Those outdoor courts acted as a lesson to everybody who stepped on them. It’s where you either beat the older guys, got kicked off the court by them or played with them risking a punch to the chest if you messed up.
“That made us tough,” Harris said. “After a while, there is no crying. You have to take what comes to you."
East St. Louis has a rich athletic tradition. There is a community center named after Olympic great Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Martin, who played basketball professionally for four years, is among a long list of standout athletes from the town.
“There was so much competition around you and so many people trying to move forward,” Martin said. “There were people that were struggling, so why do I want to hear you complain? I’ve never been a guy to do a lot of complaining or making excuses. I never felt that was good. What’s the point? Do something about it.”
So he did. He won two state championships, in three years, at East St. Louis and went on to play at Purdue.
There he met Gene Keady, his coach and now his close friend.
In Martin’s freshman year at Purdue, Keady was told by a trainer that Martin would never play for the Boilermakers.
“He had bone-on-bone. He can’t play, his knees are horrible,” Keady recalled being told. “I said, ‘Well you don’t know Cuonzo very well.’ ”
A person who did know Martin very well was his mother, Sandra. While recruiting Martin to Purdue, she stood out to Keady.
“It was the way she handled everything,” Keady said. “She understood we wanted to do things right.”
Sandra’s attitude rubbed off on Martin, as he worked himself into a first-team All-Big Ten player despite his knee problems.
“Rarely, if ever, did she complain or make excuses,” Martin said. “I know she struggled, but she kept pushing forward.”
Keady could talk about Martin for hours. The two still have a special relationship. They talk at least once a month, but those conversations rarely revolve around basketball.
“He doesn’t need my help,” Keady joked. “He knows what to do. He’s a student of the game.”
After leaving Purdue, he was selected by the Atlanta Hawks with the 57th overall pick of the 1995 NBA draft. Martin played professionally with the Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks and Vancouver Grizzlies.
Then he headed overseas.
Martin signed with a pro team in Avellino, Italy. In the fall of 1997, Martin was called to the Ciro Avellino owner’s office. They had a talk about Martin’s game.
Martin was scoring at ease in the first half, but in the second half he’d score maybe two or three points. He thought it was just fatigue, but he had no pain so it wasn’t a big concern.
“I knew at some points I struggled breathing. I just took it as being in a different country, the air, I didn’t know,” Martin said.
Then, one practice, while sprinting down the floor, he collapsed. He had tests done in Italy, but he wasn’t diagnosed. After more tests in Indianapolis, Ind., doctors found a tumor the size of a baseball in his chest. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was the diagnosis.
Martin recalled the doctor telling him, “I don’t know if you are going to die, but this is life threatening.”
For the first time in his life, Martin had no control over what was happening. This wasn’t knee surgery where he could rehab and be healthy in a matter of months. Cancer meant dealing with a lot of unknowns.
“East St. Louis wasn’t rough for me because I grew up there, but if you say East St. Louis is rough, well I knew how to stay out of harm's way. Struggling on the court, I knew how to find a way to get better,” Martin said. “Outside of whatever the medicines are, I have to take these medicines and we hope they work.”
Martin lost around 30 pounds during his treatment. He worried about what would happen if he died. He and his wife, Roberta, had just had a child.
“I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Josh just turned four months,’ ” Martin said. “If this is it, this is it, but I’m praying to God that this is not it. It wasn’t a lot going through my mind. It was some level of peace. … You can talk about a lot of things, but this is it and then you figure out what’s most important.”
Harris and Martin talk on the phone every day.
So much so that there are times when the two will leave Mizzou Arena together and call each other when they get in the car.
“About what? I couldn’t explain to you,” Harris said laughing.
But he’ll never forget Martin calling to tell him he was diagnosed with cancer. At first, Harris thought he heard Martin laughing, so he laughed, too, thinking he is telling a joke.
It took Martin some time to gather his thoughts, but he said, “Man, I have cancer.”
Harris replied, “I’m on my way.”
After hanging up, Martin called Harris back and said “You don’t have to come,” but Harris was making the trip from East St. Louis anyway.
“He probably didn’t want me feeling sorry for him, which I wouldn’t,” Harris said. “When I first saw him I was like ‘Wow.’ I really realized how serious it was.”
That was the lowest Harris had ever seen Martin, but his trips to Indianapolis didn’t reflect the emotions either of them felt.
They watched T.V., joked and just hung out as childhood friends do.
There was no talk about the disease Martin was fighting.
“We wouldn’t allow each other to be defeated and weak,” Harris said. “He tried to be himself, but it’s cancer. You can’t hide that. It wasn’t like I went down there and he was just sitting around like ‘I’m sick,’ we did everything normal.”
But nobody, not even Martin, could battle through cancer without emotions. Harris is sure Martin got a bit emotional when he left, much like Harris did when he returned back to East St. Louis.
While putting on a strong face and not making an excuse might be a conscious effort for many, for Martin it’s not a fake facade he puts on for people.
“It’s just who he is,” Harris said.
Martin eventually won his battle with cancer. Once he was healthy, Keady asked him to be an assistant at Purdue. That led to a head-coaching job at Missouri State, before he went off to Tennessee and pushed through turmoil in his final season. Then came Cal and the 2015-16 team that achieved the most in Martin’s three-year tenure in Berkeley.
And now Missouri where his persistence in the face of adversity led to a NCAA Tournament appearance in his first year.
“I talk a lot with young men across the country when they grow up without dads in the home,” Martin said. “I say that’s still not an excuse for you to not be successful, but if you want to use that because it’s convenient, then continue to use it and you will continue to be in the place you are in.
“Oftentimes, you let young men know: ‘I hear you and understand what you are going through, but let’s push forward. While you are struggling, let’s push forward. You can’t stop here.’ ”