A Tougher Spirit

March 25, 2014


By Brian Rice

The theme for the Tennessee basketball team this season has been "A Tougher Breed."

The fact that the team has lived up to that moniker this postseason comes as no surprise to the man that knows its leader perhaps better than anyone else.

Gene Keady saw the Tougher Breed mentality all along from Cuonzo Martin. He saw it from the first time he had the opportunity to know the young high school player in East St. Louis. He saw it in the locker room at halftime when Martin was a leader on some of the most successful teams Keady coached at Purdue. He saw it in hospital rooms as Martin went from professional basketball player to cancer survivor.

And it comes as no surprise to the legendary Purdue head coach and Basketball Hall of Fame inductee that he sees that same toughness now as Martin prepares his team for the NCAA Midwest Regional in Indianapolis.


Keady and assistant coach Bruce Weber hit the recruiting trail hard in East St. Louis to pitch Purdue to the two-time state champion. First, they had to sell his mother on even being allowed in the door.

Sandra Martin was a single mother raising her three young children and an adopted cousin in one of the nation's most notorious areas. She wanted nothing more than to see her children succeed and get off the drug-riddled streets where they were growing up, but she was protective enough to carefully screen the men coming to her front door with that opportunity for Cuonzo.

"His mother was tremendous in East St. Louis," Keady said, remembering back to visiting the tough neighborhood. "That was a good experience and I think Coach Weber and I did a pretty good job of selling the program to him."

His talent on the court spoke for itself. There were the two IHSA Class AA state championships he won alongside NBA Draft pick LaPhonso Ellis. There were offers from all over. But to Keady, it was the off-court attitude that sold them on Martin as a player and as a person.

"He was just so positive," Keady said. "His attitude was positive, his mother was positive, and it was just a tremendous experience."


Once they got him on campus, the Cuonzo Martin that Keady and his staff thought they had recruited was just the tip of the iceberg.

Though he would later be known for his offensive prowess, it was slow to develop in his freshman season. Still, Martin played every game that first year, gaining a reputation as a lockdown defender. Martin played in 127 games at Purdue, every game contested by the school in those four seasons, a Boilermaker record.

It wasn't the play on either end of the court that first stood out to Keady. It was one word: Leadership.

"He's probably the best leader I ever had in 25 years at Purdue," Keady said. "We would come back at halftime from playing and he would already have the players rounded up, telling them what they need to do to win the game. He made our jobs much easier."

Martin also made their jobs much easier once he found his shooting touch. He scored 523 points over his first two seasons, but wasn't an outside threat. In fact, he hadn't hit a single three-pointer in two seasons, going 0-fer on seven attempts. A summer in the gym later, he hit 88.

Perhaps his best performance that season came on the same stage where he will lead his team this week, the NCAA Regional. Martin set a Purdue single-game record for three-pointers with an 8-for-13 performance in a Sweet 16 win over Kansas, a game played in the arena where he now coaches in Knoxville.

"He worked on his game," Keady said of the steps Martin took between his second and third seasons. "His junior year he started making threes, then was even better his senior year. His work ethic was tremendous."

He left Purdue with the Boilermaker record for 3-point field goal percentage, hitting 179 of 397, a .451 clip. The work ethic prepared him for his next challenge, one that ended his professional career.

"Cuonzo had great integrity and was a hard worker," Keady said. "He whipped cancer."

A tumor located between his heart and lungs brought an end to a professional career that doctors never expected him to have in the first place. Surgeries in high school left Martin knowing that every day on the basketball court was a gift, but that his knees would likely not carry him to NBA riches. Still, he worked his way onto NBA rosters in Vancouver and Milwaukee after being a second round draft selection for the Atlanta Hawks.

After battling the Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma that cost him the basketball career he was building in Italy, Keady called Martin back home to Purdue to finish his degree and, eventually, to welcome him to his basketball staff.

"Tremendous Pride"

The Gene Keady Coaching Tree reaches far and wide. Weber left Purdue to coach at Illinois and Kansas State. Matt Painter, who shared a bench with Martin as both a player and coach at Purdue still leads that program. Martin became the fifth Keady disciple to become a college head coach when he left to take over Missouri State in 2008.

"It's exciting, I'm very proud of all of them," Keady said of the tree. "It's special to see guys that you coached or were assistants being successful. It's fun to watch, my wife enjoys it, I enjoy it, it's great. We both love `Zo, and knowing Roberta like I do, he has a special wife too."

Now in his third season at Tennessee, the work ethic and toughness that he has shown his whole life is paying dividends for his team in its march though the postseason. And he has his former coach in his corner.

"I text him every time he wins, I always wish him luck before games, I take a lot of pride in what he has accomplished," said Keady. "He's a young man that deserves the success that he has. A lot of people, just because they deserve success, they don't get it, but he's one of those guys that is getting rewarded."

The team that Martin will lead his squad against on Friday night is a familiar foe. Martin played in the Big Ten during the Michigan "Fab Five" era and his former teammate Glenn Robinson's son Glenn III is a captain for the Wolverines. Keady knows that Martin has feelings on the matchup that he would only describe as "interesting," but that at this point in the year, the outcome was about the players and how they execute the lessons that coaches have spent all season grinding into them.

"I think you have to have players that want to do it more than you," Keady said when asked the biggest difference that comes this time of year.

"I had a lot of players like that, Cuonzo was one of them, that understand the competitiveness of the regional, because it's the toughest basketball you'll play all year, you're playing the best teams. We as coaches make adjustments during the games and do the things to get the players prepared for the games with the scouting report, but the overall effort has to come from the players."

Keady was perhaps least surprised with the emotion displayed by Martin inside the locker room following the third round win over Mercer. He chuckled about the difference between the intense, often stoic side on the sidelines and the looser, more emotional coach away from the court.

"He has a great attitude towards life and there's no doubt that's just Cuonzo," said Keady of the "selfie" tweeted out Sunday night. "He's not an uptight guy, he understands what the players are going through and teaches them the right way to play. I just texted him today and said `Your players play the game the right way, they play hard and I hope you keep moving on.' And he answered right back and said `Thanks, coach, that means a lot.' He's a special person."





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