In the past twenty years, Cuonzo Martin has set a shooting record at his alma mater of Purdue, been drafted into the NBA, played professionally in Italy, and become a top-ranked men’s basketball coach.
And along the way he beat cancer, too.
On March 28, Martin became the eighteenth head coach for the UT men’s basketball team, arriving in Tennessee after a three-year stint as the head coach at Missouri State. Since his arrival at UT, Martin has been clocking sixteen-hour days trying to get up to speed with his new players and coaching staff.
“It’s been work recruiting, understanding what we’re trying to do as a staff, and talking,” Martin says. “My life is from the apartment to the gym and back.”
Martin says he’s having fun getting to know the players and settling in with the team. He also hopes to explore the city further and settle into life here with his family: his wife Roberta, sons Joshua and Chase, and daughter Addison.
Martin’s arrival at Tennessee marks yet another leg of what has been an extensive personal and professional journey. As a student at Purdue, Martin scored 1,666 points in 127 career games and was the school’s all-time leader in three-pointers, racking up 179 of the shots. (He also holds the Purdue record for consecutive games played, with 127.) In 1995 he was selected by the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA draft, and he played for two years with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Vancouver Grizzlies.
In 1997 Martin traveled to Italy to play basketball with the Avellino-based Felice Scandone team. Soccer often is perceived as Europe’s sport of choice, but basketball is immensely popular on the continent, with many cities having their own professional teams.
“Playing in Europe is a lot tougher than people think,” Martin says. “There are some guys that played in the NBA that struggled in Europe. Europe is tough because they have somewhat of a college rules system. A lot of calls are made over there that aren’t called in the United States. Those guys have really caught up with the United States when it comes to basketball.” While in Italy, Martin’s team practiced two or three times a day, so his free time for sightseeing was limited.
Martin spent a total of five months in Italy before learning he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a blood cancer of varying degrees of severity. He returned to the United States for treatment, which was successful; Martin has been in remission since April 1998. His
experience with the disease made him become stronger in his faith.
“I read the Bible a lot after that experience,” he says. “I think really what it did for me was put life in perspective.”
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in restaurant, hotel, institutional, and tourism management from Purdue in 2000, Martin joined the basketball coaching staff at his alma mater. In 2008 he became the head coach at Missouri State University, quickly making the Bears the fifth-most improved team in the nation and garnering praise from sports experts.
In his new role at UT, Martin has been busy. In addition to the aforementioned long work days, he spends his free time with his family, particularly his athletically inclined children, who enjoy swimming, softball, and tae kwon do, among other activities. In a few years, he hopes to take his sons to Africa and learn with them about the continent’s different cultures and peoples. For now, though, two goals loom large in his mind.
“I want to continue to grow in my faith and everyday life,” he says. “And I think as far as the basketball program goes, I want to win a national championship.”
—by Meredith McGroarty