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Throwback Thursday: Cuonzo Martin, 1990 Post-Dispatch Player of the Year

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Among its coverage of the Cuonzo Martin hire yesterday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch dug through its archives to cycle through historical photos of Missouri’s new head coach, from Lincoln high school in 1988 to the present. It’s pretty entertaining, and it, like so many other things do these days, sent me to

In searching back through newspaper archives, I found this pretty great Post-Dispatch piece from 1990, when he was named the paper’s area player of the year. You can read the whole thing here, and I recommend doing so. Here are some excerpts.

Something the average high school basketball fan wouldn’t know about Cuonzo Martin: Before each East St. Louis Lincoln game this season, he reached into his gym bag, pulled out his Bible and read for a few moments.

“I hadn’t been going to church very regular; OK, not at all,” Martin said. “I felt kind of bad about that, so I thought the least I could do was read the Bible. No one told me to do it. But after I did it a couple of times, it really started to mean something to me.”

Martin never knew what he would find when he opened his Bible. He never went in looking for something specific.

“It was really nice once at the end of the season, I opened it up and found something about courage,” he said. “I needed that.

Be strong, and let your heart take courage...
Psalms 31:24

On the heart of Cuonzo Martin lived the Lincoln Tigers.

Martin dealt with knee issues during his senior season and couldn’t quite match the ridiculous stats he posted in 1988-89, when he averaged 25.2 points and 12.8 rebounds per game with 189 steals and 50 assists.

But even though the limping, he averaged 24 points per game with 82 steals while raising his rebound total (14.2 per game) and blocking 44 shots.

Martin doesn’t hide his love for his mother, Sandra Martin. Her example of striving to better his lot in life has had a resounding influence. So what if their family apartment isn’t luxurious, or if they don’t have a car, or if their finances aren’t secure, or if their personal safety in the neighborhood isn’t guaranteed? Sandra’s attitude has given her son hope. [...]

Adversity lived with the Tigers. The players battled in practices. Martin said intrasquad scrimmages often featured as many as five technical fouls. Martin was the rock, but the ocean of discontent crashed around him and finally wore him down.

“One practice, everyone was acting up,” he said. “No one was taking it serious. We were scrimmaging, and about the third quarter I had it. I was mad at them, and I walked off the court. I know the coach didn’t expect that out of me.

“But I think I got a point across.”

Lincoln won 80 games and two state titles in Martin’s three years as a contributor. He was a good enough recruit — top 40 nationally — to end up being recruited by Gene Keady at Purdue despite the knee issues, but he seemed willing to sacrifice a bit of flash for success.

He could have done the kinds of things that attracted national media attention to Memphis Treadwell’s Anfernee Hardaway and King’s Jamie Brandon. But Martin compromised that attitude. [...]

“If you’e scoring 30 points a game, that’s still not enough to get big national attention,” he said. “You have to be fancy or be a big man. I can be fancy out there, but that’s not the way I play. Even if you’re playing a not-so-good team, you still can’t make mistakes. And if you make a fancy move and miss, who’s getting the rebound?

Martin didn’t immediately earn the qualifying score he needed on the ACT and had to sit out a year before joining Purdue. But he showed the same dedication to Purdue that he did Lincoln and showed up 12 months later. And after averaging 21 minutes and six points per game as a freshman, he improved incrementally each of the next three years.

Martin sounds like an old-school coach in the quotes, and he lived up to his words as a player. I’m betting his practices still get pretty intense, too.