New UT head men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin is surprisingly soft-spoken. So when he addressed the sell-out crowd at the Cancer Support Community lunch at the Foundry last week, organizers rushed to adjust the sound system so he could be heard.
They needn’t have bothered. Once Martin started telling his own cancer story, you could have heard a pin drop in the huge room.
In 1997, Martin, a gifted basketball player from the streets of East St. Louis, was 26 years old and playing in Italy when he noticed how tired he was becoming. He’d score 18 points in the first half of a game and just 2 or 3 in the second half. He was always fatigued, just bone tired. His weight dropped from 215 to 180. Finally, one day he collapsed on the court during practice and was rushed to a hospital.
Although he was told that he had bronchitis, he knew that wasn’t the truth. His coaches and doctors just didn’t want to scare him as they shipped him back to the United States for medical care. When he arrived at his home in Indianapolis after a 9-hour plane flight, he walked in the door and collapsed with his 4-month-old son in his arms. His wife, Roberta, took him straight to the hospital where the true diagnosis was revealed to him at 3 o’clock in the morning: he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – cancer of the lymph nodes – and it was advanced. He was startled when he heard his doctor say the words, “This is life-threatening.”
“The hardest thing I’ve ever done is tell my mother I had cancer,” Martin said.
Then the battle really began. Chemotherapy. The toughest his body could bear. His weight dropped to 172. (He’s 6’6″ tall.) “I never knew what any of my medicines were,” he said. “I didn’t care. All the doctors said to try to stay positive. That’s what I did. I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. I took it one day at a time.”
And he prayed. In particular, he prayed that he’d live to see his infant son, Joshua, turn 18. Today, Joshua is 14.
Martin gives tremendous credit to his wife, who gave up a lucrative career as a vice president of Eli Lilly and Company to accompany him on the moves his basketball career would require. Her support turned out to be crucial to his very survival. “Without her, I don’t think I’d be here today,” he said.
When Martin stopped speaking Thursday, Joan Cronan, longtime women’s athletic director at UT and also interim athletic director for men’s and women’s sports at the school, took the podium. “Wouldn’t you want your son to play for Cuonzo?” she asked. Thunderous applause. Pass the donation envelopes.
If you’d like to read a more in-depth story about Cuonzo Martin and his battle with cancer, click here.