“Wouldn’t you want your son to play for Cuonzo?”

Roberta and Cuonzo Martin last Thursday at the Foundry

Roberta and Cuonzo Martin last Thursday at the Foundry

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.

Joan Croran to the capacity crowd at the luncheon: "I'm from UT and we love sell-out crowds!"

Joan Cronan to the capacity crowd at the luncheon: "I'm from UT and we love sell-out crowds!"

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.

Maggie Erickson, left, and Terry Morgan during the great silent auction which always opens this annual luncheon.

Maggie Erickson, left, and Terry Morgan during the great silent auction which always opens this annual luncheon

Fay Bailey, left, and Becky Duncan Massey, who is running for state Senate

Fay Bailey, left, and Becky Duncan Massey, who is running for state Senate

Lynne Fugate, left, and Debbie Stevens doing a little shopping.

Lynne Fugate, left, and Debbie Stevens doing a little shopping.

David Martin, center, flanked by Carol and John Sheridan

David Martin, center, flanked by Carol and John Sheridan

Katie Kline, left, and Sharon Miller Pryse

Katie Kline, left, and Sharon Miller Pryse

This fall-themed casserole was one of the auction items.

This fall-themed casserole was one of the auction items.

This cute item included mother & daughter matching aprons along with a teddy bear also wearing the apron.

This cute item included mother & daughter matching aprons along with a teddy bear also wearing the apron.

These three vessels were stunning.

These three vessels were stunning.

And then there was the "Vol Chick" t-shirt!

And then there was the "Vol Chick" t-shirt!

Judy Collins Griess, left, and Susan Brown during lunch

Judy Collins Griess, left, and Susan Brown during lunch

This is one of the few events in Knoxville to serve drinks at lunch. I'm sure it's common in New York and more sophisticated cities. Here bartender Shane Sullins gives a glass of champagne to Jeannie Dulaney.

This is one of the few events in Knoxville to offer wine at lunch. (I'm sure it's common in New York and more sophisticated cities.) Here bartender Shane Sullins serves champagne to Jeannie Dulaney. We all felt a little naughty! Ha.

Little stress basketballs with the Cancer Support Community logo were favors.

Little stress basketballs with the Cancer Support Community logo were favors.

Joe Johnson and Anne Sprouse chatted on the way out.

Joe Johnson and Anne Sprouse chatted on the way out.

Beth Hamil, left, is executive director of the Cancer Support Community and Dawn Ford is a board member.

Beth Hamil, left, is executive director of the Cancer Support Community and Dawn Ford is a board member.

Tiffany Carpenter takes home one of the beautiful orchid centerpieces. All were offered for sale and were snapped up!

Tiffany Gardner takes home one of the beautiful orchid centerpieces. All were offered for sale and were snapped up!

If you’d like to read a more in-depth story about Cuonzo Martin and his battle with cancer, click here.

5 Responses to ““Wouldn’t you want your son to play for Cuonzo?””

  1. Cynthia,

    Many thanks for attending and sharing the wonderful PR regarding the Cancer Support Community and our Fall Luncheon. The CSC is another wonderful Knoxville asset…just as Quonzo!

    Blessings,

    T.

  2. Yes, I would. All college athletes should have such strong role models. Great story!

  3. Thanks, Tami and Terry. Wonderful event. And made me realize many things I didn’t know about Cuonzo Martin. Think he will do great things for the program.

  4. Of course I’m the only one shown drinking at lunch! But then, what is my point?? I’ve been to all of the Cancer Support Community luncheons I think and I thought this was the best ever, including the outstanding speakers. Congratulations, Beth, staff and board!

  5. I am anxious to meet him and was sorry I could not attend this event. Thanks for your report.

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