COLUMBIA — Missouri men's basketball coach Cuonzo Martin was scheduled to speak with media via Zoom on Friday morning, with the alert going out about six hours before the Southeastern Conference announced a 10-game conference-only schedule for football.
With a bigger story stealing the spotlight and not much to discuss with his program — the Tigers expect players to return Aug. 13 and quarantine for 10-14 days before the start of classes and practice — Martin still found a way to make things personal, touching and interesting.
He also had some things he wanted to get off his chest.
His response to a question about whether his team would do something more in support of civic or social issues other than wear the patches approved Thursday by the NCAA was more than six minutes long, touching on the importance of doing the right thing, standing up for the truth, wealth, housing, education and justice system inequality, his role as a provider for his family, his responsibilities as someone with a position of power and a multimillion dollar salary, the opportunity he passed on to be a stay-at-home dad and what it meant to him to make it out of East St. Louis.
"Like I said to my sons, maybe about three weeks ago, it's probably four weeks ago now, it's been so long. I just said to them I don't know if I'll be on this earth to see true equality," Martin said Friday. "I said I don't. I don't think I'll be on this earth, and not that I feel like I'm threatened by anything but because that wealth gap is so far behind. But I still have to do my part as a humanitarian, and I have to do my part, and hopeful that if I'm blessed to have grandkids that they can see that it's a different world.
"When they're on this earth and they're living, and what we're talking about now it's like, man, that's in a movie or it's on a video. That's not their world, it's what they heard or it's in a museum. When my daughter was born, the United States President was Black. That was her first image, when she stepped foot on this earth. So for me, and it doesn't matter, black or white, it's just about being good people. I think that's what we all have to fight for. And again, I think if we are all living life, and we live in a level of comfort, but three blocks away, or one mile away, that community is in a bad way, then who are we?"
"We all have to do a better job, I mean we, everybody on this Zoom call," he added. "We have to do a better job of creating change, because if we sit back and say, 'Oh, my life is good,' how do you do that when you know there are people that struggle? When you know the education system, it hadn't been equal? The justice system hadn't been equal?"
In the wake of the death of George Floyd, a black man, while in custody by a white Minneapolis police officer in May, protests around the world have been ongoing in opposition to racism and police brutality and in support of a higher standard of accountability for officers and police departments who use violence in making arrests.
Martin, who is Missouri's only Black head coach, coaches a team with Black players making up 11 members of the 14-man roster.
"Progress is painful, and it's a bumpy road and it'll bring you to your knees, it will, but everybody on this Zoom call needs to be a part of the change," Martin said. "You can write all the bad articles about me, that's fine, you still got to do your job. So I'm not trying to soften you up now, you have to do your job, but you also have to have a level of compassion and understanding that there is somebody less than.
"And always keep in mind, Coach came from East St. Louis. Now what I'll do, I'll send you guys a video, I'll give it to (sports information director) RJ (Layton) if you guys want, I'll send you a video of East St. Louis, where I grew up at. I just went by there last Monday. I'll send you a video where I grew up. So now, that's where that man grew up. So when you see those kids, four or five blocks from our campus, that was me. That was me."
Martin also said he was moved by the life's work and funeral services of former civil rights leader and U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.), who passed away July 17 and was laid to rest Thursday in Atlanta.
He said the team watched video of the service during a Zoom meeting, and played the first 35 seconds of "I Know A Change Gonna Come," during the Zoom call, "This is my favorite artist of all time, Sam Cooke."
"He was a man that, I think he started at 23 years old," Martin said of Lewis. "Wow. Can you imagine, at 23 years old, being on the front lines? There's a resiliency, there's a lot of pain in that soul, to be able to see what he saw at 23, starting out. Again, I don't know if I'd have been strong enough."
He echoed the sentiments of Missouri's football team, which led a walk up Eighth Street in early June and registered more than 60 new voters, saying he made sure his players were registered to vote as well and encouraged them to exercise that right as an act of appreciation for what Lewis and so many others endured to see the Voting Rights Act of 1965 pass, ensuring equal and just enforcement of the rights granted in the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
"I'll do everything in my power to make sure my hometown of Columbia — because I want to be clear, my hometown of Columbia, Missouri, that's my home — that everybody in this community, get out and vote. This is important. That means us, Columbia College, Stephens College, everybody, we got to get out. Mineral Area, Moberly, everybody, we've got to make sure we vote.
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"You owe it to yourself as a youth to do that. But I just think it's powerful, just, those are heavy shoes to walk in on a day to day basis, because then we also know, any moment his life could have been taken from him. That's powerful."
Martin said he is not living in any added fear of the coronavirus because of his past non-Hodgkin's lymphoma — he is nearing the 25th anniversary of beating cancer — but is doing his best to make sure he and his players and staff are taking the proper precautions when going out in public or practicing. Players are receiving both temperature and oxygen tests when entering Missouri's practice facilities, and leave a different way than they came in.
There hasn't yet been any discussion of changing or moving the NCAA men's basketball season, even as football has taken serious steps to protect its season.
But Martin, who has said numerous times the virus is a serious issue that affects lives while basketball is a game, has a message ready for his players in the event the season does get canceled.
"Like I tell our guys, 'Your health is your wealth,' and that's the most important thing," he said. "If we're not playing, that means it's because somebody cares about your health, and I think that's how you have to look at it."