College Sports

East St. Louis sticks with Mizzou coach Cuonzo Martin in the man he trusts most

Cuonzo Martin (right) left the court with Marco Harris in 2013 after a Tennessee victory.
Cuonzo Martin (right) left the court with Marco Harris in 2013 after a Tennessee victory. Knoxville News Sentinel

So many Cuonzo Martin stories begin at “The Hole,” a public housing complex that dips below street level in this city. But this one will not.

This story about one of the most important relationships in the Missouri men’s basketball coach’s life begins near the corner of St. Louis Avenue and 14th Street, at a brown brick duplex that belongs to Marco Harris’ father, Norman Stevens. This is Pop’s house, where the best high school basketball players in town hung out. They played Tecmo Bowl, NBA Jam, Double Dribble and Madden in the basement while listening to Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick.

Martin lived here for much of high school. He didn’t have to. He just didn’t want to be apart from Harris or their other closest friend, Jason Rogers.

The boys spent nights on a ragged sectional sofa, or sometimes they’d all squeeze into a king bed together. Stevens bought bacon by the slab for them. He made chili for them. All they had to do was clean up the kitchen and stay out of trouble.

“We were like … the black three stooges,” Rogers says.

About 10 boys in all used to regularly hang out in the basement, and these people still make up Martin’s inner circle, which is why this story exists: Martin is a loyal man, and he put Harris on his staff, people close to them say, to fulfill both obvious and ambiguous roles.

Cuonzo Martin (far right) and Marco Harris (center, yellow shirt) stand among friends, including Rico Sylvester Sr. (front, middle left), on the front steps of Norman Stevens’ East St. Louis home. The men grew up hanging out at Stevens’ duplex, mostly in the basement, and Martin lived here during high school because he and Harris didn’t like spending time apart. Submitted photo

Harris is Mizzou’s director of player development, which means he does some tasks you probably do not care about, including organizing community service and weekly character-building sessions for the Tigers. But Harris also functions as the coach’s closest confidant, someone who Martin will still seek advice from during games even though Harris is not an assistant coach. He often sits near Martin on the bench. Harris believes his word carries the most influence of anyone on the Tigers’ staff.

His presence has perhaps never been as important as it will be this season, as Martin coaches a Missouri team with the greatest expectations of any squad Martin has led during his nine-year college coaching career.

“It’s the trust level,” Martin says of what Harris brings to the Mizzou staff. “A guy that understands you, a guy that may have to tell you, ‘Do a better job. This is not working. We’re not spending enough time on this.’

“… It’s almost like having my wife on my staff.”

They grew up going to a Popeye’s near Stevens’ duplex. When the boys couldn’t pack nine into a borrowed Cutlass, they would walk there to get 10 wings for $3.99. But it closed. There used to be a hospital downtown. But it closed. Now there’s no hospital in East St. Louis.

“It’d make you tough out here,” Rico Sylvester Sr. says while sitting in a car, passing sites of memories from days when he, Martin, Harris and other friends were winning state basketball titles at Lincoln High School. That used to be one of two high schools here. It closed.

Martin’s longtime friend, Rico Sylvester Sr., took The Star on a driving tour of two places that are part of the Missouri basketball coach’s past: Lincoln High School

About two years ago, Martin, Harris and nine other friends formed Bonded Together, an informal charity without the proper paperwork. It’s just in its beginning stages, but so far the men say they have raised enough money to give seven area kids $3,000 scholarships for college.

East St. Louis sticks with Martin. He feels guilty for not giving back more, his half-brother Dale Martin says. That’s part of the reason Bonded Together now exists.

The city’s continuing influence also manifests itself in how Martin thinks, with a mindset that people from this city never shake.

“We’re built alike,” Harris says of he and Martin and the binding element that he believes exists between most people from his hometown. “ … I stay on my toes. Trust? I don’t trust a lot of people. I don’t think anybody does.”

If Martin asks for advice, he rarely does so overtly. He’ll toss “what do you think?” into a stream of conversation. Harris is perhaps the only friend he will ever call with the sole intention of hearing what they think. And Harris’ wife, Ramona, believes her husband often goes to Martin with his problems before he goes to her.

Cuonzo Martin and Marco Harris pose for a photo at a July 2016 fundraiser in East St. Louis, where their charity organization, Bonded Together, raised money to give scholarships to local high school students. Martin, Harris and nine other friends decided to create Bonded Together to give back to East St. Louis, where they grew up. Submitted photo

“If you hitch hike a ride for the right reason, with the right person, you get to the right place at the right time,” Stevens says. “That’s what they did.”

After stops at Tennessee and California, Mizzou is the third school where Harris has worked under his best friend. He was coaching high school basketball in Tulsa, when Martin, then at Missouri State, got the Tennessee job and asked Harris to join his staff in Knoxville.

Tennessee was Martin’s first Power Five job, which meant more public scrutiny, more pressure. During his third season, Martin saw how unrealistic expectations can derail a coach’s tenure.

He led the Volunteers to two NIT berths while helping the program recover from NCAA violations his predecessor, Bruce Pearl, committed — and fans clamored for Pearl. Thousands of them signed a petition for Martin to be fired during a season he led the Volunteers to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16, and boosters stopped loaning Martin their private jets for recruiting.

Stevens taught the boys to approach life with minimal malice, and Martin has never publicly disparaged Tennessee. At the SEC Tipoff media event last month, Martin called his tenure coaching the Volunteers “a tremendous experience. I learned a lot.”

“They’re probably conversations I don’t care to share,” Harris says when asked about the moments he shared with Martin as the coach knew he was being effectively forced out of Knoxville. “There was some anger in them.”

Harris doesn’t view Martin as his boss, but as his brother. This is cliché, but every one of the men’s friends interviewed for this article referred the group as a set of brothers, and Stevens refers to all of them as his sons.

Harris’s influence might be seen as a flaw of Martin’s — or as one of his most commendable qualities. That will depend in part on how Mizzou’s season goes, but their relationship won’t change. It hasn’t for approximately four decades.

Their humor only makes sense to them. They’ll compliment you on your shoes and just start laughing. There’s a joke in there somewhere. Like teenagers, they still compete against one another in the weight room.

“I would say they know each other better than Roberta (Cuonzo Martin’s wife) and I know them,” Ramona Harris says.

From a catalog of memories they’ve made together, one stands out to Harris. When his sister died in January 1996, for a reason he does not want to publicly disclose, Martin was playing for a Continental Basketball Association team in Grand Rapids, Mich. — yet he still arrived in East St. Louis within hours of learning the news.

The death wasn’t even a day old, so there was no advice Martin could offer to help heal Harris. And with how close the men are, Harris says it was like Martin “lost his sister, too.”

The best friends just sat in the basement of Pop’s house, with some of those same friends who used to play video games there. They found comfort in one another.

Aaron Reiss: 816-234-4042, @aaronjreiss