On a Friday morning zoom call, Missouri basketball coach Cuonzo Martin was scheduled to discuss the return of three of the team’s most productive players after they tested the NBA waters.
At first, he did.
But Martin, whose voice has spread awareness on social justice efforts around the country over the past few months, also spoke at great lengths about the wealth gap in the United States and paid tribute to civil rights leader John Lewis, who died July 17.
Near the end of the interview, he played the beginning of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” As Cooke sang, “I was born by the river,” Martin closed his eyes and let Cooke’s voice ring through the call. He said that he was going to share a video with the team about Lewis later that afternoon.
“I think he started at 23 years old,” Martin said. “Wow. Can you imagine at 23 years old being on the front lines? There’s a resiliency and there’s a lot of pain in that soul to see what he saw at 23 starting out. I don’t know if I would’ve been strong enough.”
Martin urged his players and the Columbia community to vote, and while he’s not going to tell you whom to vote for on Nov. 3, he said, he just wants the people to take advantage of what Lewis fought so dearly for.
As NBA and MLB teams across the nation make statements on uniforms and in public, Martin said that if his team uses their platform to address these issues, he hopes they will stand by it even if it is difficult.
“I say to our guys, ‘At some point, your knees will probably buckle when you get uncomfortable,’” Martin said. “‘But if the truth can stand on it,’ … like I said to my sons maybe four weeks ago, I said, ‘I don’t know if I’ll be on this earth to see true equality ... .’
“We have to do a better job, and by we, I mean everybody on this Zoom call. We have to do a better job of creating change. If we sit back and say, ‘My life is good,’ how do you do that when you know there are people struggling? When you know the education system hadn’t been equal, the justice system hadn’t been equal?”
On Thursday, the NCAA announced it would allow players to wear patches for “commemorative or memorial purposes as well as social justice causes.”
Martin said that if Missouri players decide to wear a patch, it will be as a team.
“It’s not as if one guy will do something and the next guy doesn’t,” he said. “We’ll do that together as a team, and I think that’s only right when you’re playing a team sport.”
Martin to players: ‘Don’t come back’ if you don’t feel comfortable
Normally, Martin’s entire squad would have been in Columbia for eight weeks beginning June 8 and could discuss this in person. But at the beginning of July, with some of them on campus and COVID-19 continuing to spread throughout the county and state, Martin recommended his players go home to be with their families.
“I just felt that was only right because, for me, the unknowns of the virus,” he said. “Five-10 years down the road, that part we don’t really know. If their health and safety is the most important thing, what are we really doing here?”
He reiterated that this disease is not a game and that if “they don’t feel comfortable coming back, don’t come back.” One player’s mother called Martin earlier this summer concerned about her son returning to campus, and he told him to stay home.
“I would do the same thing as a parent if I had a concern,” said Martin, who added he has enjoyed spending this time with his family. “This is a sport, this is what we do as entertainment, and then there’s real life. I love being around the players when we practice and the game, but I also understand there’s something more important than what we do right now.”
For the four players who remained on campus in July, Martin said they work out on the court in 30-minute periods and do weight training and conditioning four days per week.
“That’s really been a slow process for ... (director of athletic performance) Nicodemus (Christopher) just because of the health and safety,” Martin said, “easing into it, because again, they’ve been off for so long and obviously you don’t want to thrust back into the sport full speed.”
Tigers set to bring back experienced roster
When the rest of the team returns Aug. 13, Martin anticipates the players will be required to go through a quarantine period. Although Missouri has one open scholarship spot as of now, Martin said he is not looking at anybody specifically to fill it and noted that he wasn’t going to be playing 13 guys in a game. Once his entire team is together, it will be one of the most experienced in the conference. He likened it to the 2014 Tennessee Volunteers squad that made the Sweet 16.
“I think where we have to grow more than anything is the total commitment to sacrifice, and I think sacrifice nowadays is harder than it was then, because when you’re talking one-and-done and being an NBA player, all those things are fine,” Martin said. ”It has to increase your work ethic, your desire and all those things. But more than anything, it has to increase the sacrifice levels and your commitment to the team. ... With our personnel, I’m not sure we’ll have guys play 30 minutes a night.”
Missouri will return all of its primary starters despite losing Reed Nikko and Axel Okongo. Xavier Pinson, Jeremiah Tilmon and Mitchell Smith all opted to return to Missouri after testing the NBA waters this summer.
Martin said he spoke with Tilmon throughout the summer about his options and thinks Tilmon will be an NBA prospect if he grows into a more aggressive and assertive player.