Martin finds warmth at Cal after feeling unwanted at Tennessee

BERKELEY, Calif. - After Cal coach Cuonzo Martin blows his whistle to signal a break at a practice in mid-October, the beat builds and the bass thumps against the walls at Haas Pavilion.

You used to call me on my cell phone ... Late night when you neeeeeeed myyyyyy looooove ... Call me on my cell phone ....

Martin, 44, nods his glossy, bald head to Drake's latest hypnotic groove, "Hotline Bling," while he walks to the sideline.

Then, the second-year coach's nod becomes a bob and his lips twist and his neck cranks before he croons his favorite verse.

"I know when that hotline bling!" Martin, a natural baritone, squeals, "that can only mean one thing!"

He's not content with his pitch so he rides the Canadian rapper's wave again.

"I know when that hotline bling!" he sings, this time with more emphasis on that last "bling," "that can only mean one thing!"

"That's what makes Cuonzo the perfect college coach," said former Notre Dame and NBA standout LaPhonso Ellis, who played with Martin on a Lincoln High School (East St. Louis, Ill.) squad that won an Illinois state championship. "He's serious about the things you need to be serious about, but he also has a likeness to him."

Martin is loose these days.

He smiles now like a man who no longer fights through the background static that muddied his time in Knoxville, Tennessee. In 2014, his turbulent three-season tenure at Tennessee ended with a Sweet 16 run. It was the second time since 2008 that the Vols had reached the NCAA tournament's second weekend. Still, that March burst happened after thousands of Vols fans had signed a petition seeking his dismissal and the return of former coach Bruce Pearl. Soon after, Martin left Tennessee and accepted an offer from Cal.

Cal -- a preseason top-25 team after Martin added McDonald's All-Americans Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown -- will offer a stage for Martin's next chapter.

His stint at Tennessee threatened to interrupt his career. But Martin has survived far worse than an embittered fan base. Cancer could have killed him. The bullets that flew through his East St. Louis housing project could have killed him.

He's a coach who understands and respects his duties but dismisses the life-or-death tone that's often attached to collegiate sports. He's seen death. That murky chapter in Knoxville was just a basketball problem.

"I think there's a great excitement here at Cal," Martin said. "You can't beat the weather, the culture, the diversity. I mean, you can't beat it. It's a good place. I'm happy and excited. My life is the same every day. One day at a time."

Martin left Missouri State for the vacancy at Tennessee in 2011 after the school fired Pearl, who committed NCAA violations that resulted in sanctions for the Vols and a three-year show-cause penalty for Pearl, who is now the head coach at Auburn.

The disgruntled Vols backers didn't bother Martin. But he worried about his family -- wife, Roberta; sons Joshua (18) and Chase (14); and daughter Addison (8). As the tension grew in Knoxville -- customers at his wife's store alerted her that some members of the fan base had turned against her husband in his final season -- Martin decided to hire a security firm. That's what you do when 40,000 people don't want you around.

His upbringing in East St. Louis taught him to match any perceived animosity with awareness and caution. He also sought to "blur" his house on Google Street View, per a source. Even though he never faced any direct threats of violence, he couldn't dismiss the possibility.

"When you have a family, it's your job to do everything in your power to protect your family and that is my job to do as a father and as a man," Martin said. "So we had cameras around the house, outside the house. We had them in different places on the interior, basically the doors and windows of the interior, just for that."

The vibe had changed internally, too. According to a source close to Martin, a booster pulled Martin's access to a private plane on the day of a recruiting trip without explanation. Tennessee reduced its men's basketball budget by $1.6 million between 2010-11, which was Pearl's final season, and 2013-14, which was Martin's last season in Knoxville, per CBSSports.com. Football coach Butch Jones flew on a chartered jet to SEC meetings in Florida; Martin drove eight hours. As Martin felt the shift in the climate, the school's administration, Martin said, did not convey its support.

That frustrated him.

"When you have an administration, and there's a true petition, then your administration, I'd like to think, will stand up if they believe in you and say, 'Hey, that's it,'" Martin said. "Now, if that happened, great. If it didn't, so be it. If they believe and they stand up, but if you don't stand up, that means you're a part of it. That's how I take that. That's where I'm from. I don't think it was clear [where they stood]."

Larry Smith, a Tennessee booster and board member of the Big Orange Tipoff Club, said Knoxville welcomed Martin. But, he said, the petition and criticism arose because Martin failed to promote the team with the same flair that Pearl employed.

"Cuonzo stays in the office so much and never got into the community that much," Smith said. "They wouldn't do that to Bruce Pearl. Bruce Pearl was everywhere. It was just [Martin's] demeanor."

Smith said he thought Martin would help with recruiting and guide immature youths who "play streetball" and need to "clean up their acts."

"We thought [the petition] was disrespectful because we thought he was doing a good job," said former Vols star Josh Richardson, now with the Miami Heat. "I think that race definitely played a part of it. I'm glad he found a place where he can be as comfortable as he wants to be."

Wade Houston, the school's first black basketball coach, was denied admission to an all-white country club in Knoxville after he was hired in 1989. Former star Bernard King said he dealt with prejudice when he played for the Vols in the 1970s, too. Those around Martin said he never blamed anyone but he was upset by the idea that some members of the Tennessee fan base wanted the return of a white coach who'd damaged the university's reputation and image but did not want a black coach who'd avoided the bad headlines and also won more SEC games in his three seasons than any coach in the league not named John Calipari or Billy Donovan.

Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart declined to speak with ESPN.com about Martin's tenure.

But Tennessee didn't fire Martin. He left by choice.

"It was time for me to leave Tennessee," said Martin, who insists he is not bitter. "There wasn't any hate. It was time to go."

As Martin boarded a West Coast-bound plane in Atlanta to accept the Cal job in 2014, he'd already endured enough to temper the angst that would engulf others in his position.

Trainers at Purdue told him that he'd never play after going through two of his four knee surgeries before he even reached West Lafayette, Indiana. But Martin was all-Big Ten first team in 1995 and the 57th overall pick in the NBA draft later that year.

"They didn't know Cuonzo," said Gene Keady, Martin's coach at Purdue.

After two NBA seasons in which he saw action in only seven games, Martin went to Italy. It was there that he collapsed on the court. He flew back to the U.S. that night and learned that he had a baseball-sized tumor lodged in his chest. At 27, he was told he had Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Doctors informed him he might not see Joshua, then 4-months-old, grow into a young man. But he's been in remission since 2002. Yet, the what-ifs stayed with him.

"I don't know about other cancer patients, but for me, I didn't think I was out of the water because it happened," he said. "It's not like I'm 70, 80 years old and it happened. I still got a long way to go. And good, bad or indifferent, I just think, where I come from, I feel like if I let my guard down, something bad is going to happen."

They arrived at the front door dressed in the best their mother could afford.

Then, when her children were pre-teens, Sandra Martin knocked and a woman she didn't know answered. The single mother of four asked if she could tour the estate with a young Martin and his three siblings. She'd go to ritzy Ladue, Missouri, the state's wealthiest suburb. The single mother of four wanted her children to see what life in the East St. Louis housing projects, nicknamed "the hole," often obscured: possibilities. The woman invited them inside.

Each child picked their favorite room and made a mess of the bed. They wandered and explored, and then the family gathered in the dining room and enjoyed the lunch that Sandra Martin hauled on the three buses they all rode to the St. Louis suburbs that afternoon.

For a few hours each Sunday, the Martins were rich. They could forget about borrowing hot water from neighbors or the crime rate at home.

"I just wanted them to know there was more than East St. Louis," Sandra Martin said. "You can have a dream. Cuonzo found his."

Some of Martin's friends became feared gangbangers who ran the city. His brother, Dale Martin, served 10 years in prison on drug-related charges. He didn't follow them.

But they protected him whenever he dribbled his glow-in-the-dark basketball on the unlit court behind the Norman E. Owens housing project or ventured to McDonald's to grab a burger.

Martin isn't ashamed. He's proud of where he's from. It's home, a city where his mother demanded discipline and pasted "You are great!" notes on the refrigerator. It's a place where coaches and community leaders acted as fathers when his own left when Martin was just a young boy; they reconnected a few years ago. It's an area anchored by men and women who let Martin and his friends grab what little they had in their cupboards if they were hungry. It's a neighborhood that solidified his commitment to family.

"There were a lot of guys behind the scenes," Martin said, "helping make it work for me."

Some of those guys eventually found homes in cemeteries or jails. Not Martin.

But he's still not sure why he's here. How he arrived here.

He chuckles at the thought. Some men would cry.

He's coaching a preseason top-25 team at Cal. He's been in remission for 13 years. He escaped the chaos in Knoxville. He's the educated product of a single mother who disregarded the statistics about young black men raised in impoverished communities. Sandra Martin's two daughters, Valencia and Jamikka, both have advanced degrees. Dale Martin operates a barbershop and his 6-foot-4 baby brother is a Division I coach.

Martin's wife, Roberta, a Purdue graduate, also comes from a single-parent home. Their son, Chase, is an eighth-grader who has "never had a B in his life." Joshua will pick a college soon. Addison will keep smiling and occupying the space underneath her father's arm.

"You figure, single-parent homes, parents didn't finish high school (Sandra Martin later earned her GED) and here we are at Berkeley, Calif., No. 1 in the world," said Roberta Martin, as her three children and husband nibbled on their meals at a steakhouse on campus.

Martin's home in the Oakland suburbs rises above the rest in his cozy neighborhood. The steps that lead to his front door feel more like a Zumba workout than a staircase. The living room features elevated ceilings, chic charcoal-colored sofas and a kitchen with its own zip code.

"You can't beat it, man," he said.

From his balcony, Martin sees an illuminated downtown Oakland that's not yet awake on this October morning. An oversized black SUV waits nearby to take him to Pac-12 media day.

The trip across the Bay Bridge nudges along. Martin leans back and relaxes in a navy blue, pinstriped tailored suit accented by a pair of chestnut shoes that might cost a rent check where he once lived.

He pauses as he considers his life.

After all of these hurdles and obstacles, he admits that he's still not sure how to handle this fortune.

"I'm grateful for everything that's been given to me and the opportunities," he said, "but then I also think, how can I really enjoy this when I know there are a lot of kids who will never have this opportunity?"

The opportunity that Rabb, Brown and senior Tyrone Wallace will get this season is clear: impress on the floor and they'll elevate their respective draft stocks.

But it's rare for a team with three potential first-round picks to perform for a few hundred spectators. Last month, however, Cal's nationally ranked squad dunked and danced in front of a near-empty Haas Pavilion.

"I thought more people would be there," said Brown, as he walked down a hallway after the "Haas Hoops Hysteria" event, "but it's fine."

That will change this season. Officials say there's a significant increase in season ticket sales for the upcoming season at Haas Pavilion, where $10 million in renovations were completed during the summer.

According to athletic director Mike Williams, the 2015-16 campaign could help the program construct long-term momentum and capitalize on the buzz; Cal finished 54th nationally in attendance last season.

"Time will tell if he's a great basketball coach," Williams said. "But he's a great developer of men."

At Berkeley, enticing supporters and students at a school rated No. 1 in the U.S. News & World Report's public institutions rankings requires Martin to converse with diverse and eclectic audiences. There were more Asian undergrads (9,990) at Cal during the 2013 spring semester than white undergrads (7,243). Martin's youngest son, Chase, attended his first Bar Mitzvah this year. And the coach took selfies with middle-aged members of the Berkeley Breakfast Club at a recent speaking engagement.

On campus, skaters sport blond Mohawks and dash through traffic with a youthful sense of invincibility. The smokers puff joints along the sidewalks. The critical thinkers sip lattes and highlight textbooks. The dancers convene on the Haas Pavilion steps after dark, blast their favorite Michael Jackson tracks and run through their routines. The athletes strut to practice. The hipsters model their latest henna tattoos.

Then, they all meet at Chipotle around 2 p.m.

"You just have to learn different cultures," Martin said.

Drawing support seems like a simple excursion for Martin after you watch his team practice. Wallace is one of three double-figure scorers who returns this season. Rabb is still adjusting, but his 6-11 frame finds the rack with ease. And then there's Brown, a potential top-five pick who boasts an Olympian-like 3.2 percent body fat and might play center in some lineups this season. The 2015-16 campaign could be a special one for Cal basketball.

"There's a mental focus you have to have every night," Martin warned. "It can't just be about your ability to score or your ability to make plays. It has to be the mental part. When things don't go your way, how do you handle that? NBA guys have bad nights. One night. Keep moving. And that's what I try to explain to our guys."

Because that's how he lives.