With the sports world on pause during a pandemic, the Missourian asked a number of coaches in Columbia to share memories from the most meaningful game (or match, or race, or event) they have ever been a part of. Some chose formative coaching moments. Others preferred a highlight from their playing career. But each memory left a powerful imprint on the coaches, informing how they lead today. In this series, titled ‘The Moments That Shaped Them,’ the Missourian tells their stories.
Coach: Cuonzo Martin
Title: Head coach, Missouri men’s basketball
Moment: March 19, 1989 — East St. Louis Lincoln vs. Peoria Central
Somewhere during the third overtime, Cuonzo Martin thought to himself that he deserved a cigar just for making it through this game without leaving the court. Maybe the boss would spare one. If they win, that is.
It was the final game of 1989’s “basketball season that didn’t want to end,” as the Illinois High School Association broadcast had dubbed it between overtimes. Both teams were chasing history: Martin’s East St. Louis Lincoln could become the first team in IHSA history to “three-peat” as boys basketball state champions. Nationally ranked Peoria Central (32-0) stood in the way, trying to complete a rare perfect season.
Lincoln’s entire playoff run had featured high drama, and now, by the third overtime, the finale seemed to reach a state of never-ending climactic suspense. Martin, the 6-foot-6 junior forward, knew he wasn’t coming out of the game. That was Benny Lewis’ way. Lincoln’s 17th-year coach liked to stick with his starting five. “I never left the floor in high school,” Martin says. “It was a mindset.”
Benny “Boss” Lewis was equal parts coach and caricature. He pulled off the impossible balance of being cocky and humble all at once. When he addressed a player at practice, he called him “Chief.” He implored his team with cool one-liners and sarcasm. Under his leadership, East St. Louis’ players strutted into every gym knowing they were about to win. But they did it silently, with subtle swagger and nonchalance. They all wanted to be like Benny.
“He was one of the coolest guys ever as far as the demeanor and calmness to him,” Martin says.
And the cigars. They were a part of him, a physical extension of Lewis’ arm. He always had one in his hand. “In practice, he would have a cigar,” Martin says. “I can’t even recall a practice when he didn’t have one. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him without a cigar in his mouth.
“And I’ve never seen him smoke it.”
Lewis is Martin’s greatest coaching influence. In three seasons as the Missouri men’s basketball coach, Martin has tried to emulate the quietly intense persona and cool leadership style of his mentor. Part of the Lewis way entailed poking fun at players when the situation called for it. If you do it right, it can help team chemistry.
Take Martin, who averaged 26 points per game that 1988-89 season. At a Christmas tournament, East St. Louis trailed 18-15 at halftime of an ugly game. In the locker room, Lewis grabbed a stat sheet and marched up to Martin, removing a cigar from the corner of his mouth and propping it between his fingers. Wait, when did he even get that cigar? “Damn, Chief!” Lewis said, biting the stogie again, “you’re messin’ with your stats!” Martin has a booming laugh, and that story still produces it three decades later.
In the state championship game, Martin’s stats weren’t the problem. He had 21 of Lincoln’s 52 points entering the third overtime. But teamwork had been the key to Lincoln’s success all year, and Martin couldn’t help but think he would have to channel that chemistry with his teammates if they wanted to win the marathon game.
The players all grew up in East St. Louis together, where they shared a common dream of playing for Lincoln High. “That was a big deal,” Martin says. “That was our NBA, so to speak.” The eight-team state tournament was played at the University of Illinois’ Assembly Hall in Champaign, and the players stayed at a team hotel. The first night, before the quarterfinal, they stayed up until 5 a.m. “We’re just hanging out, having a great time together, because it’s rare that you’re able to stay in a hotel together as teammates,” Martin says.
It almost cost them their season. The next day, tied 70-70 with Aurora East, Lincoln had to defend against a potential last shot with 15 seconds left. As the clock ticked below 5, Martin stole the ball in the corner. He chucked it Hail Mary-style to the other end of the court. He had no idea who was down there. Luckily, Sharif Ford was a receiver on the football team, and he ran down the bouncing ball at the free-throw line with a second left, staying in stride while throwing up a shot at the buzzer.
When it went in, the Lincoln Tigers raced straight to the locker room without shaking hands.
“We sprinted off the floor like that was the championship game,” Martin says. “What really happened was we sprinted to the locker room, and we were like, ‘Man, we can never do that again.’ Really, we were just happy to survive because we didn’t deserve to win that game after hanging out all night.”
At the time, that was Martin’s most memorable game. It only held the title for a few days. After Lincoln upset Chicago King (30-1) in a 60-57 semifinal, the Peoria Central clash was set. The Tigers still felt like they had something to prove; their championships the last two years had been led by a local legend, future NBA player LaPhonso Ellis. Martin and his teammates felt like they had been written off after Ellis graduated.
“The other backdrop was that we felt like we never got the respect we deserved at East St. Louis,” Martin says. “We weren’t Chicago. We weren’t one of the traditional programs.”
Martin went through his pregame ritual of choosing a random passage to read from his pocket bible. He hyped the team up before tipoff, shouting “Three in a row!” He helped the Tigers to a 9-0 lead. But as Peoria rallied for a 26-23 halftime advantage, the broadcasters implored Lincoln to “post Cuonzo Martin up more. That’s your bread and butter.”
After a back-and-forth second half, Lincoln scored to tie it 46-46 with 50 seconds left and set up a dramatic finish. Peoria missed a floater in the final seconds but secured an offensive rebound and called a timeout.
Peoria inbounded the ball to star Chris Reynolds at the top of the key, who spun and leaned into a 3-point shot while colliding with a defender. It could have been a three-shot foul. Instead, it was an offensive foul call with two seconds left to force overtime. Martin and his teammates danced to the other end of the floor.
“Taking a charge will always be the highest energy play in basketball,” Martin says.
The first overtime was even crazier. Peoria had the last shot, trailing 50-48. Reynolds missed two shots, but the second rebound took a weird bounce to the left, where Peoria’s Mike Hughes released a high-arcing shot at the buzzer. It was perfect to tie the game.
By the third OT, Martin had team chemistry on his mind as Lincoln trailed 55-54 with one minute left. His teammate, Rico Sylvester, had the ball on the left wing. Martin knew what had to happen. He positioned himself on the left side to receive a pass and post up — bread and butter. Sylvester’s defender backed up to prevent the pass to Martin. The double-team left Sylvester open for a go-ahead 3.
“These were guys who, you could tell, we had played against each other since elementary school,” Martin says. “I like to think I was always a good teammate. I was the lead scorer, but I didn’t care who made the shot.”
That was the lesson again after Peoria tied it at 57. Martin didn’t care who took the last shot for Lincoln. As long as the shot went in. And it did. Vincent Jackson took it from the top of the key, and this one swished at the buzzer. East St. Louis had its third straight championship, 59-57, and the floor was filled with March Madness scenes of Peoria players collapsing to their knees as the Tigers mobbed at mid-court. Martin led the way with 21 points. He only scored 2 in the three overtimes. He didn’t care.
“The theme was supporting your teammates’ success and loving when your teammates have success,” Martin says. “I’ve always been blessed to be around teams where it doesn’t matter who led them. I just enjoy being part of a team and having an opportunity to win. I thank God I was never jealous of another guy’s success.”
In the middle of the swarm, Martin shared a hug with Bennie Lewis. It was way more satisfying than a cigar.