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In a wide ranging Zoom media session that covered everything from COVID-19 to Jeremiah Tilmon’s foul trouble, Missouri basketball coach Cuonzo Martin saved his best for last Friday, playing a portion of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” when talking about the Civil Rights pioneer John Lewis.

“I’ll let you listen to a little background music since you guys are part of my second team,” Martin said during a 35-minute session with reporters. “This is my favorite artist of all time, Sam Cooke."

Martin said his team was scheduled to watch a video Friday afternoon about Lewis, one of the original Freedom Riders who for decades fought for Black voting rights. Lewis, who  represented Georgia in Congress for 33 years, died of pancreatic cancer on July 17. He was eulogized Thursday by three former presidents in Atlanta. 

“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 a lot of pain and that soul to see what he saw and be 23 when he was starting out. I don't know if I've been strong enough.

But what he battled (makes) November 3 huge. Whatever you vote, like I tell our guys, we make sure our guys are registered to vote and whoever you vote for that’s your business. I don’t get into that. But you have to vote. You owe it to yourself. There were a lot of people that fought just for you to have the right to vote. So women can have the right to vote. It’s very important that we all fight for that. And I'll do everything in my power to make sure my hometown of Columbia — I want to be clear, my hometown of Columbia, Missouri, that's my home — that everyone in this community gets out and vote. It’s important, that means us, Columbia College, Stephens College, Mineral Area, Moberly, everybody. We’ve got to make sure we vote. You owe it to yourself as a youth to do that. I just think it's powerful. Those are heavy shoes to walk in on a day to day basis. We also know any moment his life could have been taken from him. That’s powerful.”

As for his basketball team, the Tigers were originally scheduled to start eight weeks of summer workouts June 8 until the SEC shut down team activities until early July. On July 2, though, Martin told players to stay home and away from the facility.

“I just said to our guys, ‘Everybody go home be with your families because I just don't feel good about the COVID,’” he said. “I think that's the most important thing, be with your families. Now they could stay on campus if they wanted to, the guys in apartments. But I encouraged them to go home. Because I just felt that was only right because for me the unknowns of the virus, five, 10 years down the road that we don't know (about). If their health and safety is the most important thing what are we really doing here?”

Four players have stayed in Columbia, including Torrence Watson and Jeremiah Tilmon. Newcomer Ed Chang has been with the team, too. They’re able to work out with the coaches three days a wek on the court for 30 minutes at a time and four days a week in the weight room. The rest of the team is scheduled to arrive by Aug. 13. Each player will have to self-quarantine after moving to Columbia for 10-14 days, Martin said. The hope is they can begin workouts Aug. 24, which is the first day of classes for the fall semester.

Tilmon, along with teammates Mitchell Smith and Xavier Pinson, is returning for the 2020-21 season after exploring his NBA draft stock. Martin believes he can use his senior season to turn himself into an NBA prospect

“We spent a lot of time talking this summer,” Martin said. “Jeremiah is as talented as any at that position. But I think for him the growth and composure is the key, maintaining composure, consistency. And then playing the game filled with joy. Because Jeremiah is a guy that loves to play the game, but he's not a guy consumed with stats. So it's not as if he needs to have 20 points to be successful. He's a he's a very selfless young man. He values team and all that, but I think for him composure first and foremost.

“Then like I talked to him about understanding what will make him successful, because for me the most important things are team success, of course. … But in order for our team to be successful, Jeremiah needs to be an elite rebounder, whether it's five rebounds a game or 10 rebounds. So it really is his approach to rebounding, improve his ability to make plays at the rim in the face-up (game) or at the basket but also being strong with the basketball, not losing the ball, minimizes turnovers and consistently get to the free throw line, because he’s improved his free throw shooting every year.

“I think he was better defensively this past season. But now the next step which is subtle, because he didn't foul as much, is just playing defense, and not playing like, ‘I don't want to foul.’ Just play defense. I thought he gave up opportunities to be aggressive and assertive because he didn’t want to foul. I think with him playing 20, 20-plus minutes a game very hard, I think he’ll be an NBA prospect when that happens.”

On Mitchell Smith, Martin said, “I think Mitch, along with Kobe (Brown) and Javon (Pickett), and I say this in terms of endearment because it’s a great thing, I think those guys are X factors in what they do because what they do they brings a lot to the table. Mitch is one of those guys he might leave the game with seven points, but there was a big steal, a big charge, a big block, a big 3. There was so many ways he impacted the game. And for us as a staff the biggest key with Mitch is to keep his confidence at a high level. Not as if he walks with his head down, but just maintaining his level of confidence. Because when his confidence is high he brings so much to the table. Not to the level of Jontay Porter as a player, but just a level of impact. We have to keep him clicking on all cylinders. I just think he's a guy that does things, he moves the ball on offense, he spaces you out on offense,  he makes the extra pass on offense. Now on offense we need to get him ways to be more of an aggressive scorer.”

Martin said this could be his most experienced team or at least on par with his 2014 Tennessee team that reached the Sweet 16.

“I think we have the experience,” He said. “I think what 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. 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 a team. Credit to Kentucky. I think what Kentucky has shown over the past maybe six, seven, eight years with a lot of guys that are one-and-done guys, you don't have to play 30 minutes to be successful. You don't have to play 30 minutes to get drafted. I think that's a great blueprint for guys to understand as long as you're effective with your production per minute — and those are the things that we've talked to our guys about being productive per minute. I think with our all personnel, I'm not sure we'll have guys play 30 minutes a night. You guys probably heard me say this before I thought I played a lot of minutes in my senior year in college and thought I never came out of game. But I only played 28 minutes a game. But I’d like to think I played hard on both ends of the floor. We have to get our guys to consistently play hard on both ends of the floor, every possession down.”

In the last five months Martin has had more time to share thoughts and pick the brains of other coaches, especially in the NBA. He plans to apply what he’s learned toward this year’s team.

“I've spoken at coaches clinics and taken a lot of notes, but this is the first time I'm able to call multiple NBA teams just to say, ‘What do you guys do? How does this work?,’ he said. “I've been blessed to talk to maybe five to seven guys that were college coaches, but now they're in the NBA. And I'll say, ‘If you came back to college, what would you change what would you do differently? What’s the difference?’ Even though it’s basketball they're really two different games. Just taking those notes and listening to those teams … for us (it’s about) opening it up offensively more and playing in more space.”

Martin has one open scholarship for 2020-21, but as of today, he doesn’t plan to add another player to the roster.

“I'm saying no and today is July, 31 at 11:58,” he said. “But there’s really nobody right now that we're looking at. I’ve said this for several years and I haven’t aways lived up to it, but you're not going to play 13 guys. I'm hopeful, very hopeful that we can play 10 plus guys and be effective and have fun in doing that. But we're not playing 13 guys. When I came out of college, or even the last six to seven years, (there are situations) where you can redshirt one or two guys and it’s a good thing. Nowadays that 13th guy probably doesn't play for you but he thinks he should have played and he’ll end up transferring. So what’s the point?”

Away from the court, Martin has spent a lot of time thinking and talking about the social justice issues that have commanded the nation’s attention for the last four to five months. He spoke at length Friday about his thoughts on how he’s processed this summer in America and how he’s talked to his players and his sons.

“You guys probably heard me say this before, but there's an old person inside of you that's expecting and counting on you to do the right things,” he said. “The right things for all of us can be uncomfortable. We talk about different movements, Black Lives movements, this movement, that movement. I think the movement is the truth. Whatever the truth is we all have to live by. I think that's the one thing that holds us all accountable. You can avoid it. You don't have to look at it, but the truth is what holds us accountable. I think that's the most important thing. Like I say to my guys all the time, ‘We can do a lot of different things. Just be real. Just be true to it and then you have to stand on it. Standing on something can be very uncomfortable … and at some point your knees will probably buckle when you get uncomfortable. But if it’s the truth then stand on it.

“Like I said to my sons, maybe about three weeks ago or four weeks ago, I said to them, ‘Guys, I don't know if I'll be on this earth to see true equality.’ I said, ‘I don't think I’m threatened by anything, but because that wealth gap is so far behind … I still have to do my part as an humanitarian. I have to do my part.’ Hopefully, if I'm blessed to have grandkids that they can see that it's a different world when they are on this earth and they’re living. What we’re talking about now they’ll be like, ‘Man, that's in a movie. That’s in a video.’ That's not the world. It’s what they heard about 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 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.

“We live in a level of comfort, but if three blocks away, or one mile away that community is in a bad way then who are we? I'm grateful to be sitting here, grateful and I thank God, but also there is a part of me and my soul I know what it's like for family and friends back home in East St. Louis, or even on the St. Louis side. Or you go to Detroit. It's amazing how you can go to certain places in the United States and say, ‘That's a bad area.’ You don't have to go. you already know by the name, because it's been that way. So how does that happen? Why aren’t there bad places in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming? Think about that.

“We have to do a better job. I mean we, everybody on this Zoom call. 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 people are struggling? When you know that the educational system hasn't been equal and the justice system hasn’t been equal?”

“The last thing I'll leave you guys with is progress is painful,” he later said. “Progress is painful. It's a bumpy road. It'll bring you to your knees. But everybody on the Zoom call can be part of the change. You can write all the bad articles about me. That’s fine. You still have to do your job. I’m not trying to soften you up. You have to do your job. But you also have to have a level of compassion and understanding that there is somebody less than. Always keep in mind: Coach came from East St. Louis. I just went by there Monday. I’ll send you a video. When you see that video and then you see those kids, four or five blocks from our campus, that was me. That was me.”

Dave Matter

@dave_matter on Twitter

dmatter@post-dispatch.com

This article originally ran on stltoday.com.

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