COLUMBIA, Mo. — Seemingly endless rows of hanging steel columns loomed over the Missouri men’s basketball team. Players and staff were speechless as they explored the corridors. Each column was a symbol of oppression, representing an American county and inscribed with the names of people lynched there.
A series of lessons and exercises led by Mizzou coach Cuonzo Martin and focused on Black history and systemic racism culminated in the team’s visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, on Jan. 25, between road games. Players said it was the most poignant experience but also the most educational and personal in their studies.
Sophomore Kobe Brown, who is from Huntsville, Alabama, sought out the steel column commemorating lynching victims from his home county. As he took a moment to read each name, he reflected on growing up in the state. In the neighboring Legacy Museum, he noticed rows of glass jars filled with soil from the sites of documented lynchings.
“It’s crazy to think that at one point in time, the ground where I walk around every day was once a place full of evil and hatred and terrorism,” Brown said.
When senior Mitchell Smith walked beneath the columns, a county with 46 lynchings stood out. In the museum, he read a story about a Black man sentenced to life in prison who wanted to take college classes but was denied access to education.
“That’s a part of my history that I didn’t know about, and it kind of hurts that I didn’t know about that,” Smith said. “Seeing that shocked me, but it woke me up as well.”
As Mizzou returns to the NCAA Tournament on Saturday for the second time in Martin’s four seasons with the Tigers, his mentorship of players might go overlooked. But Martin, for the past nine months especially, has been equal parts basketball coach and Black history teacher.
At the memorial, he gravitated toward the section dedicated to lynching victims in his hometown during the East St. Louis Massacre of 1917. He was overwhelmed by statues of slaves in chains, particularly one of a mother trying to protect her baby.
“Just being in there, your knees buckle,” Martin said. “You feel weak. You think, ‘Am I strong enough to have been (alive) back in those times?’”
When they exited, the silence lingered. Not even Martin knew what to say. Strength and conditioning coach Nicodemus Christopher felt compelled to call his brother, who has the same title for the University of Pittsburgh men’s basketball team. They stayed on the phone for 45 minutes.
“I just had to get it off my chest,” Christopher said. “From start to finish, there was so much raw emotion.”
‘A river, not a dam’
As Black Lives Matter protests took place after the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others, Mizzou basketball was adapting to 2020 summer life in a pandemic. Martin didn’t want to ignore what was going on, and with the team confined to Zoom meetings, he felt a learning opportunity had presented itself.
“What are you gonna say as far as basketball is concerned?” Martin said. “So much other stuff is going on in society. We can deal with the basketball stuff later.”
He started by introducing the team to “Reconstruction: America After the Civil War,” a four-part PBS documentary illustrating how the post-slavery assimilation of Black people into American life failed to achieve equality, leading to discriminatory legislation, hate crimes and the perpetuation of white supremacy. Martin wanted the team to understand how history shaped today’s injustices.
The team split into four groups, each a mixture of players and staff, and once every week, a group discussed its assigned part of the documentary. There was no specific prompt, no “right or wrong answer,” as Martin put it — just everyone talking about what they learned, as the other groups listened.
“Those weren’t the teachings that we were taught in schools,” Martin said. “Out of all these courses they teach in college, I’m quite sure African American history should be one of them. That should be mandatory. Because you think about the No. 1 issue we have in our society, we’ve had since Africans have come to the United States: We’ve had an issue with race.”
That got Martin thinking about lesser-known Black historical figures. When the documentary discourse ended, the coach was ready with a new idea. He challenged everyone to research and share an important African American’s story, someone who’d made a mark before the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s. “Not the usual suspects, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X,” Martin said. “You had to do your homework.
“It was a great experience. There was a lot that each one of us learned.”
This is Christopher’s 10th season coaching with Martin, dating back to Cal and Tennessee. It isn’t the first time racism has been a team conversation topic — when Colin Kaepernick first kneeled during the national anthem in 2016, Martin discussed it with his players at Cal — but never have the activities been so in-depth.
“That’s something about Coach Martin that I admire the most: He’s a teacher,” Christopher said. “He has an insatiable curiosity. And whatever information he has, he’s a conduit. He’s a river, not a dam. It doesn’t get stuck with him. It flows through him to everybody who’s around him.”
Martin read a lot during the summer, and one of the people who interested him most was Bryan Stevenson, a civil rights attorney who represented Anthony Ray Hinton, one of the longest serving prisoners on Alabama’s Death Row before being exonerated in 2015. (Stevenson is also the director and public face of the lynching memorial.) Hinton told his story in “The Sun Does Shine.” The book provided Martin his team’s next project: Reading for a more modern lens on systemic racism, particularly a criminal justice system that failed Hinton for three decades.
“Knowing there’s a person you’ve convicted and he’s innocent, how do you sleep?” Martin asked. “How do you not flinch when you know you convicted multiple people and they’re innocent, and they’re spending the rest of their lives in prison?”
The book presented plenty to talk about — resilience in the face of injustice; the power of friendship. But there was one especially striking moral of the story.
“That was one of the first times it hit them that you don’t have to do anything but be born Black,” Christopher said. “This man was innocent and lost years of his life that he can never get back, simply because he was born Black.”
That idea has sparked difficult but transparent discussions between the coaches and players about personal experiences with racism. Christopher tells a story about when he was in high school, going to the movies with his brother and some friends, who were young white women. Outside the theater, a white state trooper asked the women what they were doing with Black people. The trooper used a racist slur.
“My father never taught my brother and I to run from anything,” Christopher said. “So my brother looked back at the state trooper and asked him to repeat himself. ‘What was that?’ And the rest was history from there, obviously. You end up on the curb in handcuffs.”
Help in different ways
Cuonzo Martin never had a negative encounter with police while growing up in East St. Louis. “It was really all like family,” he said. “Now, pretty much every one of them I saw, they were Black. Not to say another race is bad, but that’s what I saw.” East St. Louis is often painted primarily as dangerous, but to Martin, it was enriching to see himself reflected in the largely Black community around him.
“It was beautiful,” he said.
He sees a college basketball team similarly, as its own community. While it’s not about racial exclusivity — Mizzou has white staff members and a white scholarship player, Parker Braun, whose research last summer helped bring the team’s attention to the lynching memorial — Martin wants his African American players to see themselves reflected in their leadership.
“Some of the struggles that we see today, he already went through that, so he can advise us,” Mitchell Smith said. “He can just help us in different ways that some other coaches can’t. I feel like he has a higher duty, and he knows that.”
Still, the number of Black coaches in Division I basketball is disproportionately low compared to the number of Black players. Among the 72 teams playing in the 2021 NCAA Tournament or acting as alternates, Martin is one of just 13 Black head coaches (18%).
In May 2020, after George Floyd’s death, Christopher called on white coaches to speak out about racism to show their players that they care. He was contacted by numerous coaches asking for advice, which he saw as a sign of progress, but he believes there’s still a long way to go. On March 5, for example, Creighton temporarily suspended coach Greg McDermott for telling his players, “Don’t leave the plantation.”
There’s a mindset that has to be broken, Christopher said.
“Those aren’t words. Those are a reflection of the condition of your heart and where you stand. Apologies don’t get it done in instances like that,” he said.
Pervasive racism is why Martin has prioritized education for his team, particularly Black history. He doesn’t do it to cause division or to make people uncomfortable, he said. He hopes it can destigmatize difficult topics and unite people. Discomfort — among the many feelings the team experienced when confronted by the hanging columns at the lynching memorial — is inevitable, but his mission is to build an understanding of the relationship between past and present injustices. Including his own understanding.
“I’m not the professor in this,” Martin said. “I’m a college basketball coach. When we walk into those settings, I’m a student like everybody else.”