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Martin reflects on Mizzou's visit to lynching memorial: 'That's real pain.'

Mizzou takes Braggin' Rights

Mizzou coach Cuonzo Martin congratulates Jeremiah Tilmon as he takes his starters out of the game in the second half of the 38th annual Braggin' Rights game at Enterprise Center in St. Louis on Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018. Mizzou won 79-63. (Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com)

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COLUMBIA, Mo. - It brought Jeremiah Tilmon to tears.

That’s one of many impressions this week’s field trip to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice made on the Missouri basketball team.

On Monday, Cuonzo Martin took his players and staff to the memorial and the adjoining museum in Montgomery, Alabama, during their trip between SEC road games. The memorial commemorates Black lynching victims in America. Mizzou’s contingent also visited The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, also built by the Equal Justice Initiative in 2018.

“It was very awakening,” Tilmon said Friday.

During his Zoom session with reporters Friday, Martin reflected on the experience and shared an impassioned perspective on the team’s visit. This past summer, Martin engaged the team in discussions about American history, current events and social and racial justice issues. The team watched a documentary series on Reconstruction. Monday’s visit was continuation of those history lessons.

Before the season, Martin urged director of operations Paul Rorvig to seek out any opportunities during the season when the team could visit places where they could grow culturally.

“Because I think we owe it to our players,” Martin said.

“It's amazing how you sit back and talk to the guys after and the players say, ‘I didn’t know that. I had no clue about that,’” Martin added. “But it's American history, and they had no clue about it. They’re taught American history in schools. That is a part of American history. It was really tough for me walking through there because oftentimes when you come from areas like me coming from East St. Louis you get information from your grandparents and it’s passed down from what they experienced moving from the South to Midwest, or wherever you come from. … I've never experienced any of that. I’ve had snippets in certain locations but just to go in that facility everybody was speechless. Normally after those events we’ll get together as a team at night and say, ‘Guys, what did you think about this?’ I had nothing in me to speak about it. 

“Life can't be hard for me. I'm grateful to be in this position. There were a lot of people back then, not living today but ancestors who did a lot of things, made a lot of sacrifices, lost lives for me to be sitting in this position right now today. I don't take that for granted. I've never taken that for granted.

“Just some of the horrific things. Like you see a 12-year-old kid who was in solitary confinement, who spent the rest of his life in a cell with no windows and maybe an hour of daylight for the rest of his life. Or a young man who's 15 years old get put into prison with adult men … and I don't want to be graphic here, but raped and brutalized for years. Then you find out what was the crime. That was a crime? And that's consistent. Then you talk about all the lives that were lost that we never found out about or you talk about the hangings on public display. … And then that’s on a postcard that’s sent all around the country. And that's normal.

“Man, that's tough. That's tough. Then, OK, we shift from that and we’ve got to figure out another way. So let's build these prisons up. Let's turn these prisons into $80 billion industries. That’s another way to shift it.”

Martin paused and recalled something he read on one of the walls at the memorial.

“A presumption of guilt has been assigned to the Black people,” he said. “A presumption of guilt has been assigned to the Black people.

“In most cases, they’re always guilty until proven innocent. Even if proven innocent they’ll still get a little time. Can you imagine living life like that? Your whole life. Can you imagine you’re on a plantation and they take your child away from you and you never see that child again? Each one of you guys, if you guys have families right now, you’ve got children right now, I'm coming to take your child right now, you never see him or her again. That's pain. And I’ve got to live with that. I’m scarred for the rest of my life. I have to get up at 5 in the morning and go to work. I got to get out and go to work from dusk to dawn. That's real pain. And I got it every day until they put me in a casket. The best chance I get to get to survive is to run, because maybe death is probably a little bit better. That’s pain. That’s every day.

“Like Jeremiah said … it brought him to tears.”

Asked if the discussions and experiences he’s shared with his team over the last year have brought him closer to this group of players, Martin resisted that premise. It’s not about getting closer to them, he said. It’s an obligation.

“Do I love all of them? Yes. I don't like them all the time because some stuff they do, like miss class,” he said. “But that’s part of. It’s like being a parent. Guys don't play and they’re upset with me. Sometimes parents are upset with me because their child didn’t play. That's part of it. That goes with the territory. But I don't do those things for them to validate me as a good guy. ‘Coach is cool. I like Coach.’ That's not that's not why I do it. I do it because I have to give it to them. I owe it to them.”

Most coaches and their legacies are defined by wins and losses and the number of banners they deliver to their schools. Martin doesn’t deny that reality, but he’s never let those terms define the way he lives his life or approaches his profession. Asked Friday how he balances his purpose as a mentor and teacher to his players with the task of having to win enough games to please his school and fans, Martin gave what might have been the most candid answer of his four seasons at Mizzou.

“I don't worry about it,” he said. “I'm not sure how other guys do it. If they fire me, I’ll shake (athletics director) Jim Sterk’s hand and give him a hug because I think Jim is a good man. ‘Appreciate it, Jim. I’m going to go live my life.' Because it’s business. … I think Jim's a good man. So if Jim had to come and say, ‘Coach, this isn’t going to work.’ (I’d say), ‘Appreciate your time, Jim. I thank you for the opportunity. I’ll move on and you’ll never hear from me or see me again.’

“That’s part of it. So I don't worry about it, me losing a job. I got a great wife. God blessed me with beautiful children. I’m winning the game. I'm not a guy that spends a lot of money. I got enough money to live the rest of my life. It's not like I have a lot. I don't need all that. As long as I got the people around me and family to love I'm good.

"You got to understand, I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma at 26 years old. They didn’t think I was going to make it. I came from East St. Louis. I’ve seen humble beginnings. God trained me with less, so I know how to survive. So if you talk about someone losing a job, you can do what you’ve got to do, but this university will be here when I'm dead and gone. I’m going to a heavenly life while I’m on this earth. I'm not waiting to get to Heaven to live in Heaven. I’m living it right now. It might not look like it because I’ve got a scowl all the time, but I'm enjoying life. Best believe that. As long as my family is healthy and we’re happy, I’m winning the game. I don't care what the scoreboard says.”

KENTUCKY ON COVID PAUSE

Missouri's home game Tuesday against Kentucky could be in jeopardy. The Wildcats had to cancel Saturday's game against Texas in the Big 12/SEC Challenge because of COVID-19 testing results and subsequent contract tracing within the program. UK will pause all team activities for 48 hours, the team announced Friday morning. Mizzou (10-3, 4-3) is set to host Kentucky (5-10, 4-4) at 8 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN. 

In other schedule news, Mizzou's home game next Saturday (Feb. 6) against No. 9 Alabama has been moved from an evening tip-off to 11 a.m. on ESPN. The Crimson Tide (14-3, 9-0) are in first place in the conference. 

On Saturday, Mizzou hosts Texas Christian University (9-6, 2-5 Big 12) at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Big 12/SEC Challenge on ESPNU.

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