Beating cancer changes outlook for Tennessee coach Martin


INDIANAPOLIS — In the fall of 1997, Cuonzo Martin was playing professional basketball in Italy when he became aware of the constant fatigue that plagued him.

When he returned to the United States, the third-year Tennessee men’s basketball coach didn’t think he’d be coaching, let alone alive within two years.

At 26, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma — cancer of the lymph tissues — and had a malignant tumor lodged between his heart and lungs. Martin underwent chemotherapy and was in remission the following year.

“I don't know if it necessarily changed my perspective on life, because I like to think I was a solid guy before that,” said Martin, whose No. 11 Volunteers faced Michigan on Friday in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen at Lucas Oil Stadium.

“But what it does, it makes you value things, in my opinion, that are more important than others. Learning to appreciate life a little bit better. After five years, I had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, the chances of returning are like anybody else.”

Martin, 42, earned his degree in 2000 from Purdue, where he played college basketball from 1992 to 1995, and was an assistant on Gene Keady’s staff until 2008.

He then became head coach at Missouri State.

Martin said his battle with cancer from 16 years ago ultimately changed his outlook.

“I don't see it that way because every day if I don't think about it, then it's a good day for me,” said Martin, whose team played its first NCAA tournament game since 2011. “ It pops up when I hear about it, read about it. But for me, I take one day at a time. But I don't think it made me a better person. I think it made me understand what's more important.”

DRESSED BUT NOT PLAYING: Mitch McGary, who hasn’t played since December after undergoing back surgery, still got on the court.

About an hour prior to Friday’s tipoff against the Volunteers, Michigan basketball’s Twitter account (@umichbball) posted that McGary would join the team during warmups prior to its Sweet Sixteen game, but McGary told reporters that he did not plan to play. He did not play in a first half in which Michigan shot 61.5 percent and outrebounded Tennessee 14-11.

YET ANOTHER CHAPTER: While they play in different conferences, Louisville and Kentucky’s campuses are less than 80 miles apart.

Friday’s Sweet Sixteen game between Michigan and Tennessee may have been the precursor to one of college basketball’s prime rivalries, staged on a supposedly neutral court. During Tennessee’s shoot-around Thursday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium, Kentucky fans visibly outnumbered Volunteers fans in the stands.

The Wildcats are 3-2 in the tournament against the defending national champion Cardinals; their last tournament meeting was the 2012 national semifinal. Kentucky defeated Louisville 69-61 and went on to beat Kansas for the national championship two days later.

“I've been in the state 20 years, and the game to me has really only had difficult consequences for the loser twice,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “Once was two years ago when they stopped our run in the Final Four, and the next game we play.”

Were there bigger stakes Friday in Indianapolis?

“People grieve for a year after the game,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “People celebrate for a year after the game. I've tried to not make it bigger than it is. But it doesn't work.

“I have told the team: We will not make this game bigger than it is. It's an NCAA Tournament game. We've gotta play a basketball game against a really good team. Every team still standing is playing a really good team. So that's my message. Don't make it bigger than it is, just play.”

Contact Rachel Lenzi at:, 419-724-6510, or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.