Hochman: Martin Looks to His Past to Guide Mizzou

By Hochman, Benjamin | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), April 9, 2017 | Go to article overview

Hochman: Martin Looks to His Past to Guide Mizzou


Hochman, Benjamin, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Cuonzo and LaPhonso.

Two of the greatest players our area has ever seen ... and from the same school? At the same time?

Winter sweltered. It was the 1987-88 season, and the hottest hoops team in the area (in the nation?) was Lincoln High School in East St. Louis. There was spunky sophomore Cuonzo Martin, now the coach at Mizzou. And senior LaPhonso Ellis, a future fifth pick in the NBA draft, "The Phonz" as cool as "The Fonz." He hit a 3-pointer to seal the '88 state title game, proclaiming "That 3-pointer was kind of live, wasn't it?" to the Post-Dispatch, while slapping high-fives with whomever was in close range. "This is my senior year. That's two (titles) in a row, and all I can say is, I'm happy as can be."

And now, nearly three decades later, Martin is recruiting the next Ellis.

Figuratively: Recruit Jeremiah Tilmon, Class of 2017, is the best player to come out of East St. Louis in years.

And literally: Over in Indiana, senior-to-be Walter Ellis was offered a scholarship by Martin at Cal and now LaPhonso's son is a possibility for Mizzou.

"Cuonzo's really good at finding those kids who maybe are late bloomers who have a chance to be really, really good players," LaPhonso Ellis said. "And that happens to be our kid."

Martin's arrival at Mizzou has been more like a hoops revival. Michael Porter Jr., the No. 1 player in the land, is coming to Columbia, so you've heard. And Kevin Knox, the No. 7 player per ESPN.com, visited Columbia on Saturday. And then there's Tilmon. Mizzou, for all of its abrupt aplomb, doesn't have a stud big man. Tilmon is tall, man. Six-foot-10. And after asking out of his signing with Illinois, Tilmon could be a Tiger. Yes, there have been murmurs that Tilmon dropped-off a little as a senior. But he's still 41st nationally on the ESPN.com list. And he probably could've logged some minutes for Mizzou even last year.

And so, Tilmon has Martin back in East St. Louis, recruiting a young man with talent like LaPhonso. Or himself. Or a poor-man's Darius Miles. Martin is connecting to his past to bring the future to Mizzou by making the future look like his prep past. Because Cuonzo and LaPhonso were so good. That 1987-88 season, Martin led the area in steals, and after Ellis graduated, he became the thumping heart of Lincoln, winning the school's third consecutive state title in 1988-89. And LaPhonso is in the conversation for best player ever from the St. Louis area, considering his prep dominance and ascension through college and then 12 years in the NBA. In the '88 state title game, Ellis flirted with a creative triple-double a game-high 26 points, 15 rebounds and nine blocked shots.

"They were a great team," said Digger Phelps, now 75, Ellis' college coach at Notre Dame. "When I saw him going into his junior year of high school, I said, 'God, this guy's a player.'"

"LaPhonso was the star, but Cuonzo was the quiet assassin, as he always was in his career," said SLU basketball radio broadcaster Earl Austin Jr., a local hoops authority. "And Cuonzo was a monster at the top of Lincoln's 1-2-2 zone press."

This spring, The Chicago Tribune released an exhaustive list of the top high school players, boys and girls, in Illinois history. You can imagine how good this list is. The list had the top 50 players, featuring only one from East St. Louis: LaPhonso Ellis. In the 50-100 list, the only East St. Louis player was Miles, who went from high school straight to the pros. And then, in honorable mention, the only ESL product was, yup, Cuonzo Martin. …

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