Sports

Son of Cuban immigrants goes from Little Havana to the Big Dance

Head coach Frank Martin of the South Carolina Gamecocks celebrates by cutting down the net after defeating the Florida Gators with a score of 77 to 70 to win the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament East Regional at Madison Square Garden on March 26, 2017 in New York City.
Head coach Frank Martin of the South Carolina Gamecocks celebrates by cutting down the net after defeating the Florida Gators with a score of 77 to 70 to win the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament East Regional at Madison Square Garden on March 26, 2017 in New York City. Getty Images

Frank Martin is an underdog, born and bred.

Son of Cuban immigrants, deserted by his father at age 8, Martin was raised by his hard-working mother and grandmother, who swung not a belt but a broomstick to keep Franquito in line. They moved at least a dozen times, cramming into a succession of apartments and duplexes around the ragged old Orange Bowl neighborhood in Little Havana.

To help pay the rent and later his college tuition, Martin spun cones at Dairy Queen, made change at the pool hall, mowed lawns, washed dishes, bussed tables, sold newspapers, flipped burgers and bounced unruly bar patrons during those wicked “Miami Vice” years of the late 1980s.

As a boy, he became fascinated by the game of basketball when he snuck inside “The Asylum,” Miami High’s volcanic gym, to watch Vernon Delancy’s teams play. But he wasn’t talented enough to make the powerhouse Stingaree varsity as a student, so he showed up at a 6:30 a.m. practice and asked coach Shakey Rodriguez if he could be manager.

“Here’s this overweight kid from the bowling team, and I said, ‘I don’t like fat managers so get your butt out there and run laps with the players,’” said Rodriguez, who helped Martin become his successor at Miami High. “I tried to discourage him, but he came back every morning until I said yes. Even then, he possessed rare vision and determination. Now he’s living the American Dream, and no one — no one — earned it the way Frank did.”

South Carolina coach Frank Martin describes the "surreal" feeling of making his first Final Four with the South Carolina Gamecocks.

The NCAA Tournament is defined by its Cinderella stories. After an improbable run through March Madness to the Final Four, Martin, a mama’s boy off the court and the scowling, howling coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks, finds himself in the role of lovable longshot. It’s a perfect fit.

“My family and my neighborhood made me who I am,” he said. “We didn’t have a lot of money but we shared a lot of love and a will to work. Miami gave me the courage to seize opportunity, and that’s what I preach to my players — no excuses, no shortcuts, you only get what you deserve.”

When the seventh-seeded Gamecocks upset No. 2 seed Duke to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, Martin blurted out, “Why not us?” It’s become the rallying cry of a team that has moved from the basement of the Southeastern Conference to the threshold of a championship. When Martin took over at South Carolina in 2012, the men’s team — consistently outclassed by the women’s team, which is back in the Final Four — had not been to the NCAA Tournament since 2004 and had never advanced to the Final Four.

South Carolina plays No. 1 seed Gonzaga at 6:09 p.m. Saturday. North Carolina plays Oregon in the second semifinal.

The Gamecocks embody the personality of their coach in their style of play: Nothing fancy on offense, but gritty, tireless pressure from the nation’s No. 2 defense, which forced 35 turnovers by Marquette and Duke and locked Baylor’s and Florida’s shooters in the freezer.

Expect Martin to level his “death stare” at his players as they claw for another upset. That’s when the deep, glabellar furrows between his eyes darken in what is often a prelude to a furious outburst in the huddle. Michael Beasley, who played for Martin at Kansas State and once saw him break three clipboards during a game, called the gaze “scary.” Angel Rodriguez, who was on the listening end of Martin’s tirades, said the look was “very effective.”

South Carolina guard Duane Notice was lambasted in an incident caught on camera where it was not difficult to read Martin’s lips as he yelled, “Answer the f------ question, a------“ – which resulted in a one-game suspension of Martin for “inappropriate verbal communication as it relates to the well-being of our student-athletes.”

But his players don’t take it personally. They are thankful for Martin’s passion.

“He’s not mad,” said South Carolina leading scorer Sindarius Thornwell. “He just wants to see us do good. He loves us to death.”

Miami Heat forward Udonis Haslem, who played for Martin at Miami High, said Martin’s mission is teaching boys how to become men.

“He made us responsible and accountable,” Haslem said. “It was all out of love. He kept us on the right path and was real hard and strict on us.”

Those who know Martin best — Rodriguez, coaching colleagues Bob Huggins and Roy Williams and TV analyst Jay Bilas — use the term “teddy bear” to describe him.

“Some people may judge me based on 30 seconds of a 40-minute game or mistake me being loud for being negative,” he said. “My whole life is consumed with helping kids move forward the same way people helped me. I tell my players when they are happiest to see the gifts under the Christmas tree are for others, that’s when they know they’ve grown up.”

Martin’s sister Luly said his game-time persona is deceiving.

“People see a fierce tiger on the sidelines but he’s actually a quiet, sensitive, humble guy,” she said.

Martin is intensely devoted to his tough-love philosophy, which he inherited from his mother, grandmother and Rodriguez.

“You know what makes me sick to my stomach?” he said. “When I hear grown people say kids have changed. Kids haven’t changed. We’ve changed as adults. We demand less of kids. We make their lives easier instead of preparing them for what life is truly about.”

Said Rodriguez: “He’s the kind of coach you want your son to play for. His message may not be popular among the McDonald’s All-Americans because he’s not going to pat them on the behind. But he sincerely cares about his players.”

Martin learned the hard way. He and sister Luly were never coddled by their mother, Lourdes, a secretary, or their grandmother, Ernestina, a seamstress. Their father, a salesman, walked out and never contributed child support.

“We’d go to Burger King or Wendy’s every two Fridays – that was our family meal,” Martin said. “I’m grateful for all their sacrifices.”

Luly, who was a cheerleader when her brother was JV coach, said the mantra of the family was pa’lante, slang for move forward.

“He could have had a messy childhood but instead he became the man of the house at a young age,” said Luly, who left Miami to become an actress and restaurant owner in New York City. “He has great understanding and compassion for the kids he’s coached who did not come from pretty circumstances.”

After Martin graduated from Miami High, he took classes at Miami Dade College and helped coach Miami High’s junior varsity team until the coach missed a game and Rodriguez replaced him with Martin, who later assisted Rodriguez as the Stings won five state titles from 1987 to 1993. The nation’s top college coaches — Dean Smith, Jim Valvano, Bobby Knight, Rick Pitino, Billy Donovan — visited the school on recruiting visits, reinforcing Martin’s desire to become a head coach.

USC coach Frank Martin addresses fans at welcome back celebration

By then, Martin was taking classes at FIU and working as a bouncer. One night at Calico Jack’s, he got shot at by customers he had thrown out of the bar.

“People think it’s a job for tough guys but you realize you better defuse situations because at 3 in the morning, you’re the only one who is thinking straight,” he said.

Martin’s career continued at North Miami High before he took over for FIU-bound Rodriguez at Miami High. He taught math and won three state titles in 1996, 1997 and 1998 but the last title was stripped because of recruiting violations and inappropriate housing assistance from boosters and school employees. Although he wasn’t named in the ruling, Martin was fired.

“I don’t agree with what happened and the supposed investigation was a sham, but I take responsibility, and I’ll forever have a scar because I allowed that moment to exist under my watch at the school I revered,” Martin said.

Disillusioned, he quit coaching until the principal at the new Booker T. Washington High offered him a job as coach and truancy director. A year later, he took a pay cut of $4,000 to accept a $28,000 job as an assistant at Northeastern in Boston — his entry into college coaching. That’s where he met his wife, Anya, who had been a hurdler in college. He was as persistent as ever in wooing her, asking her out seven times before she accepted. They’ve had three children together and he calls her the “backbone” of the family, and the selector of the natty suits he wears during games.

Martin worked under Huggins at Cincinnati, then replaced Huggins at KansasState when Huggins went to West Virginia. Martin led Kansas State to the NCAA Elite Eight, but did not have a good rapport with the athletic director and wanted to return to the East Coast, so he accepted the task of building South Carolina into a contender. His salary is now $2.4 million. Doug Edwards, former Miami High star, is one of his assistants.

“It was hard at the beginning,” said Anya, whose husband likes to cook and watch re-runs of “Law and Order” and “CSI Miami” when he’s relaxing. “You see he’s losing his hair. It’s turning white. I had to ask him a couple times, ‘Why here?’ But Frank has never steered away from a challenge.”

Luly, who is joining her mother in Phoenix to watch Saturday’s game, is a little leery of her brother’s sudden fame.

“The flip side of adulation is criticism,” she said. “Everybody loves Frank now, but they didn’t always love him before and won’t always love him in the future.”

When Martin comes home, he stays with his mother, gives clinics at Miami High and gathers friends at Garcia’s Seafood on the river.

“I miss Miami every day,” he said. “My grandmother, who didn’t speak a lick of English, believed in me. I couldn’t play basketball worth crap, but Shakey believed in me. Now I’ve got a team that nobody believed in. But I’m investing the same trust in my team that people invested in me.”

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