SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) -- Coaches love to talk about being tough, about fighting through screens, digging in defensively, finding energy when there's nothing left.
Few know toughness like Missouri State's Cuonzo Martin.
Walk past a dead body on the way to school or stare down mortality before turning 30 and toughness isn't something to talk about. It's ingrained.
So when Martin preaches toughness to his players, they listen and they have become one of the biggest surprises in college basketball because of it.
"We're just playing basketball -- he's an inspiration," Missouri State sophomore forward Kyle Weems said.
Martin's fortitude formed in the projects of East St. Louis.
The hard-scrabble Illinois city just across the Mississippi from St. Louis' Gateway Arch has a checkered past. It's had one of the highest crime rates in the U.S., been a so-called murder capital of the world. Martin grew up in "The Hole," a neighborhood where gangs, guns, drugs, death were part of everyday life.
Martin was never lured into this lurid world, kept busy by basketball and on the right path by a single mother who worked two jobs and raised four successful children, including a niece who Martin considers a sister.
"When you're in it, you're in it; it's a lifestyle, it's who you are," Martin said. "It's just one of those deals where you find a way to make it work. My mom taught me, no one wants to hear excuses. If there's an outlet and you can get through that crack, you make it work."
Basketball was Martin's way to get through the crack.
It helped him navigate the rough streets; being an athlete, he was protected and even told by the drug dealers to steer away from their world.
Basketball took him to Purdue, where he won two Big Ten championships and became the Boilermakers' 11th all-time leading scorer. It led him to a professional career, briefly with Milwaukee and Vancouver, eventually to Italy, where a life-altering event would test every bit of his toughness.
It happened in practice. Running up and down the floor, Martin couldn't catch his breath, then collapsed. The team trainer, who spoke little English, could only say he had lost a lot of weight, more than 30 pounds.
After some tests, Martin was told he had bronchitis and, suspiciously, that he needed to return home right away. He left with his wife and infant son the next day and, upon arriving at his Indianapolis home, collapsed again. Martin was rushed to the hospital, where he was told he might die.
Not even growing up on the mean streets could prepare him for what the doctors found.
"Here you are playing, you're 26 years old and they say you have cancer," Martin said. "The worst thing about it was the doctor -- and it has to be that way -- was his tone: "this is life threatening," like it was business as usual. I was like, man, where do I go from here?"
Into a fight for his life.
Because Martin's cancer was at such an advanced stage, he was given medicine used for leukemia patients -- essentially an experiment to see if he could be saved.
It took more than four months of agonizing chemotherapy, but Martin beat it. He returned to basketball to lead his CBA team in scoring, then moved into coaching after Purdue's Gene Keady invited Martin to join his staff.
Twelve years after his diagnosis, Martin is healthy and his perspective sharper than ever.
"I look at my kids and it's like what's the point of living a bad life and being a bad person when you can be gone tomorrow," he said. "I've never been a bad guy anyway, but you start to realize what's important in life."
Martin is relaying those lessons to his players.
Coming off an 11-win season, Missouri State won its first 10 games, including victories over Auburn and previously unbeaten Tulsa. The Bears are 12-2 heading into Wednesday's game against Wichita State, their best start since opening 13-1 under Steve Alford in 1996, and the only losses were on the road to Arkansas (in overtime) and at Missouri Valley Conference favorite Northern Iowa.
"They're really good," Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich said after a 68-64 loss to Missouri State last week. "I'm not inside their camp to know what's going on, but obviously they're doing a great job."
Additions are a part of it.
Eastern Kentucky transfer Adam Leonard has given the Bears a heady, clutch shooter at point guard. Center Caleb Patterson, a Colorado transfer, provides versatility. Junior college transfer Jermaine Mallett is an athletic wingman and guard Keith Pickens leads a solid freshman class.
The Bears also play gritty, in-your-face man defense and have interchangeable parts on offense that perfectly match Martin's motion offense.
The biggest difference, though, is toughness.
In their second season under Martin, the Bears have bought into his tougher-than-the-next-guy approach, diving for loose balls, scrambling for rebounds, playing the kind of defense that makes opponents want to shove them away out of frustration.
"We're working hard in practice every day and it carries over into the games," Leonard said. "We're diving on the floor, elbowing each other, pushing each other."
Tough, just like their coach.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)