PITTSBURGH -- Lourdes Martin came to the United States from Cuba, fleeing Fidel Castro’s reign. She landed first in New Jersey before finding comfort in the familiarity of Little Havana in Miami.
That’s where her son, Frank, was born. After her husband left the family, Frank worked all sorts of odd jobs to help his mother survive, taking his first steps on the ladder of the American dream that would eventually lead him to a podium in Pittsburgh, a world away from his roots.
Frank Martin is now in his fifth year as the head coach at Kansas State, and two years ago signed a contract extension that would pay him more than $1.5 million annually.
In his head-coaching career, Martin has repeatedly gone back to his beginnings, pulling kids who were like him -- from tough backgrounds or immigrant families -- who used basketball as a means to succeed.
Angel Rodriguez is one of them. The Puerto Rico native played high school basketball in Miami, starring in the same neighborhood that Martin once called home. Rodriguez parlayed his success there into his own American dream -- a scholarship to Kansas State.
Yet on Thursday, with his Cuban-American coach sitting on the bench, Rodriguez stepped to the free throw line in a game against Southern Miss, and band members from Southern Miss chanted, “Where’s your green card?”
Rodriguez brushed off the insults at the time, then put them to rest when Southern Miss officials immediately came to his hotel room to apologize.
“I heard it when I was shooting the free throw,’’ Rodriguez said. “I don’t pay attention to that nonsense, especially because Puerto Rico is a commonwealth, so we don’t need no papers. You know the athletic director and the personnel from their school came to apologize. I accepted it, because there’s ignorant people and I know it’s not how they want to represent their university. I moved on already. I’ve got a game to focus on.’’
It struck a nerve a little deeper in Martin, a grown man slightly more worldly than his point guard.
Martin wasn’t angry. He reiterated Rodriguez’s sentiments, that he not only accepted Southern Miss’ apology, but that he was moved by the sincerity behind it. More, Martin bristled at people who fail to respect what stories like his and, to a lesser extent, Rodriguez’s, represent.
“I’m here answering questions to you,’’ Martin said. “I lead a major Division I basketball program. We have an African-American president. This country is about giving people opportunities. This country has an unbelievable way of providing openings for minorities. This country doesn’t hold you down. This country elevates you, if you use it the right way.
“I’ve learned over my time on this planet that if you take care of business, you handle yourself the right way in the United States of America, you can end up like me; a guy who didn’t know how to speak English when he was five years old, and now I’m leading a major college basketball program in this country.’’