On a Thursday afternoon in April, Antonio’s Pizza in Amherst got a call with an unusual request.
On the other end was the marketing department at UMass Athletics, looking to place an order for 25 pizzas. A joint with cult status among students, Antonio’s was just the place to help Frank Martin make a first impression.
The new men’s basketball coach and his staff delivered the pizzas to the basketball courts in Southwest, UMass’ biggest student residential area, dishing out slices while some of his players took on challengers on the court.
It was equal parts marketing stunt, sales pitch, and just a bit of fun. As Martin carried the empty boxes to the dumpsters, he didn’t know he wasn’t the first UMass men’s basketball coach to bring pizza to the people.
John Calipari famously treated students to pizza as they lined up outside the Mullins Center in the program’s 1990s heyday, when the Minutemen were making deep NCAA Tournament runs and slugging it out with the blue bloods.
It’s been more than 25 years since UMass reached the Final Four, when it sat atop the national rankings and Amherst was, briefly, the center of the basketball universe.
For a quarter century, Calipari has been the measuring stick, his success looming large. Five coaches have come and gone, and five have fallen short. Martin hopes to change that.
‘What gives me joy’
Anya Martin trails her husband into his office asking for his car keys. “You’re just going to be in here talking,” she said, chuckling to herself. “You think I want to listen to you talk?”
It’s been two decades since they met at Northeastern. She was Anya Forrest then, working in financial services. After turning down several approaches from an assistant coach from the men’s basketball team, she finally acquiesced, ending up on a date at P.F. Chang’s after forgetting to cancel before Frank had already arrived.
Anya caught him near the halfway point of a journey that began in Miami, as far from a basketball hotbed as it gets.
Martin is the son of Cuban immigrants who fled to the United States in 1960, shortly after Fidel Castro’s rise to power. He was 6 when he watched the Americans lose to the Soviet Union in the 1972 Olympic gold-medal basketball game. His grandmother, a basketball player in Cuba with a hatred for the communists hardened by life under Castro, wanted to break the TV.
He’d turn on that TV in the middle of the night to watch basketball, particularly drawn to the high-flying exploits of Julius Erving. Cuban-born Shakey Rodriguez, legendary coach at Miami Senior High School, lived in the neighborhood and ushered a young Martin further into basketball, driving him to practice, teaching him the game.
Much is often made about Martin’s past life as a bouncer, a career that makes sense on the surface for a bear of a man with a booming voice. But his time as a math teacher gets less attention.
Martin still considers himself an educator first — it’s the driving force of all he does.
“Hands down,” Martin said, “I couldn’t care less about the ‘basketball’ coach part. Coach, teacher, it’s one and the same. When you put the name ‘coach’ in front of your name, instead of teacher, you’re letting the outside world judge you on wins and losses. That’s their prerogative. My journey, what gives me joy, what drives me is watching young people grow. That’s what attracted me into this business in 1985. And that’s what continues to get me excited every single day in 2022.”
Martin spent more time during his introductory press conference talking about education than basketball, boasting about GPA figures and community service records instead of his Final Four appearance at South Carolina. He and his wife were present in the community in Columbia, Frank going back to his roots with the “Martin’s Math Club” initiative he started, Anya working with a teenage pregnancy prevention group.
Back in his office, as he leans forward in a black leather chair, Martin scrolls through his camera roll to find a photo he’d snapped on the way to pick up Anya at the airport. He made a pit stop at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, where he’s a member of the Naismith Coaching Circle. Martin had an opportunity to put a quote beneath his name alongside some of college basketball’s most revered leaders.
“ ‘Education and work ethic are the two ingredients,’ ” he reads, “’that we all need to overcome the difficult moments that we all deal with in our journey to success.’
“Those are the values that my family instilled in me. I’m a school teacher. My sister’s a school teacher. It’s who we are as a family.”
Neither Frank’s nor Anya’s parents attended college. Frank’s mother and grandmother drilled into him the importance of education and the opportunity it provides; Anya’s parents, Jamaican immigrants, did the same for her.
“My mom and my dad always said, you get four years of college and a car and then you’re on your own,” she said with a laugh. “So we expect you to make something of this.”
Anya’s parents helped her through four years at UMass, where she won multiple Atlantic 10 titles as a hurdler while Frank still was coaching at Miami Senior High School.
Anya is often sheepish talking about her return to Amherst, regrettably distanced from her alma mater for the past two decades. As Frank weighed his options after his dismissal — “When South Carolina told me to go fly a kite,” in his words — Anya gave him space to find the right landing spot, knowing she wouldn’t be able to contain her excitement if UMass were on the table.
UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford took a similar approach with a program fresh off another disappointing year, and he had the budget to push for a big name. The Minutemen have had six losing seasons in their last seven, with just three NCAA Tournament appearances since Calipari’s departure in 1996. Bamford had a connection, having met the Martins on a couple of occasions.
“After the termination in South Carolina, he had to do some TV stuff with CBS. He said, ‘Ryan, I need a little bit of time,’” Bamford recalled. “And I said, ‘you’re good. I’m in no rush.’ Of course, other jobs were opening and closing and [fans] were saying, ‘what are we doing?’ And I was just like, ‘we’re fine. We’re fine.’ ”
‘Trying to prove people right’
The Martins were out to dinner after Frank was hired at the end of March, and an athlete from the women’s track team came up and introduced herself. Anya reflexively directed attention to her husband as she’s done a thousand times, but their guest quickly returned her focus to Anya, whose name still dots the record books.
When the family was alone again, things were quiet. “Well dad, how do you feel?” asked Christian, the Martins’ youngest son. “You’re not the big man on campus here!”
Frank is playing second fiddle for the first time. For the Martin family, that’s just icing on the cake.
“It’s always been about Frank, Frank, Frank,” he said. “My kids being here, you get them to understand what a great mom they’ve got, and her achievements, her successes. It’s one thing to talk about them, and another to be somewhere, where it all happened.”
Things have seemingly come full circle for the Martins. Anya is back in Amherst, and while insisting she has no coaching plans of her own, she’ll certainly be around the track program. Frank, meanwhile, peers out the glass window to the practice court to see Erving’s retired jersey. He’s taking charge of Erving’s alma mater almost 50 years after his own basketball indoctrination at the hands of Dr. J.
He talks about standing on the shoulders of giants; Calipari, Erving, Marcus Camby, the names that brought UMass to prominence. Martin freely acknowledges this could be his last stop, but he’s as giddy as a freshman first stepping on campus.
The world will judge him on wins, losses, banners or lack thereof. He doesn’t mind.
“A lot of people run around trying to prove people wrong. I’m the other way; I run around trying to prove people right,” he says. “I want to prove my grandmother right. I want to prove my mother right. I want to prove my high school coach, who got me into this, right. People that have believed in me.
“That’s what I get out of bed for and that’s what I’m excited to do, so those people can go to bed at night and say, I knew that he was the one. I knew he would do it. That’s what gets me going.”
Amin Touri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.