Frank Martin needed a topic for his first paper in college, an English 1101 course at Florida International. The professor told the class to write about a person they respect.
Martin chose the first person that popped into mind: his former high school basketball teammate, Anthony Grant.
"Writing has never been one of my favorite things, but I do remember this: it was one of the few papers where my thoughts rolled off," he said.
Plenty of coaches call themselves friends. The word gets tossed around so casually, so cloyingly, it makes you wonder how genuine some of those friendships really are. Yet few coaches in college basketball share a stronger bond than Martin and Grant, the man he'll coach against Saturday at Alabama (4:00 p.m. EST, Gamecock IMG Sports Network). They'll face off for the third time in their careers -
they also played each other in 2007 and 2012.
"[He's] one of the best human beings I've come across in my life," Martin said in his office Tuesday. "When I've got to make decisions, I don't make them without having a conversation with him first.
That friendship has unfurled over three decades, from the time they first met as 14 year-olds in Miami. It grew out of long hours and modest beginnings as high school assistants, working together on the same staff, and has continued to the highest echelons of SEC basketball. Their memories are robust, full of wins and laughs -- like the time Grant won a car on a Spanish-language variety show (more on that later). But above all, Martin and Grant have a friendship built on a deep, lasting respect for one another's values.
"We've shared so many experiences in our journey as college coaches, getting in the business and finding some success in the business, and everything that life brings," Grant said.1
"It's been a long 30 years of a history there."
Martin had seen Grant play in church and park leagues. He knew his reputation as one of Miami's budding basketball stars. Sometimes, those players carry a reputation as prima donnas.
Yet if Martin had any apprehensions when Grant transferred to Miami Senior High School from Belen Jesuit, a private school north of Miami, they melted away the moment Grant walked into his sophomore English class.
"He cared about people, his teammates, his school, his friends. He walked the hallways and teachers and students all respected him. That's something I never forgot," Martin said.
On the court, they were worlds apart. Grant was the 6'4" All-City forward, bound for a Division I scholarship. Martin was the benchwarmer, acutely aware of his athletic limitations. But both shared a burning love for basketball - and a willingness to outwork anyone to perfect it.
Together, their Miami Senior squad began 22-0 their junior year, and won 23 games their senior year. Martin recalls the time Grant poured in 32 points and 21 rebounds in a win over rival South Miami. He was more impressed by how Grant carried himself as a leader.
"He was the best player, but he was the hardest worker on the team," Martin recalls. "He was the star player, yet he treated everyone like he was the bad player and you were the good player."
It wouldn't take long before Martin and Grant would be teammates again.
Back to School
Martin says he and Grant were close in high school, but their friendship really blossomed after they graduated in 1983. Grant earned a scholarship to Dayton University, playing on a Flyers squad that reached the Elite Eight his freshman year. Martin enrolled as a student at FIU, and began cutting his teeth as the head JV coach at Miami Senior.
After Grant's playing career ended2, he rejoined Martin at Miami Senior, where he was hired as a varsity assistant and math teacher. Both men immersed themselves in the profession. They soaked up the lessons of their old coach, the legendary Marcos "Shakey" Rodriguez. Grant would sometimes sneak into the locker room and eavesdrop on Martin's halftime speeches, eager to hear his - uh, colorful - messages to the JV.
"When you're dealing with 14- and 15 year-olds, they don't always do what the coach wants them to do," Grant said. "We'd know at halftime, hey, this is going to be a pretty good one once he walked into that locker room. He never failed us. It either fired you up or gave you a pretty good laugh."
"After the games we'd go out to eat. They'd be making fun of the whole deal," Martin said.
That closeness stretched beyond the sidelines. In addition to coaching together, Martin and Grant reprised their roles as teammates in a Miami recreational league.
"He had never passed me the ball," Martin joked. "He decided to pass it to me in an adult league game, and I tore up my knee. So I'm still [ticked] at him that he passed me the ball."
There was also the time Martin brought Grant to a taping of Sábado Gigante¸ the wildly popular Spanish-language variety show on Univision. Grant was not only selected from the studio audience to participate on stage.... he wound up winning a car.
"He had to stand up there, live on television, and speak Spanish. You should've seen him try to say, 'This is awesome' in Spanish. It was hilarious watching him standing on-stage, trying to say the words 'Qué fantástico!" Martin said.
On the bench, though, Martin and Grant were all business. Their sideline demeanors appeared radically different: Martin the flinty-eyed taskmaster, Martin the stoic observer. But their personalities were identical beneath the surface. A "fire in the belly," as Martin put it.
Their Miami Senior teams reflected that intensity. They won big. In five years, the Stingarees won three state championships. They produced good students, and better Division I players.
Not long after, the Division I schools began courting them, too.
The College Assistants
Grant was the first to go. After five years at Miami Senior, he accepted a job as an assistant at Stetson University.3 In 2000, Martin began his own college journey, accepting a job as an assistant at Northeastern.
Each has molded winners the same way they did at Miami Senior. Grant is aiming for a second straight NCAA Tournament appearance. Martin reached the NCAA Tournament four times in his five seasons as head coach at Kansas State. Through it all, they've remained close. Grant was named godfather to Martin's oldest son. Martin was one of the first people who called Grant after he suspended three of his starters last February. He praised him for not putting wins above the integrity of his program, something they learned at Miami Senior. Grant was one of the first people to text Martin after he accepted the South Carolina job.
And on Saturday in Tuscaloosa, shortly before three o'clock local time, Martin and Grant will meet at the scorer's table for their pre-game handshake, the latest stop in a journey that has intertwined them in life and basketball.
"I'm very proud of what he's been able to accomplish, not only as a coach - that's been documented - but as a man, a father, and a husband. I know South Carolina they got a great guy running their program. I know the results will show," Grant said.
It may come at the expense of his dear friend. But Martin hopes to prove him right Saturday.
1 Grant's quotes courtesy of "Voice of the Crimson Tide" Chris Stewart
2 Grant played one season with the Miami Tropics of the United States Basketball League. One of his teammates was former NBA veteran World B. Free
3 Martin left that same year for his first head coaching job at North Miami High School