By J. Coyden Palmer
With declining health in recent weeks, Landon “Sonny” Cox, 81, died of natural causes on Tuesday, May 5. Cox coached at Martin Luther King High School for 18 years where he compiled a 476-66 record.
His teams, which he coached to three state championships and six state semifinal appearances, featured some of the greatest prep basketball players in Chicago. Among Chicago area prep basketball enthusiasts he will long be remembered for his well-tailored suits, outspoken personality and vast knowledge of Black history.
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1938, Cox was a jazz alto saxophonist in addition to being a legendary basketball coach in Chicago. His mother Helen Harris was a singer herself and Sonny was influenced by her musical roots. Cox first played in a group called, “The Rocks” out of his hometown. The group featured other great artists like Jackie Wilson, former Cook County Commissioner Jerry Butler, Solomon Burke and Lavern Baker. Cox released a solo album, “The Wailer” in 1966, a year after he was featured on “The 3 Souls.”
His daughter, Danielle Cox-Jones, said at the height of her father’s popularity, she did not realize how important he was to so many people. She said while most know him for basketball, baseball was really his first love of sports and music was his other passion. Cox attended college on a baseball scholarship and was a longtime baseball coach at Paul Robeson High School.
While coaching at King, Cox was the most high-profile person in the school and one of the most recognizable faces at the Chicago Public Schools. Known for his tailored suits and nice cars, Cox was also an astute businessman, owning several Burger King franchises in the area. Those who played for him say he was also teaching young Black males about life.
“Coach Cox knew how to take care of his players,” said Mike Irvin, CEO of the Mac Irvin Fire basketball program, who played for Cox as a freshman at King.
“He was involved from start to finish in terms of what you did off the court when you played for him. I respected him after I became an adult as a coach even more. The things he did, like picking up the players and dropping them off at home so they could avoid being bothered by gangs. That’s not something coaches today do.”
Cox was often criticized for not being the best X’s and O’s coach. But something he did very well, was recognize talent. Countless young men received college scholarships under his tutelage.
“He wasn’t bad as a coach,” Irving said. “He stuck to his offense. He knew he had to have talent. He was one of the best recruiters around. Nowadays people have 15 coaches on the bench. Coach Cox didn’t need that. He had three assistants who could cover a lot of ground. He surrounded himself with good coaches and players.”
Perhaps the most high-profile player to play for Cox was Marcus Liberty, who starred at the University of Illinois before playing in the NBA. Reached by phone at his home in Florida, Liberty said Cox was often misunderstood by the mainstream media, but those who really knew him, knew he was a very knowledgeable individual on several subjects.
“I think the reason why he was so good as a coach was because of his music background and playing in a band,” Liberty said.
“He knew he had to have three guys who could flat out play and then surround them with accompanying pieces in order to win a title. He knew he had to have everyone playing the right parts on the team, just like in a band, in order to get the thing going in the right direction.”
Cox was very knowledgeable about Black history and one of his favorite figures was Paul Robeson. Robeson was an actor, singer, social activist and athlete. It is safe to say that Cox emulated Robeson’s life in many ways.
“He was a visionary,” Liberty said. “I used to laugh at him when he dressed and tell him he was a Top 10 model. I mean he would have his hair laid too. He looked like Superfly. But that was his style. He would only wear a sweatsuit in practice. Other than that, he was always suited and booted. That was coach and he wasn’t going to change for nobody. Everything he did was first class.”
Cox also is credited with getting young men off street corners and getting them into basketball as a way of saving lives and improving communities.
Johnnie Selvie credits Cox for helping him through some of the worst times of his life and getting him out of Chicago to see the world differently. While still a student and player at King, Selvie was arrested and charged twice for selling drugs to undercover officers. He was found not guilty in both cases, but the arrests hurt his recruiting options. He spent two years at a junior college before playing his final two years at New Mexico State University, where he earned his degree in social work.
“It was a good move for Johnny to go anywhere. He was living in a bad environment where drugs and gangs were prevalent. Right on his doorstep,” said Cox, during a 1997 interview with the Associated Press. “During that time, we were just trying to get him an education and save Johnny’s life.”
That type of caring is what set him apart from other coaches, Liberty contends. He said when it is all said and done Cox will always be a legend in Chicago.
“He was different from every coach I ever had,” Liberty said. “He genuinely cared about how African American kids lived life. He looked me right in my face and told me I was going to be the number one player in the country. He saw something in me that I didn’t even see in myself.”
Cox is survived by two children, three grandchildren and the love and respect of countless King alumni.