Atlantic Coast Conference

Quinn Cook is the Calming Storm for the Duke Blue Devils Blooming Talent

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Running down the tunnel in Houston’s Reliant Stadium, with a ball cap parted on a slant that spells out “Regional Champions” in big, gold lettering across the front, Quinn Cook, for just a simple moment, feels whole again. Something that the heart and soul of the freshman faced Duke Blue Devils had finally been searching for his entire basketball career.

It was on the morning of March 4th, 2008, that the then 13 year old Cook was forced to grow up on his own. That was the morning when he woke up to the sounds of despair with both his mother and sister  parked on the family room couch and tears filling in their eyes, crying. Ted Cook, Quinn’s best friend, father, and most importantly the man who helped put a basketball in little Quinn’s arms at just two years old, had died during the night  of a cardiac arrest.

Growing up, the two would often go to the neighborhood park, a place that embodied a tough concrete plateau on top of rough soil, that’s divided by fenced in wires and gratification of nearby neighborhoods, just the place where the two could call home. When the weather was harsh, the father and son met in the cramped gym inside DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland in suburban Washington, DC, where they would play one-on-one for endless hours. During the early part of Quinn’s life, his father would tell countless stories about his own playing days as a stud high school guard.

 

Much of the reason why Cook continues to pursue the path of possibly a successful NBA career and leading his Duke team to a National Championship in Indianapolis is the motivation that has grown inside of him to accomplish these goals for his dead father. Duke, currently, is in the Final Four and will play against the Michigan State Spartans Saturday, partly due to Cook’s gleaming maturation.

*****

Cook began his high school career at the place where his father and he first practiced and both hatched the passion for basketball, DeMatha Catholic High School. As a freshman, in the early months of his sophomore season, he received very little playing time. A breakout postseason tournament in his junior year resulted in a starting role that he would never relinquish. Still trying to forget the hauntings of his fathers passing, at times Cook kept the pain inside himself at practices, not wanting any of his teammates to witness his show of emotions.

His mother, Janet Cook, never knew that her sobs were the first sounds he heard the next morning of the news of Ted Cook’s death. “He’s never shared that with me,” she said. “I probably don’t understand all that goes on in Quinn’s brain because he probably keeps a lot of that away from us. It’s difficult all around.”

Finally the once iron-willed, headstrong Cook began to remorse at the side of the DeMatha’s bleachers at the end of practice. All of the tears and emotion bottled up inside soon flooded out. For three years as being Cook’s coach at DeMatha, Mike Jones, for the first time noticed his point guard was in pain and in search of help.

“You could tell he was missing something. He was no longer innocent. I would catch him looking up into the stands for his dad out of habit, and his dad wouldn’t be there,” Jones said.

The basketball court was his sanctuary. He felt genuine happiness every time he stepped onto the court, but even then, the pain filtered through. “My dad was my biggest fan. Him not being at my games, it was hard,” Cook said.

Quinn Cook has grown on and off the court as a Duke student athlete.

Quinn Cook has grown on and off the court as a Duke student athlete.

 

Through trauma, Cook somehow kept going. As his numbers gradually increased (20.0 points, 5.9 assists, 3.3 rebounds) in his junior season, it became more evident that Quinn was playing much more than stats and Division I offers; he was playing for his father. With his head held high and pressing on, Cook’s standout high school performances awarded him exceptional high school accolades and honors. One of being named the first junior in over 40 years to win the All-Met Player of the Year award, catapulting the then five-star rated point guard to a No. 21 rank by Scout and No. 25 by EPSNU High School Rankings.

However, the talent and increasing fame attracted the wrong kind of people in Cook’s life. As a social, smart, handsome young adult that he was, all of the influences that surrounded Cook’s near him soon became targeted his way.

“When you’re a child prodigy, which he is, you have all kinds of influences that were pulling him in different ways,” Janet Cook said. “Every man has a thing that they think a kid should do. They were telling him, “I think you should go to Arizona, I think you should go to Kentucky…’”

His mother wanted Cook to leave D.C. for his senior year for his own overall well-being, and go where he could focus on school and basketball. This opened the door to another opportunity in Cook’s life: Oak Hill Academy, an isolated boarding school in Mouth of Wilson, Va. Where they have established a tradition of point guards that includes William Avery, Steve Blake, Brandon Jennings, Rajon Rondo, and even two tobacco road standouts; Nolan Smith who went to Duke, and Ty Lawson for North Carolina.

Cook received Jones’s blessing to transfer. “It was a very wise decision. He was definitely vulnerable. Most young men don’t have to deal with the things he has had to deal with. He was in a situation where he was a man of his house and he had a lot of responsibilities; it was different for him,” said Jones, who has known Cook since he was in fifth grade and played the role of a father figure after Ted’s passing.

“There were all these distractions because of his status as an elite basketball player. A lot of people who wanted to get with him, people just trying to be involved in his life who didn’t have the best intentions. I think Quinn is able to figure out who has his best interest at heart and who doesn’t now.”

As for Cook, there was nothing left to accomplish at DeMatha. “I won two city titles, two conference titles. I just felt that I did everything I wanted to do in the D.C. area. I wanted to go someplace where I could win a national championship,” he said. “Oak Hill is a lot different because you play the best competition every night, you’re playing a highly ranked team every night.

As a senior at Oak Hill, Cook was easily the best player on the roster, averaging 19.1 PPG and 10.1 APG and notably showed signs of being recruited by major Division I programs. Because Oak Hill is a boarding school, Cook had the luxury of developing friendships with other teammates, coming from many diverse personal backgrounds. One of them was Ben McLemore, who later committed to the University of Kansas, now he is thriving in his second season in the NBA as a starter for the Sacramento Kings. While Cook continued to dominate, by early November of  2010, time was running out to decide what school he would attend to play basketball at the following year. With his mother standing beside him at the podium, Cook signed his letter of intent to play basketball at Duke University. He would join a five player recruiting class for Duke in 2011, which included Austin Rivers, Alex Murphy, Marshall Plumlee, and Michael Gbinije.

*****

Standing alone in the darkness, Quinn Cook stands beside an open basketball court full of concrete and solitude. He came here to settle down, almost to trace back his prior mistakes, that has imposed his will in years past. Four years ago, during the summer after enduring one of the most heartache basketball seasons in his life as a bewildered Duke freshman. When he became sidelined of four straight exhibition games as the team traveled to China, due to a nagging knee injury. Cook, trying to impose a cracked, gaping smile somewhere, that became buried beneath that regular, apathetic tone.

He can’t grasp reality, however, as he seeped into a more depressed state. Deciding on what move to make next, he frantically breaks out his cell phone from his shorts pocket, in a furious haste he dials up his dear friend. A friend he had been missing, who knew all too well what he is going through. Answering the call at the other end is Nolan Smith, former Duke guard and 2010 National Champion who had experienced upheavels similar to Cook’s and the main reason why Cook now sports #2 on his Duke jersey, a symbolic reference to his role model. You can almost call them friends at birth, sort of. Like Cook, Nolan lost his father at a younger age of 8. Afterwards, Nolan began to lose a self of enjoyment within himself and battled through harsh, morose moments in his life. Both of them also practiced on the same AAU team together as kids, though Smith now 26 and Cook 22, still shared the same critical passion of basketball.

While on the phone the two talked into the night, Cook expressing his disgruntled about his forgettable freshman season. For what it is worth, Cook’s freshman season as a Blue Devil was bleak. After coming home from Oak Hill’s boarding school in the summer, Cook suffered a  nagging knee injury, that forced him to sit out all four exhibition games before his college career even began. While recovering in November, more freshman growing pains continued as Cook shaped into the one of many players on Coach K’s bench who rarely experienced playing time, behind other  guards like Seth Curry, Tyler Thornton, and Austin Rivers, who at the time were more complete players than Cook. Only a sparse 11 minutes per game and an average of 4 points gave the overall impression inside Cook that no matter what he could do, nothing could change Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s mind about him becoming a valuable asset for the team.

What Nolan Smith told him next would alter the course of Cook’s Duke career. In a brief message, he said, “You can find yourself in the gym. By playing hard, having fun, and not worrying about others around you, when when you feel sad, turn to the gym.”

Quinn Cook smiles next to Coach K after winning the 2015 South regional over Gonzaga.

Quinn Cook smiles next to Coach K after winning the 2015 South regional over Gonzaga.

What might just be a simple pep-talk for some meant more to Cook by  generating more inner self-confidence than ever and raising his overall play. As a sophomore, his role was more bright, as he beat out junior Thornton for the final starting spot and began his first full season as the team’s incumbent starter. With a newer attitude about himself Cook averaged 11.7 PPG and 2.1 APG, leading Duke to an Elite 8 finish and solidifying himself as the mainstay starter for the future. Than as a junior in 2013-14,  Cook set himself apart even more, while at times getting forgotten by the freshman stand out Jabari Parker, Cook learned how to handle his emotions that hit even harder as the Blue Devils fell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years to Mercer.

In 2014-15, rosters changed, but Quinn Cook remains calm and controlled. Even with the addition of three fresh faced and 5-star freshman recruits into their starting lineup, with guard Tyus Jones and forwards Justice Winslow and Jahlil Okafor as well as the departure of junior forward and teammate Rasheed Suliamon. That has left the Duke bench with just a slim 8 scholarship players on the roster. Cook remains the second leading scorer (15.5 PPG), only behind likely #1 overall draft pick in this year’s 2015 NBA Draft, center Jahlil Okafor.

In the 38 games Cook has started this year, he didn’t reach double figures in only four of them. It goes a long way in Cook’s maturity and development, basically the revealing sign of how finally he has waited his turn. As the team’s lone senior leader, Cook’s cadence and ability to learn patience has driven Duke and is a key reason why their season is still in the process of their ultimate goal: a National Title. In a road game at Virginia at the end of January, with his team down by 11 with just nine minutes left to go, Quinn Cook took his man off the dribble, slashed by a screen set by teammate Justice Winslow, and drove hard while absorbing contact in mid-air, somehow willing the ball into the basket for the basket for an AND-1. Letting out a load roar from the exuberant Cook, he looked over to the UVA student section, who were taken aback of how emotional Cook was in just one play, but for Cook inside, he wanted to make sure everyone in the arena would take notice of his presence.

It hasn’t been just individual performances that have guided Cook through hard times and knowingly becoming the heart and soul of the freshman led Blue Devils. True freshman point guard Tyus Jones has found someone to learn from in times of need, even someone to lean on. The towering 7 foot frame of Jahlil Okafor and the diminutive 6 foot Quinn Cook illustrate a tight bond amongst teammates that doesn’t come along every day in sports. The two before and after every game always give each other a big bear hug, a symbol of the patience they share, since both lost a parent in their lives while growing up; Okafor lost his mother as a budding teenager. Before letting go, Okafor’s colossal arms squeeze Cook a little too hard, but yet are combined in a loving friendship.

As Duke heads into the Final Four matchup against Michigan State in Indianapolis, a place where they previously won the National Championship in 2010, the young phenoms of Duke will come in daunted while Quinn Cook stays calm and collected, knowing that the pressure of the Final Four doesn’t compare with what he has endured in his life.

 

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