There have been two hip surgeries. The loss of his father, a cancer battle for his mother. A career-threatening heart ailment. Two transfers. A short stint as an honorary assistant coach.
It all, in a strange, circuitous route, led Hallice Cooke to this point, as the starting senior point guard for the Nevada men’s basketball team, and the chance to create March memories to last a lifetime this week.
“It’s been a journey,” the 6-foot-3 native of Union City, N.J., said in a phone interview. “To be able to be playing again is a blessing. It’s a miracle.”
In June 2016, shortly after transferring to Nevada, Cooke collapsed while playing a pickup basketball game in New Jersey. It was later discovered a growth in his heart had grown dangerously bigger since it was initially found his freshman year at Oregon State. He was diagnosed in September 2016 with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the leading cause of sudden death in young athletes. His career was over. His new coach, Eric Musselman, immediately decided to honor the scholarship for as long as Cooke wanted.
“No hesitation,” Cooke recalled. “It showed how much he cared about me.”
He served a graduate assistant’s role. He would rebound for teammates and help out in drills. Inside, Musselman knew Cooke was dying not being able to be out there. There were times he would show up late. But when there, Cooke was fully invested. He remained upbeat, always encouraging players, helping any way he could. Whenever he got down, he watched “42,” the Jackie Robinson movie, to lift him up.
He got his basketball fix by playing intramural games at the school, going half-speed, checking himself out when he felt his heart rate getting too high. His team won the championship.
“I don’t know if anybody could’ve ever handled it any better than he did,” Musselman said. “He kept saying, ‘If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. If it saves my life, it saves my life.’”
“I just stayed positive through it all, and that positivity is why I am who I am today,” Cooke said.
His mother, DeLayne, refused to accept her son’s career was over. It meant too much to him for her to let it go. She would fly him back East to see specialists and different doctors, monitoring the condition.
“For whatever reason, I couldn’t let it go,” DeLayne said. “I was amazed at how he handled it. It made me push harder.”
Five months after the initial diagnosis, Cooke’s heart was determined to be sound. Multiple doctors — in New York and Nevada — confirmed it. Cooke, again sitting out the season because of the transfer rule, was cleared in December 2016 to resume basketball activities. He gave the doctor who first gave him the good news a hug.
“I never really thought that was going to happen,” said Cooke, who had a loop recorder implanted in his chest to track his symptoms.
Typical, however, of his arduous journey, shortly after he was cleared, his parents were both diagnosed with cancer. His mother survived, but his father, Robert, his best friend and biggest supporter, died in June 2017. Cooke has some of his father’s ashes inside a black vial he wears on a chain around his neck. He kisses it three times and says a prayer before each game, but doesn’t wear it during games. One of the last things his father said to him was: “be more confident, be more arrogant, be more cocky.” He never forgets it.
“There’s times in games I don’t shoot the ball and I’m like, ‘He would be pissed,’ ” Cooke said with a laugh. “I’m always thinking about him when I’m on the court. I feel like my dad is with me all the time.”
Since moving into the starting lineup on Feb. 17 after starting point guard Lindsey Drew tore his Achilles, Cooke has had some big games. There was a 15-point, seven-assist performance against San Jose State, six points, five assists and three rebounds against Utah State. Overall, he’s averaging 4.9 points and 2.1 rebounds, and is the 27-7 Wolf Pack’s best 3-point shooter, at 48 percent.
But his value for Nevada goes well beyond numbers. It’s the way he treats the game. The intensity he plays with. The urgency he has. He guards the other team’s best perimeter player. Effort is never a question.
“He’s turned into our emotional leader,” Musselman said.
Now 23, Cooke has been through so much. After a stellar career at St. Anthony of Jersey City under Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley Sr., he was on the All-Pac 12 honorable mention freshman team, averaging 8.2 points per game. Cooke transferred to Iowa State, and had operations on both hips during the season he sat out because of transfer rules. After playing on a Sweet 16 team his first eligible season, Cyclones coach Fred Hoiberg left for the NBA, and Cooke headed to Nevada. Then came the health scare, and later his father’s passing.
“A lot of ups and downs,” Cooke said. “Mixed emotions.”
It’s all gotten him to this point, though, everything he’s been through. It’s made him a better player, a more determined player. The game being taken away taught him a valuable lesson.
“I play with a chip on my shoulder. I play fearless. What do I have to lose now?” Cooke said. “Honestly, I want more success. I was up first thing today getting shots up.
“I’ve been waiting for this opportunity to come, and I want to make the most out of it.”
Published at Mon, 12 Mar 2018 05:49:58 +0000