SOUTH BEND – Summer rolled by way too slowly for former Notre Dame power forward Jack Cooley.
Waiting for word on his basketball future after a solid showing in the NBA summer league, the former first team All-Big East selection was left with two options – work out seemingly morning, noon and night or wear out his latest videogame.
Cooley could only make so many shots or rack up so many high scores before boredom visited at his parents’ home in suburban Chicago. It was during those moments, which arrived almost daily, that Cooley wished his life had a more definitive direction.
“I (was) so bored laying around,” Cooley said. “I don’t have any school work anymore, so I can just kick, back (but) you can only work out for so long before you’ve got to stop.”
A definitive direction finally arrived in mid-July when Cooley signed a lucrative contract to begin his professional playing career with Trabzonspor, a high-level team in the Turkish Basketball League. Cooley bypassed several partially guaranteed deals to join NBA teams for their preseason camps for the six-figure contract overseas.
Cooley had no one to blame but himself – and in the best of ways – for his post-graduation predicament. An undrafted free agent after a senior season in which he was the only Big East player to average double figures for points (13.1) and rebounds (10.1), Cooley completed a successful 10-day run in the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League in early July with the Memphis Grizzlies.
It would have been easier had Cooley looked lost, overwhelmed and unsure of his place in the quicker, more physical game. He could have chalked it up to having gained valuable experience at the game’s highest level. With only one real option, he would have headed for his pick of spots in Europe. There, he would season his game for a second NBA chance next summer.
But Cooley’s work on the famed Las Vegas Strip took his game to a crossroads – the NBA now could be a legitimate future option.
“I’m just happy to play basketball for a living,” he said. “It’s pretty incredible.”
Cooley made it look simple in the desert. He displayed much of the drive that allowed him to come from seemingly nowhere midway through his collegiate career to earn Big East most improved player as a junior and first team all-league honors as a senior.
After a warm-up/cup of coffee of sorts earlier in the month with the Houston Rockets in the Orlando Summer League, Cooley settled into his rebounding/hard-working ways with the Grizzlies during the 22-team Vegas summer showcase.
Able to get an extended look after the cameo in Florida (he averaged a solid 7.0 points, 7.7 rebounds in 15.7 minutes backing up former Kentucky standout Terrence Jones), the 6-9, 246-pound Cooley averaged a team-high 15.0 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 0.7 assists and 0.7 steals in 30.3 minutes (he played 29.3 as a senior). He shot 52.7 percent from the field, 23.1 percent from three and 69.2 percent from the free throw line.
He did it against the summer’s best. Starting every game while playing six in seven days meant Cooley often was matched against first-round draft picks. He hung 16 points and 10 rebounds on Charlotte’s Cody Zeller, the fourth pick of the June draft.
“I feel as if I went out there and proved I can play with the best of them,” he said. “What I did out there should stand up and eliminate any questions that teams had.”
Those questions – can he move his feet, guard and make a perimeter shot? – forced Cooley to watch nearly five hours of NBA draft coverage June 27 without hearing his named called. It failed to curb Cooley’s belief that he has a place in the Association.
“It was frustrating to see players I know I’m better than get drafted,” Cooley said. “But I knew my chance would come. I couldn’t let it get me down and had to use it to play better in summer league.”
Cooley played a different game than the one Irish fans watched the previous two years. Notre Dame operated a majority of his time in a four-around-one system – four perimeter players around main low-post player (Cooley). In the NBA, the floor is spread with shooters who have skills and size. That allowed Cooley to stray from the post and even take (and make) the occasional three-pointer. He was more of a stretch-4 (power forward/shooter), than low-post grinder.
He liked it.
“It opens up my game,” he said. “I can just play basketball.”
Cooley finished Vegas with three double-doubles – a statistical staple during his final two years at Notre Dame. Those numbers peaked with a 20-point, 12-rebound effort in 30 minutes in a 90-83 victory July 17 over Washington.
Cooley closed his Irish career with 32 double-doubles, including 19 as a senior. He hit for at least 10 points and 10 rebounds only once in his final nine games, but his void in the Irish lineup this winter will be felt by more than just numbers.
“The energy that he played with was contagious to his teammates,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “He energized our building with how he played. Who does that for us?”
More importantly, Cooley finally knows where he will do it professionally.
Former Notre Dame guard Tory Jackson walked away from a playing career last winter for the chance to return as head coach of his alma mater – Buena Vista High in Saginaw, Mich. – where he hoped to make a difference in the lives of kids who really needed a positive influence.
Jackson planned to return to Buena Vista and coach again this winter, but when the school fell into financial difficulty, then ultimately closed its doors over the summer, Jackson believed it was time to do something for himself – and time to resurrect his playing career.
Jackson agreed to terms with a professional team in Heidelberg, Germany, and was scheduled to fly to Europe in late August. On the day of his scheduled departure, Jackson dropped in 49 points during a Saginaw-area pro/am championship game.
He never did get on the plane. Instead, two days later, he was named an assistant coach at Division II Northwood University in Midland, Mich. Jackson, who has long feared flying, also couldn’t bring himself to leave his 7-month daughter for the better part of the next 10 months.
“It was too tough,” said Jackson, still the all-time leader in Notre Dame history for games played (136).
Continuing his coaching career, Jackson believes, will take him one step closer to his ultimate goal of returning to Notre Dame in some way, shape or form to serve on Brey’s staff. Brey had a father/son relationship with Jackson, and any future opening on the staff is sure to include Jackson’s name for short-list candidates.