February 29, 2012
David Gaines reminds Malik Cooke of the story sometimes. They still share a laugh over it.
The head coach at the Christ School in Arden, N.C., first met Cooke as a rising 10th grader - "14 years old, skinny as a rail, and the youngest guy in his grade." Cooke had arrived at the boarding school from his native Charlotte, intent on playing basketball at a high level.
A week after he arrived, Cooke jumped in an afternoon of pickup games at the Christ School's gym. He was matched against a team featuring identical twins Chavis and Travis Holmes, seniors who would become the highest-scoring set of twins in NCAA Division I history at VMI.
"Malik had lost 4 or 5 games in a row to the team with the twins. He came over to me almost in tears," Gaines said. "'Coach, you gotta say something to these guys.' He was to the point I couldn't understand what he was saying. I asked him why.
He said, 'My team lost again. They told me to sit my a** down."
Gaines calmed down his newcomer. But he was left with an impression of Cooke that has endured into his final days as a Gamecock.
"It was great in that he didn't like that at all. We felt as a staff that we had a kid who didn't like to lose."
An utter, unbleached disdain for losing. A willingness to never take a day off. And a desire to push himself every day to get better. Talk to those closest to Malik Rashad Cooke, and it's clear those traits have defined him through his 22 years.
They helped turn a soft-spoken kid into a leader, a state champion, and a college graduate. They sustained him as hard luck, losses, and a transfer year could've worn away his resolve. And they transformed Cooke - the guy too slow to be a shooting guard, too un-athletic to be a small forward, too tiny to be a power forward - into a 1,000-point college career.
As his Senior Night approaches against Mississippi State Wednesday, the man incongruously nicknamed "Cookie" - nothing about him has ever crumbled - reflected on a basketball career that was forged as much by sheer will as raw talent.
"I hope I don't have any regrets when I go back. I hope I did everything I could to try to be the best I could every day," Cooke said.
Gamecock fans have seen Cooke's desire for two years. His Dad, Richard Jones, has known it for much longer. In fact, basketball was Cooke's destiny before he even realized it.
"I put him over top of my head, and the first time he threw a ball at the hoop, it went in [on a regulation-size rim]," Jones said.
"I said, 'You're going to be a ballplayer."
Jones raised Cooke on taking pride in whatever he did. Somewhere in those lessons, a fiery competitive streak was born.
"I always hated to lose," Cooke said. "It was just probably in everything I did like video games, foot races, I mean whatever, flag football."
And basketball. Jones still recalls an AAU tournament in Greensboro, N.C., when Cooke was 12 years old.
"They had them scheduled for 4 games that day. The last game was against [Mississippi State guard] Dee Bost. He was cramping. They couldn't get him out of the game. He wanted that game so bad because it was for pool play, and they would go to Nationals.
"I could see the tears bubbling up in his eyes from the cramps. He wouldn't go out for anything in the world," Jones said. Cooke's team won in overtime.
After spending his freshman year at Vance HS in Charlotte, Cooke and his family decided to enroll him at Christ School, a burgeoning basketball power in the mountains of western North Carolina.
He began as a role-playing 10th grader, fresh off a serious ankle injury in the offseason. Two years later, he left the Christ School with a career scoring record (1,375 points, a mark that still stands), state titles as a sophomore and senior, and scholarship offers from Nevada and Marshall.
Cooke opted for Nevada, 2,500 miles from his hometown. "I thought it was an opportunity to find myself, and be a man," he said.
Cooke spent two seasons at Nevada, averaging 9.6 points and 6.2 rebounds for head coach Mark Fox as a sophomore. But a coaching change - and more importantly, the health of his father - prompted him to seek a school closer to home.
"At the time it was very hard, because I was dealing with sarcoidosis, which was ailing my health," his father, Richard Jones, said.
According to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, sarcoidosis is a disease of the immune system that can affect the eyes, lungs, lymph nodes, and liver. It can lead to organ damage in one-third of all people afflicted with it. Most experience remission -- Jones' symptoms have mostly cleared up -- but the disease can also be fatal. NFL Hall of Famer Reggie White died from sarcoidosis.
"We kept it under the radar for so long. I knew if there was any way we could get back home, let's try and do it, because I want to see him. I didn't know the longevity of me being able to see him play," Jones said.
Cooke parted amicably with Nevada, and found a new home at South Carolina. But his first season on campus presented a dilemma. How does someone quench his competitive thirst when there's no competition? Cooke had to sit out the 2009-10 season per the NCAA's transfer rule.
Instead of playing, he uncaged his competitive energies in Carolina's practices and scrimmages. He often led the Gamecocks' reserves against a starting five led by All-SEC guard Devan Downey. Cooke and Downey turned routine scrimmages into trash talk-laced wars. If his team lost, a scowl would linger on his face well after the final buzzer.
"I really didn't try to take it easy on them. I went as hard as I could. We had a lot of good players so it was good for me and them. I wanted to come out every day and just work as hard as I could and try to make them better," he said.
At South Carolina, Cooke's play has mirrored his personality. Horn says his lone senior has an "old man's game." He attacks offensive rebounds, hits midrange jumpers, and uses cagey moves to score against taller forwards. It's the perfect blend of guts and guile, steel will and scrap iron.
And of course, he seems to rise when the occasion calls for it most. In his first SEC start, he filled in for an injured Lakeem Jackson by scoring a career-high 22 points at Tennessee. With the Gamecocks on a five-game losing streak, Cooke made 9 of 10 free throws against Ole Miss, then sealed the win with a last-second steal of Rebels leading scorer Chris Warren. A pair of late free throws clinched a win at Clemson. His baseline bank shot with 20 seconds left propelled Carolina to a win over Georgia in February.
And then there was the nationally-televised game against #2 Ohio State Dec. 17. Cooke had poured in 10 first-half points, helping Carolina to a 4-point lead early in the 2nd half. Then a Deshaun Thomas elbow bloodied his left eye, forcing him out of the game. Few will forget the sight of Cooke, blood trickling down his face, slamming his towel to the ground, upset at having to leave his team to get stitched up in the locker room. By the time he returned, Ohio State had grabbed the lead for good. Yet Cooke, a bandage still bothering his vision, battled until the bitter - and literally bloody - end, scoring a team-high 21 points.
As a redshirt senior, he evolved into Carolina's unquestioned team leader. He organized pickup games and team-building outings over the summer, even though he couldn't play because of a dislocated ankle. In December, he earned his degree in sociology. The losses have piled up - more than he'd like -- but they have not sapped his will to keep fighting. And head coach Darrin Horn says Cooke's unflagging work ethic has set an example for his teammates.
"That's one of the reasons that you've seen a team that's got 2 wins in league play continue to come out and play hard and compete. That's a rare thing given our situation, and I think Malik has been a part of that because of his consistency and leadership," Horn said.
For Senior Night, Cooke was asked to choose a song for his videoboard montage. He picked Frank Sinatra's "My Way."
It seems like an unusual pick for a 22 year-old, but not an unlikely one. From his beginnings in Charlotte to his final days as a Gamecock, one thing becomes clear.
Malik Cooke has only known one way.