CLASSIC REDUX: What I should have learned from the teammate who played me onto the bench junior year

Posted on Nov 20, 2013

Meet John Cooper. The anti-Steve McKee.

John Cooper is the 6-foot-4 big guy who played me onto the bench junior year, who had me sitting for long stretches, who left me crying in the locker room. He’s the guy who made it seem I’d never get the chance to prove that I should have played basketball in high school for the York Catholic Fighting Irish. My very raison Centaur d’etre.

Coop had himself a heck of 1972-1973 Centaur season. I did my best to cheer for him but, well, you know how that goes. He got out of the chute with 10, 18 and 22 points in our first three games. He averaged 11 per for the season, third best on the team. He played hurt (chronic shinsplints, as I recall) and never missed a game.

All the while never seeming to care. I wrote words to that effect in my diary forty years ago. I didn’t mean it in a good way. I do now.

* * * * *   ‘WHAT I SHOULD HAVE LEARNED …’ CONTINUES BELOW   * * * * *

Welcome to a CENTAUR SEASONS “Classic Redux.” Every day from October 15 (March Madness!) through Thanksgiving Centaur Seasons is reposting shortened versions of last year’s efforts. (Click here to read the original.) Come December, CENTAUR SEASONS II will tip off with brand-new Centaur stories.

* * * * *  NOW, BACK TO ‘WHAT I SHOULD HAVE LEARNED …’  * * * * *  

Coop played basketball because he liked to play basketball. What a concept. I liked to play, too. But I could turn any practice, any game – any touch of the ball – into a referendum on whether I should have played for my high school team.  Coop had no agenda. He just … played.

He started in eight grade, growing up in Philadelphia. The classic story. “My dad put up a half-moon rim out back,” he told me. He went to high school at Cardinal Dougherty, an industrial-sized school. Junior year he was the last man cut

Welcome now to the anti-Steve McKee.

“Not making the high school team was a blessing,” John Cooper says.

Can you imagine? I can’t.

Not playing high school ball meant Coop could play in CYO, rec, city and Y leagues. “It got me a lot of experience, and with experience comes confidence. I just got a lot better at it, real quick.”

He started thinking maybe he could go to St. Joe’s or LaSalle and try to walk on.  But with no grand plan he ended up at Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales.

As for the basketball, well, “I didn’t go up there to play ball,” he says. “I got up there, and when I saw what was going on I said, ‘Geez, I can play with these guys.’ ”

Just play.  Wish I’d discovered that when it could have done my game some good.

Coop played his four years in Center Valley and then just kept on playing. The top-notch  adult leagues around Philly, stocked with ex-college players. He played into his late 40s.

Coop just liked to play.

“I’m a six-foot-four slow white guy,” he says. “I wasn’t a leaper. I tried to do everything. Box out, defend. But I could shoot, you know? And I took pride in that. Who’s got the fat guy? I could shoot my butt off.”

Yes, he could.

Coop understood what I never did: The shot you’re taking right now isn’t the last shot you’re going to take. “I never got too high or too low,” he says.  “I kept an even keel.”

Coop and I went at each other in practice all the time. It left an edge between us. Though I’m thinking now the edge was more on me than him. Because, you know, Coop just played. It wasn’t for him life and death.

Me? I let the game get in my head.

Once THAT happened, I was sitting on the bench watching Coop take his next shot, just playing the game.

COMING THURSDAY: SIX DEGREES OF REFERREING — THE ONE GUY WHO RAN THE FLOOR WITH THE CENTUARS WHO MADE IT TO THE BIG TIME

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Welcome to CENTAUR SEASONS: A ‘memory blog’ of the basketball beginnings of a half-good, half-bad, all-new college team.

Once, I was a Centaur.

I played basketball for Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales in Center Valley, Pa. I was on four of the school’s first seven teams, was MVP senior year and in 1974 graduated in the fifth class.

My junior year I kept a diary: A History of the Events of the 1972-1973 Allentown College B-Ball Season, as Chronicled by, and With the Personal Memoirs + Occassional [sic] Philosophizing of the Author, One Stephen J. McKee.  One-hundred-forty-five hand-writ pages. (Yes, I was an English major.)

But it occurs to me now: Were I today a “Bulldog” playing for “DeSales University” (both mascot and name changed in 2000), my private “History” would be not a diary but a blog.

So starting November 30  “…Personal Memoirs…” will be re-imagined as CENTAUR SEASONS

A blog before its time, posted 40 years after in real time.

Meanwhile, beginning on September 24, here at CENTAUR SEASONS the preseason has already tipped off, with stories, interviews and reminiscences of the people, the place and the purpose of those early years of Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales.

Check back often. Sign up for CentaurSeasonAlerts. Email CENTAUR SEASONS to friends.

We were not a bad team, we Centaurs. We just weren’t very good. Winning was always the goal, if never exactly the point. How could it be, with victories so few?

Back then Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales was a couple of buildings in some cornfields.  Our commitment to the school’s basketball program was far greater than was the school’s commitment us. So what? We got to play college ball – and paid for the privilege! In return, we got to be part of a team, wear the red and blue, be Centaurs. And we got to create a place that was, right then, as much concept as it was college, making itself up as we went along.

What we got was a once-in-a-life-time chance.

All we had to do was keep showing up -- next practice, next game, next season. And so we did.

Welcome to CENTAUR SEASONS.

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