WHAT I SHOULD HAVE LEARNED FROM THE TEAMMATE WHO PLAYED ME ONTO THE BENCH

Posted on Mar 07, 2013

Meet John Cooper. The anti-Steve McKee.

If you’ve been a regular reader of CENTAUR SEASONS, especially the “History of the Events of the Allentown College’s 1972-1973 B-Ball season …,” the diary of my junior season, then you already know him.

With our 6-and-11 campaign now mercifully over, I looked around for a way to wrap things up in a CENTAUR SEASONS post or two. From outside the box Coop came immediately to mind.

John Cooper is the 6-foot-4 big guy who played me onto the bench that ’72-’73 year, had me sitting for long stretches (of games and the entire season), left me crying by myself in the locker room after one of my particularly humiliating games. He’s the guy who made it seem I’d never get the chande to prove that I should have played basketball in high school for the York Catholic Fighting Irish. My very raison Centaur d’etre. He’s the guy at the beginning of the season about whom I wrote so condescendingly — my wondering what it was like for him to have to cheer for me, the starter, as he waited his turn to be subbed in. And then soon enough he had me cheering for him, waiting my turn to be subbed in.

Well, OK, that’s not exactly what happened. John Cooper played and Steve McKee didn’t in that 72-73 season because he played very well and I … you know … didn’t. Simple as that.

Coop had himself a heck of 1972-1973 Centaur season. No other way to say it. I still sound condescending, I know, but I’m trying not to, honest.  Coop 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 he 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. And I should have then, too. It would have helped me be a much better player.

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, really – 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. “If I wasn’t eating or sleeping I was shooting. Snowed, the first thing to get shoveled was the court. So cold the ball wouldn’t bounce.”

He went to high school at Cardinal Dougherty, one of those industrial-size schools educating the Catholic boomers of Philadelphia. Junior year he was the last man cut from the basketball team. (Coop wasn’t the only Cardinal Dougherty Centaur, and he wasn’t the only Centaur to be the last guy cut from his high school team.)

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 (and likely sitting the bench anyway) meant Coop could play in CYO, rec, city and Y leagues. “I ended up playing on four different teams, playing whole games. It got me a lot of experience, and with experience comes confidence. I just got a lot better at it, real quick.”

Better enough, in fact, that he started thinking maybe he could go to St. Joe’s or LaSalle and try to walk on.  But with no grand plan in place he ended up at Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales when a high school friend, Tim Kelley, said he was going up to check the place out and did Coop want to come along? Sure. They roomed together all four years.

As for the basketball team once he got to Allentown, well, that “just happened,” he says. “I didn’t go up there to play ball, let’s put it that way. I got up there, and when I saw what was going on I said, ‘Geez, I can play with these guys.’ ”

I find this all very instructive now. 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. Top-notch  adult leagues around Philly, teamed with guys who’d played in the Big 5, at Philly Textile**, well-coached high schoolers and guys like him. Played into his late 40s — at the end against kids 20 years younger.

“I got in with an unbelievable group of guys. Six-eight, Six-nine, six-eight across the front. Lots of positive reinforcement. And we won. It was fun. One by one leagues asked us not to come back. There was no screwing around. Slack off and everybody’d call you on it. Everybody had their role. I had my role. When I got in they couldn’t double team anybody else because they couldn’t leave me alone. ‘Who’s covering the fat guy? Who’s got the fat guy? Can’t leave the fat guy alone!’

Coop just liked to play.

“Shooting was my forte,” he says. “I’m a six-foot-four slow white guy. 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. I could shoot my butt off.”

Yes, he could. Coop had soft hands, a feathery touch — “money,” as they say (or used to, at least) in a way I could never be. Even my senior year, when it came together for me, when we needed a basket, it was Coop we looked to.

Coop understood what I never did: The shot you’re taking right now isn’t the last shot you’re going to take.

“Yeah, that’s true,” Coop says. “If I missed a shot, I never got down.” His teammates in the Philly leagues, he says, told him the same thing: “ ‘Nothing seems to bother you.’ ” I could see Coop shrug phlegmatically through the phone. “That’s just the way I played. I never got too high or too low. 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.

He still gets on me for how he could get me to bite on his pump fake, jump to the ceiling, with little more than an arch of his eyebrow. Yeah, fell for it every time.

In the junior year season just ended in the diary, I averaged five points, and in 12 of the 17 games I scored six points or fewer. I did my best to cheer for Coop but, well, you know how that goes.

I let the game get in my head. I could never dial it down. Just play. I had SO MUCH to prove, and only four Centaur Seasons to do it. When the game gets in your head like that, you get yourself outside your own game. Once that happens you’re sitting in the stands, watching yourself play, criticizing every … single … move.

And for me, once THAT happened, I was sitting on the bench watching Coop take his next shot, just playing the game.

** PHILLY TEXTILE IS NOW PHILADELPHIA UNIVERSITY, WHERE CENTAUR TOM SHIRLEY IS THE LONG-TIME WOMEN’S BASKETBALL COACH. 

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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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