Duke's Quinn Cook, ex-Blue Devil Nolan Smith share special bond
Brotherhood is not a bond resigned to those who share a parent. Defined by Webster's Dictionary as "fellowship or an alliance", brotherhood is more than simply the result of a friendship or a pledged frat.
It's that similarity of interests and mutual level of respect and trustworthiness that comes with forming a lifetime bond. It's having a confidante, a shoulder to lean on, an ear to listen. It's someone who picks you up when you should be down while at the same time yelling at you to get up when you're too busy getting down on yourself. It's someone who forces you to strive to be your best, not through intimidation or motivation, but simply because you cannot bear to disappoint them.
Quinn Cook has always been a little brother -- his only sibling is an older sister named Kelsey -- but it wasn't until he began playing basketball that he got a big brother.
"I met Nolan when I was six years old. We both played in the same AAU program," Cook said. "We were in Memphis, and he just came up to me and was like, 'You're my little brother.' Ever since then, he's taken care of me and just been my brother and my best friend."
The 'Nolan' that Cook is referring to is Nolan Smith, a former All-American point guard for Duke currently playing for the Portland Trailblazers, who took him in the first round of the 2011 NBA draft.
Cook, who is nearly five years younger than Smith, has followed a path that is strikingly similar to the one carved out by big brother. Both grew up in the area surrounding DC. Both spent three years at a basketball powerhouse in Maryland before transferring to Oak Hill Academy in Virginia for their final year of high school. Both played in the DC Assault AAU program and were named McDonald's All-Americans. And now, Cook is following in Smith's footsteps by wearing the No. 2 while playing point guard for the Blue Devils.
Smith is listed as Cook's god-brother on the Duke website.
Ted Cook's heart stopped on an operating table. He had been sick for a couple of weeks, but he was still young, just 48 years old when he died. The first person Quinn talked to that night was Smith. They sat, crying, on the phone together for hours.
It was a tragedy and a blessing all the same, because Smith knew far too well what it was like to lose a father at a young age. His dad, Derek, passed away when Nolan was just eight years old. It was the last day of a cruise the family went on with the Washington Bullets, who Derek was coaching at the time. Like 'Uncle Ted', as Nolan calls him, Derek's heart had stopped beating, and neither of the two defibrillators on board were able to resuscitate him.
Smith knew exactly what little brother was going through. He knew what he was going to have to deal with over the coming days and weeks, months and years. He knew what it was like to get choked up at Father's Day commercials on TV. He knew the inherent sadness that came with experiencing every one of his successes without his father. He knew the jealously that came with seeing classmates and teammates spend time with their dads. He knew of the onslaught of people calling and texting, of the house filled with well-wishers and loved ones.
And he knew precisely how to deal with it.
"I told him as soon as it happened: Go to the gym," Smith said. "Use the gym to take your tears away and to put a smile on your face. That's where your dad would want for you to be and that's where you want to be. It's the only place that's going to make you happy."
"Nobody can bother you when you're at the gym. Your emotions can't bother you. Just go in there and work on your game. I spent a lot of time there. When my dad passed, I didn't know who to run to. I had to depend on family and use a counselor. We went to family counselor for a while to be sure that I was staying positive. But the gym was my escape. I stayed in the gym to make sure that I stayed on the right path to reach my dream. That's what I told him. It's your happy place."
Little brother listened.
The night that his father died, Cook was in the gym working out until after midnight. He was in there the next night, too. And the night after that. And countless nights since then. "Basketball got me through that," Cook said. "I forgot about all the tragedy. You get reminded, you know, when you get all the phone calls and the texts and you go over to your house and there's all these people there. I kind of wanted to get away from that and I found the gym as my sanctuary."
Just like big bro told him he would.
And then it clicked.
Cook and Smith both have a sister who is about three years older. They live the same lifestyle and have the same dream. They like the same movies and listen to the same music. They both play the same position and both have the same dream. And now, they were both young men with fathers taken too soon.
"Wow, this is happening for a reason," Smith thought at the time. "I'm already in his life for a reason."
At the end of the summer right before his senior season at Oak Hill, Cook was playing in the Elite 24 all-star game. In the closing seconds of what was a made-for-TV pick-up game, Cook landed awkwardly on his right knee and partially tore his meniscus. He played his senior year, but never got completely healthy.
Once the season was over, Cook took some time off to try and rehabilitate his knee. But once August rolled around and the Blue Devils began practicing for their trip to China and Dubai, it was obvious to the coaching staff that Cook's knee wasn't healthy. So they shut him down: no practicing, no working out, no basketball in the Far East. Perhaps most importantly, Cook didn't get a chance to find his niche within the framework of the team or the rotation.
Thrown all together, and what you get is Cook's freshman season: averages of 4.4 points and 1.9 assists in just under 12 minutes per game, with a handful of starts, a larger handful of games where he was buried on the bench and quite a few minutes watching from the sidelines as fellow freshman Austin Rivers handled the ball.
But in the limited opportunities he did get, Cook put together some quality performances. During a two-game stretch right at the end of non-conference play, Cook went for 22 points, 17 assists and no turnovers in just 45 minutes of action. Two games later, he had 10 points and five assists -- and just one turnover -- as the Blue Devils won at Georgia Tech in their ACC opener. There was talk that Cook might actually be the best point guard on the Duke roster.
And then the knee again.
A week after the win over Georgia Tech, Cook tweaked his knee against Clemson. A week later, he played just a single minute against Florida State and followed that up with the dreaded DNP-CD at Maryland. From then on, minutes were sparse and inconsistent.
The memories of those promising performances lingered in the minds of the Blue Devil faithful, however, as well as the mind of Cook. Finally healthy, he's gone back to his routine of living in the gym. "I'm a gym rat, I'm a workaholic," he said. "I'm just going harder this summer because I didn't have a summer last year to work out." Workaholic is right; Cook's been pulling double and triple sessions. He works out with his trainer in the morning before heading to the gym to get shots up and work on his ball-handling. The afternoon is when it gets fun, as Cook does his conditioning later in the day, which includes running hills in his neighborhood in the sweltering DC summer.
Cook knows his importance to Duke in 2012-13. The Blue Devils have a nice blend of youth and experience on a deep and versatile front line, headlined by Mason Plumlee. They have scorers on the wings, in senior Seth Curry and incoming freshman Rasheed Sulaimon. And Cook? He's the tie that binds it all together. He's the natural-born point guard. He's the lone penetrator, the only guy on the roster who can draw an extra defender and create open threes and dunks off of dump-downs.
Who better to learn that role from than big brother?
"We've had a lot of time this year where me and him were just playing one-on-one in the gym," Smith said. "When I was down at Duke early in the summer working out, I was playing one-on-one with him and making sure he was more efficient with his moves. Being quicker and more effective when he had the ball. Keep him looking to make plays. He was working on his body, things like that, he's going to do those things. But his all-around game, he's just a complete player. I seen him every single day, waking up, working hard and doing extra things just to get better. He never takes days off and he always wants to compete and give the best to be the best."
"I know for a fact that I wouldn't be at the level I'm at without him," Cook said.
Cook, like any player who steps foot on the court at a program like Duke, has lofty goals for his collegiate basketball career. He wants the team succeed, meaning he wants to play in Final Fours and, hopefully, win a national title. He wants to see a level of personal success at the same time, which means being named All-ACC or, if things go well, Conference Player of the Year and an All-American.
In other words, he wants to do the same things that big brother did.
"I want to have a little bragging rights at the dinner table," Cook said.
Smith not only thinks it's possible, he's confident that little brother can achieve anything that he puts his mind to.
"Seeing him as a young kid, even back then, you could see the passion and see the attitude that he has about himself and the self-confidence that he has about himself," Smith said. "It's something that a special player has to have. He has that."
There's one thing, however, that big brother is adamant that little brother will never, ever, under any circumstances, be able to do: beat him one-on-one.
"No, he hasn't [beaten me]," Smith said. "I can't let that happen. And we've played a lot. We've played a lot of games."
"I don't think I can let little brother get me yet."