Duke senior Qunn Cook ready to lead the Blue Devils to NCAA men's basketball championship over Wisconsin on Monday night.
INDIANAPOLIS—By the time Quinn Cook reached high school in the Washington D.C. area, his mother described him as “a little rock star.” Members of the Washington Wizards knew him by name, recording artists courted his friendship and every private school in the area relentlessly recruited him. Cook chose DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md., perhaps the country’s most storied program. Considering Hall of Famer Morgan Wootten once coached there and stars from Adrian Dantley to Danny Ferry to Victor Oladipo played there, it’s telling just how much Cook’s arrival was heralded. “I hate to say it,” says veteran DeMatha coach Mike Jones, “but when he arrived on our campus it was like a Messiah showing up.”
By the end of Cook’s junior season at Duke last spring, the days of him being hailed as a savior seemed like a generation ago. He’d endured two second-round losses in the NCAA tournament, his NBA dreams had dimmed and his career arc appeared headed toward blue chip prospect who plateaued as a Blue Devil. Coach Mike Krzyzewski met with Cook after Duke's loss to Mercer in the NCAA tournament last spring and delivered a blunt message: “You need to grow up.”
Just as his career arc appeared to trend from prodigy to pedestrian, Cook has delivered one shining season that’s led to career rebirth. Duke’s trip to the national title game, where it will face Wisconsin on Monday night, began in Krzyzewski’s office that day. “I definitely had to evolve,” Cook said. “Coach recruited me to be a leader.”
Cook, the team’s only senior, has led a roster in which four of the eight players are true freshman. Inside the program, no player has been more indispensable than Cook, who changed his position and disposition to aid this Blue Devil season. Cook not only slid over from point guard to shooting guard to accommodate heralded freshman Tyus Jones, he also did it without an ounce of angst. Cook set the tone in summer conditioning by becoming one of the few players in program history to run a mile under five minutes. He called a team meeting after back-to-back losses to N.C. State and Miami to make sure no one lost their confidence. And, most important, Cook took the arrival of Jones, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow as a team opportunity, not a personal threat. “We thought it would be good,” said Duke assistant Jeff Capel. “But it was better than we imagined. That starts with Quinn and how he embraced these guys.”
On Monday, Cook will complete a journey that has seen him evolve from tantalizing pre-teen prospect to Duke’s literal and metaphoric old guard. Along the way, he’s endured the death of his father, escaped Washington D.C. to prep school and recaptured the spotlight by showing a willingness to cede it. “In 41 years of being around kids, I’ve never seen a kid come as far,” Duke athletic director Kevin White said. “Not just as a player, but as a consummate leader. He’s traveled the furthest distance that I’ve ever seen.”
Two weeks after Cook's father, Ted, died of cardiac arrest in 2008, Quinn Cook sat with DeMatha coach Mike Jones watching film. On every trip down the floor, the camera caught the image of Ted Cook in the stands at DeMatha, wearing his hallmark gold LA Lakers sweatshirt. When Jones looked at Cook to make a point, Cook was staring straight to the ground. “We immediately stopped watching,” Jones said. “I felt so bad.”
More than seven years later, Quinn Cook remembers his dad every time he sends out a tweet. He closes the message with RiPDAD! Quinn always had his father’s outgoing personality, as Jones knew Ted Cook as a golfing partner, community galvanizer and relentless supporter of local charities. Ted did well as an entrepreneur, and the Cooks took pride in their spacious house being a place where Quinn’s friends from basketball could crash. While Ted always drew a crowd, he and his son were inseparable. “You hear people say their dad is their best friend,” Jones said. “His dad was clearly his best friend.”
Cook dealt with the death in different ways. It drew him close to former Duke star Nolan Smith, another D.C. basketball prodigy. Nolan Smith lost his father, former NBA star Derek Smith, at age 8. Jones was a freshman in high school and Smith a freshman at Duke, and the two had known each other for years in basketball circles. Smith pondered returning home for the funeral for Uncle Ted, but declined. Instead, Quinn Cook went to Durham a week later to spend a few days there. “We had a connection bigger than we already had,” Nolan Smith said. “I knew I was going to be a brother figure and father figure and help him get through those tough days.”
By the end of Cook’s junior year at DeMatha, his life as a celebrity in D.C. basketball circles became overwhelming. In 2010, he became the first junior in 30 years to win Player of the Year in the metropolitan area. Before every game, he wore a shirt with his father’s picture in warm-ups and draped it over a seat on the bench to remind him of his presence. But off the court, Jones worried about the attention on Cook. He had summer coaches, event promoters and local workout gurus all wanting to attach themselves to him. Janet Cook made multiple trips to Jones’s office to talk about her son’s future, even breaking into tears. Jones agreed that it would be best for Cook to leave town and spend a year at prep school, which led him to powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. “I couldn’t control the environment,” Janet Cook said. “When you have a kid with special talent, you need to protect them. I didn’t feel I had the ability to protect him like when my husband was here.”
As with most youth prodigies, real life and basketball realities interrupt seamless ascensions to stardom. At Oak Hill, an MCL injury caused Cook to miss half of his senior year. Cook still became a McDonald’s All-American, but ended up having surgery that hindered the start of his college career. “That hurt his development at Duke the first year and half,” Oak Hill coach Steve Smith said.
Cook’s first three seasons were solid but unspectacular—he averaged 11.7 points per game as a sophomore and 11.6 as a junior. But he's has undergone an overhaul this year, as he’s Duke’s second-leading scorer at 15.6 points per game, thriving off the ball. Nolan Smith said Cook hasn’t once complained about Krzyzewski taking the ball from his hands. Instead, he’s embraced Tyus Jones and guided Duke through a season that’s included the dismissal of guard Rasheed Sulaimon. The leadership began in the summer when Cook demanded the team lounge be clear of Gatorade bottles and everyone made 7 a.m. workouts on time. Teammates rave about Cook’s subtle charms, like nicknaming freshman Grayson Allen “Deebo,” after the character from the movie Friday. (Allen is shy off the court and aggressive on it.) “There’s never been a day when he shows up and he’s not the leader,” Jones said.
On Monday night against Wisconsin, Cook gets to show the full manifestation of Krzyzewski’s message in the office last year. He’s led this Duke team to the cusp of its fifth championship and in the process rewrote his career narrative. While no longer a Messiah, he’s resurrected his career. “I couldn’t imagine being more proud of someone,” Mike Jones said. “I guarantee if you went back and looked at other (top prospects’) situations, the story ends way different.”