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Mr. Basketball of Illinois 1999 | Lincoln's Brian Cook: Relishing his role

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Brian Cook lives for moments like these.

There he was, hooping it up on a gloriously warm and sunny day with 35 schoolkids shrieking in delight at his every one-on-one move.The impromtu performance on an asphalt court had the feel of a black-and-white shoe commercial as Cook slammed a dunk through a rim with no net.

Despite being a former all-conference player, Cook's 6-foot adversary was no match for the 6-10 Illinois recruit who led Lincoln to its first Elite Eight appearance in 19 years.

Joyce Cook's best defense was to poke her son's rib cage and cover his face with a hands check.

For Brian Cook, basketball has been his passion, Joyce Cook his inspiration, and children . . . well, they're the little fingers that tickle his soul.

"Do you know who that is?" 9-year-old Katie Mills asked in a tone of disbelief as the kids from an after-school elementary program began approaching the gentle giant on the outdoor court.

Steven Billington, 8, was the first to seek an autograph, and when a smiling Cook complied, the McDonald's All-American was quickly besieged by little people with pen and paper.

The autograph session turned into playtime as 8-year-olds Amy Kelley, Emily Ryan and Brandon Endres challenged Cook to a shooting contest. At one point, Cook held up 5-year-old Austin Jones for a two-handed slam.

"I just like kids, and being the basketball player, I've got to be a role model for them," said Cook, winner of this year's Mr. Basketball of Illinois, an award presented annually by the Tribune and the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association and voted on by coaches and media statewide. "They're always watching you, and they are our future.

"When I can make them laugh, it feels like I've made a kid's day brighter. With my childhood and everything, well, kids should be happy. I don't think any kid should ever go through what I did."

Cook, 18, and his sister Kristina, 16, overcame the nightmare of an abusive father, former Kansas and Boston Celtics forward Norman Cook, until their mother divorced him in 1986--five years after they were married.

Joyce Cook, 36, said her ex-husband was admitted last month to a mental-health facilty in Springfield where he is being treated for schizophrenia.

His mental illness has been blamed for run-ins with the law that include charges of domestic battery against his sister, Lisa Russell, in 1997 and felony aggravated battery against a police officer three years earlier. Cook has an April 13 court date on the felony charge, and a jury trial could begin in May on the domestic battery.

"I remember him hitting Mom," Brian Cook said. "Kristina and I would have to lay on top of her at night so he wouldn't hit her. He would never hit us. One of us was on her chest covering her face, and the other one was on her legs. I was 5 years old, and (Kristina) was 3.

"I was sad and stuff, but I had my mom there to comfort me. There were times when I'd have dreams of taking a 2-by-4 and hitting him over the head because he was hitting her. I had lots of dreams like that. I wasn't old enough to do anything about it, but I wish I could have.

"I was angry with him, but I don't think I ever hated him. I just try to put it behind me now and say that life goes on."

Moving on

Cook's life will go on in Champaign next fall. This season at Lincoln, he averaged 22 points, 10.2 rebounds and 3.4 blocks a game.

"He is almost 6-11 with the skills of a guard," Lincoln Athletic Director Darrell Hanslow said. "He posts up, shoots the three-pointer, brings the ball up against presses and does things some guards can't do.

"I've never seen an athlete like that. He's just becoming a man, and in the next three years people will see how good he can be."

No sooner had Illini coach Lon Kruger accepted the job when he and assistant coach Rob Judson were off to Lincoln.

"It was the first day we were allowed to recruit in the spring of '96, and we got there at 8:30 a.m.," Judson said about the visit with Lincoln coach Neil Alexander. "After just one season we had already heard so much about this 6-6 freshman."

Lincoln assistant coach Don Aeilts said he'll never forget a move Cook made in 7th grade.

"It was my second game coaching him in junior high," Aeilts said. "Here's this 6-2 kid handling the ball against a press. Two defenders had him trapped when he put the ball behind his back with his left hand, split them and went in for a layup. I could not believe what I had just seen."

Cook also made quite an impression on some Illinois players during a pickup game last year.

"They came into my office and said: `Hey coach, Brian can really play,' " Kruger said. "I'm excited about next season. We return a strong nucleus of players that finished second in the Big Ten tournament, and we're adding Brian, Marcus Griffin, Frank Williams (Mr. Basketball '98) and Jerrence Howard."

"Brian's so versatile, he could come in and play anywhere from off guard to center for us," Illini guard Sergio McClain, the '97 Mr. Basketball, said. "People say he's soft, but he held his own against Jerry Gee and Victor Chukwudebe. He's a winner, and he doesn't back down from anyone."

That holds true when prejudice rears its ugly head over his mixed heritage. Joyce Cook is Caucasian, Norman Cook is African-American.

"It was hard for him at first, and he had some problems his freshman year," Lincoln teammate Preston Carnahan said. "When people were harassing him, you wanted to tell them to be quiet and leave him alone. The way he handled it, Brian earned a lot of respect from everybody in town."

"There's still some of it around," Cook said about this town of 15,400 located 30 miles north of Springfield. "Guys who call out racial slurs, they're pretty much idiots.

Said Cook: "I hear it sometimes at school. Mom always made us turn the other cheek. I just say that I got the best of both worlds. When anyone puts me down for being black, I tell them: `I'm half your color too.'

"I've only been in three fights, and those were all in grade school. Once I got bigger, people didn't talk stuff."

Mom holds court

Cook likely was the only 7th-grader in town whose mother would play him one-on-one--and beat him.

That was one of Joyce Cook's rare pleasures in life, a break from raising Brian and Kristina along with her youngest child, Natasha Wilson, 11, from another relationship.

She supported her family on public aid before landing a series of jobs working as a nurse's aide, in a factory and now at a convenience store.

"My mom means the world to me," Brian said. "I love her for working so hard to keep our family together. She knows everything I do because I tell her. We're like best friends."

Although Cook is ready to bleed orange-and-blue, he still dreams of one day signing a lucrative NBA contract.

"I was a little down the other day wondering what I'm going to do when the three kids are all gone," Joyce Cook said. "Brian looked at me and said: `Mom, all you'll have to do is sit and wait for the checks.' He said he's going to buy me a house and a car for every day of the week.

"I want him to stay in college for at least two years. If he can play in the NBA, great. But I want him to go back and finish his degree.

"Basketball doesn't last forever. His dad didn't know that. Norman is a smart guy--he just made some bad choices."

Brian Cook has chosen a different path.

"He is so nice, and he has things that other kids don't have," Hanslow said. "It's the way he cares about people. There's nothing too small for him, and he has time for everybody."

Said Cook: "I'm just another person--no different than anyone else. God created something special in everybody. We're all blessed with a talent, and God just gave me basketball.

"I only hope I can be a good enough role model for little kids so they don't make mistakes like my dad."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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