Mr. Basketball

Lincoln High School's Brian Cook, voted as 1999's Mr. Basketball, shows off his dunking skills to a group of neighborhood kids at a local park . (JOHN LEE, Chicago Tribune / March 30, 1999)

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.