In April, Larry Shyatt gambled on an inexperienced basketball player at a small community college in the middle of the country.
The Wyoming men’s basketball coach had one open roster spot for the upcoming season. He and his staff decided to invest in a redshirt freshman from Cloud County Community College in Concordia, Kan.
Derek Cooke Jr. was a risk. The 20 year old from Washington D.C., had not played organized basketball until 2011. The 6-foot-9 forward possessed eye-catching athleticism, but he was short on experience. He was a late bloomer whose career could boom or bust.
Shyatt took the chance and offered Cooke Wyoming's last available scholarship for 2012-3.
The coach had bought into a vision, an outlook shared by those who have faith in Cooke’s basketball future. Some say the best investments take time and trust. And those who have invested in Cooke believe he will flourish.
“Down the road, when he really learns the game, he’s going to have a heck of a career here,” Shyatt said.
Shyatt wasn’t the first to buy in. Sean Thompson, who first mentored and coached Cooke after high school, was.
“He is the guy who made it all possible,” Cooke said.
Before he met Thompson, Cooke didn’t know basketball was an option. He was an honor-roll high school graduate working to pay for college. He had promised his mother, Deborah Slade, he would go. He rode public transportation to and from his two two jobs in the D.C. area (one at Target, the other at Hollister, a California-themed clothing score) and saved his paychecks for future tuition at the Community College of Allegheny County, near Pittsburgh.
A growth spurt came that year. He didn’t believe the people who told him he was getting taller -- until his clothes no longer fit.
Slade and her husband, Tyrone Slade (the couple has been married since Cooke was three), also took a while to notice.
One morning, Slade walked into her kitchen and found Cooke eating cereal. He was standing up, resting his bowl on the top of the refrigerator.
“What are you standing on?” the mother asked.
“Nothing,” the son answered.
“Right then, I was like, ‘Oh my God,'” Slade said.
Cooke, who was 6-foot-3 when he graduated, had grown four inches.
Basketball hadn’t held much of Cooke's interest before. He had tried out for his high school team his senior season but got cut. Growing up, he avoided the game because his brother Ricky Corbett (two years older) usually beat him badly when they played. He remembers failing to score one point in 15 consecutive games of one-on-one. When Cooke scored in the 16th round, he quit playing and ran in the house to celebrate.
Cooke’s newfound interest in the sport took him to pickup games at Wheaton Community Recreation Center in Wheaton, Md., a popular gathering spot for anyone in search of a chance to play. It also led him to Thompson, an acquaintance of Corbett’s who was passionate about helping student athletes land scholarships. Thompson -- whose D.C.-based nonprofit program Beyond Belief helped Jerome Seagears get to Rutgers and Devon Saddler arrive at Delaware -- turned his attention to Cooke.
“Derek was still raw,” Thompson, 28, said recently. “He is a sponge. He wants to learn."
Thompson taught Cooke fundamentals, aspects of the game not emphasized in pickup basketball. The sessions, filled with drills to improve footwork, lateral movement, speed, agility and post moves were supposed to last two hours, from 7 to 9 p.m. Often, Cooke would persuade the men in charge of closing the gym to let him stay as late as 10:30 p.m.
The transformation, like Cooke’s growth, was gradual but visible.
Cooke could not regularly dunk a basketball when he started working with Thompson.
“There were times I would have a fast break in a pickup game,” Cooke said. “I would have an open dunk. I would go up and not get high enough. I would get hung on the rim. Then, after a while I would get high enough, but I couldn’t put it down. I would go up and pull the rim real hard, but the ball wouldn’t go in.”
Dunking wasn’t a problem after Thompson’s workouts. Cooke had slammed a medicine ball through the hoop enough times by then that regular basketballs seemed easy.
The change from a tall kid to an athlete, from an athlete to a basketball player, was well underway.
“It was fun for me, because I could see the potential,” Thompson said. “And I knew once we got him with the right people, they would see the potential as well.”
Chad Eshbaugh saw the potential next. Eshbaugh, now in his seventh season (third as a head coach) at Cloud County, was in Washington D.C. to look for recruits at a showcase tournament. Thompson made sure Cooke was around.
“Derek happened to be in the gym while I was there,” Eshbaugh recalled recently. “He was pretty long and pretty athletic.”
Eshbaugh had taken chances on athletes before.
“It’s rare to get a kid that didn’t play high school basketball,” he said. “But we do get some guys that are under the radar because maybe they didn’t have the money to play AAU basketball or were from a small town. That’s one of the things we take pride in, is trying to find the guys who have been overlooked.”
Eshbaugh offered Cooke a scholarship that would allow him to redshirt his first year at Cloud County. Cooke quit his jobs and moved to Kansas. By the time he arrived, he had grown two more inches and stood at his current height, 6-9.
“It was the hardest year of my life,” Cooke said of his redshirt season. “I was the one getting yelled at all the time. I was the one having to do extra sprints at the end of practices”
He learned college basketball required communication. Talking meant calling out screens, not jawing with an opponent. He had to monitor the entire floor now, not just the man he guarded. Mistakes meant many sprints after practice, including a set in front of the Cloud County women’s basketball and volleyball teams.
“They cheered me on,” Cooke said. “I was so embarrassed.”
But Eshbaugh was tough on Cooke for a reason.
“We realized early on he had the chance to become a really good player,” Eshbaugh said. “Because he likes the game of basketball. He had not played AAU or high school. It was all new to him. He absorbed it and did everything we asked him to.”
Cooke returned home for the summer. The difference, his stepfather said, was immediately noticeable. People there now knew about his stepson. They begged him to play for their pickup teams.
“I was awed,” Tyrone Slade said. “He was in good shape. He had really worked hard.”
Cooke got his chance to play for Cloud County in 2011-2012. He averaged six points and a team-high 8.4 rebounds per game (He once had 21 in one game). He blocked about two shots and shot 55 percent. Cloud County went 25-8, and Deborah Slade kept adding to the scrapbook of newspaper articles she keeps for her son.
He could have returned for his sophomore season. Eshbaugh would have loved that. But Cooke had already graduated, and four-year schools at the next level were interested.
“For Derek, it was a really good decision for him to move on,” Eshbaugh said.
Allen Edwards led Shyatt to Cooke. The Wyoming assistant coach was making phone calls about recruits last year. Through Thompson, he learned of a raw, athletic 6-9 forward at Cloud County who would have three years of eligibility at Wyoming.
Edwards talked to Eshbaugh, and Wyoming received game film of Cooke. Soon, Edwards -- and later Shyatt -- had taken trips to Cloud County. Shyatt offered Cooke the scholarship.
“I thought he could come in and do some of the things [Wyoming forward] Larry [Nance Jr.] did last year,” Edwards said. “Knowing his background, I’m saying to myself, ‘We can coach that part of it [Cooke's inexperience].’ And once he figures that part out, he’s going to be special.”
Wyoming wasn’t the only team after Cooke. He took a recruiting trip to Missouri State and was also pursued by Evansville and UNC-Greensboro. Bigger schools were also interested -- to an extent.
Cooke said West Virginia, Virginia Tech and Oregon all told him they would recruit him as a junior if he played another season at Cloud County.
“Because I was so young to the game,” Cooke said, “they couldn’t take that risk based on my potential.”
That’s the thing about investments. Sometimes, they don't pan out. Sometimes, they exceed expectations.
Cooke remains far from a finished product. This season, he's shot 52 percent, averaged 3.5 points, 2.8 rebounds and 11.6 minutes.
With another season of adjustment behind him, and two more years worth of eligibility left, what could he become?
“The sky is the limit,” Cooke said. “It’s all about being coachable. The more you are willing to learn, the better you will become.”
Wyoming seems confident Cooke will thrive in Laramie.
Nance, the player Edwards hoped Cooke would resemble this season, calls his teammate “one of the best athletes I’ve ever seen and played against.” Nance, a sophomore forward known for high-flying dunks, says his athleticism pales in comparison to the newcomer from Cloud County.
“Shoot,” Nance said. “If I’ve been called a freak athlete, then I don’t know what he is.”
Cooke shows it in flashes.
Against Cal State Bakersfield he cut back against a defender’s momentum, caught a soft lob from his teammate, Leonard Washington, and dunked the ball hard with one hand.
It looked easy.
“I don’t know what coach would not want him,” Cal State Bakersfield coach Rod Barnes added. “If he continues to listen to his coaches and keep working, I don’t want to play against him next year or the following year. I can tell you that.”
Then Barnes made the prediction Shyatt and others believe will turn true.
“You won’t know this guy in two years.”