Updated Thu, Mar 14, 2013 5:06 pm
Editor’s Note: Tanner Smith is a 2012 graduate of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. He is the former producer and co-creator of The Bobcat Sports Showcase and currently is working as a producer for 20/20 Visual Media in Philadelphia, PA.
I've been thinking about this for a while now. Well, to be honest, ever since the end of the 2011-12 Ohio men's basketball season.
You remember how it ended (even if you don't want to). First, Walter Offutt drove to the basket along the baseline, as he did so many times that year, and overpowered Stilman White to make a game-tying layup while also drawing the foul. Offutt missed the free throw that would have put the 'Cats up one, giving North Carolina a chance to win the game. Cinderella wasn't to be ousted so easily however, Walt came up with a defensive stop against Harrison Barnes on the Tar Heels’ last play. The ball was knocked into the hands of D.J. Cooper. Coop scooped up the ball, took one dribble, and heaved a prayer from just beyond half court as time expired and, for what seemed like 200 hours as the ball was in the air, Bobcat Nation held its collective breath. Oh, what sweet justice it would have been if that prayer had been answered, if that ball was just two inches to the left, but, unfortunately, ifs and maybes don't exist in March Madness.
It wasn't just Ohio's NCAA Tournament run that was entrancing. It was the three games that led to the NCAA Tournament. The MAC Tournament was some of the most exciting basketball of the Bobcats' season. Combine those two post-season tournaments and those games really can leave you with your jaw on the floor. So after considering those two things, it's hard not to think about the "what ifs" and "maybes". What if D.J. Cooper doesn't make that flailing three pointer against Akron in the MAC Championship? Ohio doesn’t even go to the tournament. Maybe Cooper connects with that half court heave and maybe the Bobcats go to the Final Four (alright, unlikely, Kansas was really good, but these are hypotheticals). Then I get to the real meat and potatoes of my thinking and I come to the same conclusion every time:
D.J. Cooper is one hell of a basketball player.
A year ago, right around this same time, I was a student at Ohio University and the producer of The Bobcat Sports Showcase. We knew we wanted to do a piece about D.J. Cooper, but we didn't quite know what to focus on. There were just so many fascinating aspects to the way that Cooper played on the court, as well as a lot of interesting pieces of information about his journey off of it.
We set out originally to do a five-minute segment. That went out the window after eight minutes of discussion. Next, it was going to be a 12-minute segment within a 22-minute show. After a day of talking it over, we decided to do something outrageous: a half-hour documentary detailing D.J. Cooper's journey from childhood to his current time at Ohio. The decision was approved on Tuesday, Feb. 27. The documentary debuted online Wednesday, Mar. 7 [you can watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZDopOy2r-U].
For anyone in television, you know how stressful it can be to put together 30 minutes of content in eight days, but it was done and we were very proud of it.
Having said all that - and knowing how much blood, sweat, tears, and how many sleepless hours our dedicated and wonderful crew put in to make that documentary - it could have been so much better.
The problem isn’t tough to diagnose. We chronicled an incomplete journey. D.J. still had a full year left when I left Athens and there was no way for to put a period at the end of the sentence we started with In Coop We Trust…at least not in documentary form. So one year later, what would have been different?
First and foremost, the mantra, “In Coop We Trust” would not have become a brand. It’s irrational to say that the documentary created the phrase (that was D.J.’s younger sister, Dana Cooper), but it definitely kindled the fire. After the documentary, D.J.’s mom, Dionne, had t-shirts made with the phrase in big, bold letters across the front of the shirt that the entire Cooper family wore up at The Q. During Ohio games from the MAC Tournament through the NCAA Tournament, #InCoopWeTrust became a must-have hashtag for Bobcat fans and we even saw a few signs here and there. It wasn’t just a phrase anymore, “In Coop We Trust” became a mantra to live by for Ohio basketball fans. Imagine what tournament time would have been without it? Well, it probably would have been just as awesome.
“He’s always had the vision,” Grandpa Cooper told us when we interviewed him at D.J.’s old house in Chicago, but it was the way he said “vision” that really makes the phrase stick. Grandpa Coop accentuated the first “i”, almost making it sound like an elongated “e”, giving us something to the effect of, “vee-sion”.
Time and again, it’s D.J. Cooper’s ability to pass the basketball that astounds us, as fans. He finds seams and passing lanes that are seemingly non-existent, yet he whips the ball to a cutting Walter Offutt or a spotted up Nick Kellogg like everyone knew exactly what he was doing. That’d be the second part the documentary would have dove into deeper: The “mindset of a point guard.” Jay Bilas rated Cooper as the best passer in the country, so we would have talked to Bilas to see why a mid-major point guard would garner that kind of recognition.
2,000 points. 900 assists. 600 rebounds. 300 steals.
That’s a career stat line that no player in NCAA history has ever had.
D.J. Cooper has it…and then some. The truly incomplete part of the documentary is the legacy that Cooper will have, not only for Ohio basketball, but also for college basketball as a whole. He’s a four-year starter who never had the skills or build to leave early for the NBA. It’s not completely unrealistic to think that there might not be another player who has the opportunity to get the minutes that Cooper did and to ever put up the numbers he has accumulated.
The 6-foot Chicago native had the perfect storm when he arrived in Athens. Head coach John Groce loved the way Cooper played. The Bobcats were in need of a point guard when he arrived. In his freshman season, the team had older guys to hold the team together and do the bulk of the scoring, so D.J. was able to play freely within the offense. After he helped the team upset Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament, Cooper was the set starter for the next three years, no questions asked. Over the last four years, he’s probably had the ball in his hands more than any other college player in the country (arguable, sure, but think about it).
The lore of D.J. Cooper will live on forever in the history of Bobcat basketball and, someday, in the rafters at the Convocation Center. At the end of our first interview with D.J. last year, I asked him what he wanted his legacy to be, he paused for a second, then said, “I want to be one of the best ever that played here (Ohio) and I want to be one of the best point guards, if not the best point guard, that came through Ohio.” Looking back on it, I don’t think we fully understood how much he still had left to accomplish in his career. Now, Cooper’s been named the 2012/13 MAC Player of the Year, the first Bobcat to do that since the “Shaq of the MAC,” Gary Trent, was named the conference’s best player in 1995.
Finally, the true character of a man isn’t determined on a playing field or a basketball court, it’s show through his actions throughout his life. Another chapter in Cooper’s life that is being written right now is the relationship he has with his newborn son. D.J. is now doing something very few college students have to deal with: being a student-athlete who also is a caretaker for a child. This would have been another great segment to add to the documentary. The change in attitude that Cooper has had to embrace is really something special [as was explained here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UInv1MrJye0&feature=youtu.be]. His entire outlook on life is changed because he’s no longer only living for himself, but for his son. A man changes when he has a child, and figuring out how D.J. changed would have been a true look into the type of man he is, not only on the court, but more importantly, off of it.
So, on the cusp of another trip to Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, the Bobcats are a MAC regular season conference co-champion and a lock as the 2-seed in the conference tournament. This group of seniors has done more in the green and white than any other in Ohio basketball history. For one final time, D.J. Cooper will lead the Bobcats into the postseason, and Ohio beat writer Jason Arkley sums it up best, “…when the lights are brightest, the game’s the biggest, [Cooper] always tends to play his best ball.” Bring on March.
Stand Up and Cheer, Bobcats, we’re witnessing history. In Coop We Trust.