Tigers' Cooper struggled before finding a place to belong
December 17, 2006
When Terry Wilson first met Kareem Cooper he had the very same thought most people do.
"That's a big dude," he said, and then he went back to his business.
Wilson is a correctional officer in Capitol Heights, Md. Four summers ago, Cooper spent a week living with Wilson's neighbors, the Nolans, whose son, Jasmine, played with Cooper at Laurinburg Institute.
"He seemed like a nice enough guy," said Wilson, 45. "I didn't think anything of it."
Cooper went off to play at a basketball camp. Two weeks passed.
Then, at 2 a.m. one morning, Wilson's phone rang.
"It was Jasmine's grandmother," Wilson said. "She told me that someone was sitting out in front of her house and she was scared and would I go check it out."
Wilson dressed and strapped on his gun. He walked, slowly, to the front of the Nolan's house.
"When I got closer, I realized it was Kareem," Wilson said. "He was just sitting there with his duffel bag, waiting for light. I asked him what he was doing there. He said he didn't have anywhere else to go."
What's a thug?
Is a thug someone who robs a bank? Who beats up a pizza delivery guy? Is a thug someone who gets in trouble and is black rather than white?
The other day, this newspaper ran a letter to the editor about the Memphis basketball program. It used the word thug four times.
"It sure was fun watching the lowly University of Tennessee beat the (tar) out of the UofM thugs last night in college basketball," the letter said. " It really is hard to believe that the coaches and schools, much less the NBA, continue to allow thugs to play college basketball. John Calipari cannot even keep his thugs' mouths shut during a basketball game. My suggestion to the UofM is start making their students take the ACT exam to enter college. Maybe that would sort out the thugs from players like Dane Bradshaw."
Oh, Bradshaw, who plays for Tennessee, happens to be white.
"Yeah, I saw the letter, we all did," said Memphis guard Chris Douglas-Roberts. "People call us thugs because we all come from the neighborhood. But what's thug about us? We're a bunch of guys who are on the right track. The way I look at it, it doesn't matter where you grew up, it matters where you are now."
At this, Douglas-Roberts nodded toward Cooper, 22, on the other side of the locker room, surrounded by reporters and microphones. Cooper is a vast man, 6-11 and 290 pounds. But on this day, his first game back from indefinite suspension, the biggest thing about him was his smile.
"I'm sooooooo lucky," he said. "A lot of people have done things for me to be here again. I can't let anyone down. Now that I've gotten a second chance, I'm not going to do anything to screw it up."
It was great stuff, refreshing to hear, and only time will tell if it's true. Sean Banks had a second chance. You remember how that worked out. Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith had a second chance. He was last seen accepting the Heisman Trophy in New York.
So is Banks a thug? Is Smith? Or are they -- like Cooper -- kids who grew up in potentially crippling circumstances and had to decide if they were going to give in or grow up?
"Kareem doesn't use his life as an excuse," said Wilson. "He takes a long time to open up about it. But if you saw him sitting on the stoop that night ..."
Wilson ultimately invited Cooper to gather his things and come sleep at his house.
"It turns out," Wilson said, "everything he owned was in the duffel he had with him."
Wilson woke his wife, Andrea. The three sat in the den and talked a good long while. At the end of the conversation, Wilson said something to Cooper the kid had never heard before.
"You can stay as long as you like," he said. "As long as you do your best, you'll never be without a place to stay again."
Wilson cleared out an upstairs room for Cooper. He moved a TV in there, a dresser, a bed.
"He even gave me a key," said Cooper, as if it were the most valuable thing in the world.
A key symbolizes stability. A key symbolizes a home.
"I still don't know everything about how he grew up," said Wilson, "but I know it wasn't like you or me."
Cooper was born in Washington, D.C. He knows his father's name is Robert, but that's all he knows about him. His mother "had issues," said Cooper, and you should feel free to fill in the blanks.
So Cooper bounced from place to place, until he grew bigger than anyone else in the neighborhood, when various coaches said he could stay with them.
"They'd let him say stay as long as he could play for their teams," Wilson said. "When he got too old to play for one coach, another coach would say 'You can stay with me until you're too old.' That's how he grew up."
Cooper lived with Wilson a solid month before heading back to Laurinburg. As the two drove south to school, Wilson was startled -- "I actually was frightened," he said -- by a burst of wailing from the passenger seat.
"I thought something was really wrong," Wilson said. "Here was this 7-foot kid crying uncontrollably. I had to pull over, I had no idea what was happening. After a while, he told me that this was the first time in his life someone really loved him."
The two started talking every day by phone. Cooper started referring to Wilson as his father. Wilson started referring to Cooper as his son.
"I have five other children," Wilson said. "They all consider Kareem their brother. At work, people ask about my son, Kareem. Kareem calls my wife 'Ma.'"
One day, Wilson asked Cooper for his shoe size, because he wanted to send him some shoes as a gift.
"Uh, 18," Cooper said.
Not long after, Wilson went to visit Cooper at Laurinburg. The new shoes were still in the box.
"It turns out he didn't know his shoe size," Wilson said. "He had never been to a shoe store. He wore whatever coaches gave him. When I asked him his shoe size over the phone, he just guessed."
There would be small, revealing moments like this throughout the new few years. Cooper is huge, as big as two men. But many things, he simply doesn't know.
So he would hide behind a persona, slouching and aloof. Cooper refused to talk to reporters last year. He was arrested for possession of marijuana.
"The way he's always protected himself is to not care," Wilson said. "That way, when something doesn't work out, it's OK because he didn't care. It's a survival technique for him."
And, of course, it's utterly self-defeating. Because the surest way to make certain something doesn't work out is not to care about whether it does or not.
"It's a vicious cycle," said Wilson, "but I really believe the last few months have changed him."
Calipari suspended Cooper for an unspecified violation of team rules earlier in the season, but people close to the program say Cooper -- not Hashim Bailey -- was involved in the infamous water-bottle incident.
But it wasn't just that, it was the attitude, the arriving late to team meetings, the blowing off of classes.
"I deserved it," said Cooper. "If it wasn't for my teammates, I might never have made it back."
Douglas-Roberts and Antonio Anderson went to Calipari and said they thought the coach should reinstate Cooper. Calipari agreed.
In the two games since, Cooper has been a revelation, collecting nine points and seven rebounds in 15 minutes against Ole Miss, and 11 points and six rebounds in 18 minutes against Austin Peay.
And he's smiling as he does it, encouraging teammates and volunteering to do the post-game radio show.
"I don't want to people have the vibe that I'm some sort of mean guy," he said. "I know I've made mistakes. I also know that I'm on a thin piece of ice, and if I make one more mistake, it's guaranteed to break."
So, is Cooper a thug? Or a kid from the neighborhood who seems to be on the way to salvaging a future from his past?
Wilson, back in Capitol Heights, has a pretty good idea. After Cooper's first game back, he sent Calipari a text message.
"Thanks," it said. "You just saved that kid's life."