omar_cook

by Joseph Nardone / @JosephNardone

Sometimes a story has more context to it than we realize. A building is just a building. A city is just a city. Even a person is just a person. Each of them are their own entity and none of them are usually intertwined to the point that one story’s entire foundation is built off of all three. Every now and then, however, those three things are not only needed to be together to tell a story, but to understand a legacy of a person. 

New York is exactly everything you have ever been told and more. It’s the media capital of the world. Nothing of interest ever goes unnoticed. Whether you are an aspiring politician, actor or athlete, New York’s media knows about you and your abilities even before you do. It is a bless and a curse to be recognized by them, but if you are anyone of importance, they know about you and they are going to let the city know too.

It is also a hot bed for basketball talent. Not all of them household names, but New York has long produced legends. Some if its own. Kept to themselves. Not necessarily known by the rest of the country. Others are more transcendent. Their talents far exceed that of the area itself and will sooner or later burst onto the national scene. Stars like Tiny Archibald, Mark Jackson and Stephon Marbury are just a few of the many talented players to come out of New York. 

Notice how all of them are point guards as well. Talent in the city isn’t limited to that position, but that is exactly what it is known for. If a player comes along as skilled as any of them or is perceived to have that type of talent, the media will quickly help propel that player into a mythological status. Deserving or not, a New York City point guard legend can be born before the player is even a freshmen in high school.

There’s Madison Square Garden too. The World’s Most Famous Arena. The Mecca. Every boxer, basketball player and musician’s destination spot to know that they have indeed “made it.” It can be recognized as being a place you get to when you reach the pinnacle of whatever it is that you do. There are few inanimate objects in the world whose reputation will far exceed anyone who steps inside of it. MSG really transcends everything logical about our thinking and we love her for it. 

Lost in the Garden’s history, at least to some youth, is that this version of it is the fourth variation of the Mecca. Not fourth renovation, but the fourth different building of something touted as being around since the beginning of everything relevant in the world. That’s not a knock on the people who talk-up the building. Rather, it just shows the staying power of the aura of Madison Square Garden. Thanks to the media in the city who fail to play second fiddle to anyone, to people who live within the city wearing New York pride like a badge on their shoulder and the history of basketball in the city, everything about anything is always magnified inside The Mecca. Which will always keep its importance to the world of basketball as high as anything else that has ever been out there.

All three of these things are important. None can function to this high of a degree without the other. The city’s pride of the city itself, and the pride of the talent it produces, and the media’s ability to find that talent before anyone else as well as bring it to everyone’s attention, can all culminate within the confines of the World’s Most Famous Arena — where everyone who matters is watching.

Now imagine being one of these people. Not exactly the same, though. Instead of being a member of the city, you are the city. One of the talented members of the most prideful people in the entire nation. Not only are you talented, though. You are the kind of talented that resonates the loudest in the city and at what the city truly believes they specialize in. Producing the best point guards in the entire world. And truth be told, even though there might be solid arguments for others, New York City is not wrong.

Keep imagining. Now it is a time when the city apparently had three of the best recruits it ever had, all at the same time. Sounds hyperbolic, because it is, but nothing will help propel exceptional people to other-worldly levels than a catchy nickname. And there isn’t a place in the world whose media does a better job of creating headlines. That’s why the “Holy Trinity” of high school basketball players could have only been born in one place, New York.

Not just a Holy Trinity of talent either. A Holy Trinity of New York City talent. Omar Cook, Andre Barret and Taliek Brown. Each would become acclaimed high schools players. All would become McDonald’s All-Americans. And collectively they would be billed as the greatest group of guards to come out of New York since Mark Jackson, Kenny Smith, Rod Strickland and Pearl Washington in 1983.

This was in the late ’90s and early 2000s. The Internet was around but not at the level it is at today. Still, the Holy Trinity of NYC guards were becoming as large a thing to follow as anything at the time. Especially if you loved college basketball. Even more so if you lived in the city or claimed one of them as yours. Which is something any town, not just New York, does when one of their own is on a path to succeed. He or she is not succeeding, everyone is. They “all” are going to do it together.

New York media, basketball experts and die-hard hoop fans were heavily invested in the trio. All three of them were thought to be as special as any New York legend of the past, but no more so than Cook. Who already had a brush with fame and whose basketball star started to shine brighter before he would be old enough to realize he was already expected to carry a city’s worth of expectations, history and mythology on his shoulders.

***

Unless you are a fan of St. John’s, New York basketball in general or significant one-and-done players, you probably have forgotten all about Omar Cook. His impact on the basketball world after his legend was born can appear to be nonexistent. Not that forgetting about him would make you the first to do so. So did every team in the NBA during the 2001 Draft, when it took the Orlando Magic with the 32nd overall pick to scoop him up. Which would be the first professional basketball letdown of Cook’s career. But it wasn’t his first setback as a New York City legend or even disappointment in what basketball could do to him. 

Cook once appeared on a 60 Minutes segment with his mother. The featured topic was single parents and how it could put young children at risk from peer pressure. That was when he was only 10 years old. There was a positive side and a negative side to the feature. Omar, his brother and mother’s part in the feature was only a handful of minutes long. It wasn’t about failure. It was about Cook’s mother doing everything she could to help her sons succeed. About getting them from a public school to a catholic school. For her two boys to be in a good situation to succeed and a better place in life.

Albeit for a brief moment, one that had very little to do with basketball, and thanks to his mother’s strengths as a caregiver, the 60 Minutes episode would be Cook’s first brush with fame.

Then we can fast-forward years later. Cook was quickly becoming a star at Christ the King High School in Queens. Which, by laws of basketball and New York, was making him not only a highly sought after prospect but a player whose hype was quickly outgrowing whatever his talents could have actually been. 

It is probably comparable to that of the freshmen stars we see today, but under the New York point guard microscope. Because if you were a point guard from there and you were any good, you better be the goods. You are not only doing whatever it is that you do for you, but you’re representing an entire area’s belief that the best ones come from there. 

Really, a situation that garnered more pressure—albeit in a smaller vacuum—than what a Jabari Parker-type talent faces today. Obviously it is different because of the way sports is covered through a 24/7 lens today, although, we could come to an easy conclusion that the bubble of New York sports can burst in a much louder, awkward way than a guy with some national shine. 

Cook was aware of that pressure. He would also acknowledge that it was very real, but accepted that it was just a part of being a point guard from New York. All of this is us getting too far ahead of ourselves, however.

***

“Hi. It’s Omar Cook.” 

That was my introduction to Omar Cook the person. Not the basketball player. Not the New York legend. Not the cautionary tale that people speak about today. It was as if a friend who I haven’t spoken to in a very long time was just checking in and reminding who he was just in case I forgot. 

“When people mention New York guys, it’s me, Tiny [Archibald], Stephon Marbury and so many others. There’s been some guys after, but when I was coming out that was it. It‘s a good thing.”

He isn’t wrong either. Even today, even after perceived failures, Cook’s name is still mentioned whenever guards from the area are coming out. Cook joked a few times about his path of the New York hyped guards being “not the one to follow,” but he would follow that up with a small laugh. You see, Cook is aware of what people think of him and how they use him as an example as “failures in the NBA” because of leaving college too early. That doesn’t mean he agrees. But he does have the ability to laugh at it.

Cook’s pro wrestling like buildup in high school did not stop coaches, scouts or the media from whatever the scuttlebutt would be involving Cook’s game. And at the time, it was that of a point guard who was going to help whatever university it was that he was going attend to be really, really good and that of a player who was destined to be a point guard in the NBA. Not just make the NBA either. Be the type of guard who was destined to carry the point guard from the city’s legacy on his shoulders.

Coming out of high school Cook had his choice of schools. His dream was to play for North Carolina, though. His dream, however, would turn into a form of a nightmare as the Tar Heels gave the scholarship to another player. At the time it was being reported that UNC was worried that Cook would not live up to his end of the bargain academically. Cook, people in his circle, have long refuted that claim. 

“It was all set. I really enjoyed my recruiting visits to all the schools, but I wanted to go to North Carolina,” Cook said. “I even told them I wouldn’t visit any other school. They told me I was good, but my scholarship ended up being offered to another player.”

Unfortunately, that was one of Cook’s first stops to the business side of basketball. To be fair to him, though, he wasn’t blaming North Carolina for not getting into the school. He mentioned only taking the SATs once and not doing so well on them.

Cook’s college destination wasn’t going to be his first choice, but it didn’t mean he was out of options.

He probably still could have lessened the New York level of expectations had he chosen to go outside of the city or leave the state all-together, but he chose St. John’s. A program who wasn’t as relevant as it was during the Lou Carnsecca era, but definitely not the afterthought of the Big East we see today. 

Accepting a scholarship to St. John’s would not only help shine a brighter spotlight on him, it would also increase the New York point guard staying home narrative. Cook was “staying home,” for the Red Storm, and would play at the World’s Most Famous Arena. 

No pressure. At all. 

“I accepted the pressure. I enjoyed it. After North Carolina I knew St. John’s is where I wanted to go. It was home. If anything were to happen or I would need support, I was already home. The pressure was just the pressure.”

It’s really hard to convey how big of a decision it was at the time without making it sound like hyperbole or a flat-out lie. Considering it was New York, St. John’s and The Mecca, the only comparable event I could even come up with would be if the top football recruit in the country was Nick Saban’s son. Except Nick Jr. didn’t want to play for his father and decided to go play for Auburn. Yes, two completely different sports and Cook actually stayed home, but it amplified whatever it was that people wanted him to be to such a larger degree.

As for Cook the player, he was actually pretty flawed. People knew that from day one. He didn’t have a consistent jumper, some questioned his attitude and, using hindsight, the hype wasn’t even remotely resembling the actual player. All putting him in a position to look like a failure no matter how well he did on the court. High expectations does not allow much room for a player to grow.

Don’t get me wrong. Cook was good. Heck, he ended up being a really good college player. But he wasn’t the transcendent New York point guard that everyone was clamoring for or claiming he would be. At this point his career, though, no one knew the path that awaited him.

***

What followed after high school was immediate college success. In his lone season with the Red Storm, Cook was second in the nation in assists.

“That was my game. I helped put guys in a position to score.”

The team wasn’t as successful as Cook, however. I asked him what was it like to be the best, most hyped player on a team that wasn’t having that much success.

“It was my responsibility. My individual numbers were great, but we weren’t getting as many wins as we should. That was on me.”

It would become a recurring theme while talking to him. All the failures or letdowns in his career would be followed with Cook mentioning a level of acceptance. 

Despite his assists and the comparisons to Mark Jackson, many experts didn’t have him as a lottery pick. Even with that, though, as the season wore on rumors started to swirl about Cook’s pro aspirations. It could have been people whispering in his ear and telling him the things he wanted to hear or a complete lack of self-awareness, but everyone outside of the Cook camp knew he wasn’t going to be a lottery pick. In fact most didn’t even think he was a first-round talent. Some of those or—more likely—those things coupled together were the origin of what would become the Omar Cook cautionary tale.

For Cook, however, the decision was harder than just knowing if he was going to go in the first-round or not. His motives for leaving early were pretty simple, though. He wanted to take care of his family. It was the biggest decision of his life at the time. It was one that weighed on him his entire freshman year.

“I stayed in class after the season ended. I could have just dropped out and declared for the NBA, but I wasn’t that sure about going pro. There are guys who declare and just leave school. I didn’t do that. I stayed. I stayed even after declaring.” 

***

I slowly start bringing up the issue about him being used as a cautionary tale. Cook has been extremely articulate, open to discussing everything and has been pretty honest. Our conversation started with a simple hello and now Cook is telling me stories. We might be all over the place, but he’s a better storyteller than people who do it for a living. Yet, every time I bring up the cautionary tale aspect of his story, he has been skipping over it. It might have been subconsciously or maybe he wanted his story to be told in a linear fashion, but he wouldn’t crack.

I don’t want to offend him either. Here is a man talking to me, openly, about his perceived failures. But I desperately want to know what he thinks of the perception of him. But again, he has given me so much already I think it is only a matter of time before we get there.

The cautionary tale is something we all know about now. The cautionary tale itself, though, has a weird set of rules and ways about functioning. It really depends on who is spinning that particular tale on how one would deem someone else as a person who has failed because of a lack of success. One-and-done failures are often cited as being players who did not have long stints in the League or didn’t get drafted that high. Which is fair. At the same time, however, I doubt many people would call a person who only worked at a job for one year, but made over $200,000 a failure. Sports, unlike any other walk of life, has a strange way of viewing success. Possibly in that world, and that world alone, Omar Cook’s story could be that of a cautionary tale or of a person who failed. 

***

Whatever was the reason or reasons Cook decided to declare for the Draft, he did. According to reports at the time (which included reporters citing sources, but not asking Cook), he was told he was going to be a backend-to-not-drafted type of player if he were to come out.

The second round comes without guaranteed money. Some people who were likely in a position to have Cook’s best interests in their own hearts and not in his pocketbook should have been telling him things that should have certainly altered his decision. Maybe some did, maybe not enough, but certainly none who struck the correct chords to keep him in school.

The “sources” might have said Cook was told one thing, but he doesn’t remember it that way. 

“I didn’t hire an agent. I thought I was doing all the right things. At the Chicago Draft Camp I was even rated as one of the best point guard prospects. Would you think the second highest rated point guard in the Draft would go to the second-round?”

Then I asked about Mike Jarvis’ involvement in the decision process. Cook’s relationship with the former St. John’s coach has long been rumored as being sketchy at best.

“When I was there coach was great. He was my biggest supporter. But when I was thinking about going pro he wouldn’t talk to me. I was still in class. I was still in school after the season. Jarvis didn’t talk to me at all. He wasn’t supportive at all.”

We even got into discussing how Jarvis’ decision to not be supportive might have hurt inner-city recruiting for the Red Storm. Every time Cook talks about something he immediately goes to a reason as to why it wasn’t only bad for him, but why it was a bad decision from a bigger, overall aspect. I still can’t tell if that is him trying to insert logic or explain away some of the bad times. Either way, he makes sense when he is talking. Cook isn’t trying to throw Jarvis under the bus either. He speaks very matter-of-factly and it feels like he is trying to tell his story as much as he is trying to protect relationships, even the strained ones from his past.

The water between the two of them isn’t under the bridge, however. Cook doesn’t blame Jarvis about his draft stock, but he doesn’t think he helped it either. 

“I heard things. I don’t know for sure so I don’t want to say anything. But he didn’t help me at all.”

As the 2001 NBA Draft was approaching much of the buzz surrounding it was on the underclassmen. Guys like Richard Jefferson and Eddie Griffin as well as high school prospects Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler and Eddie Curry were all the rage. We aren’t even factoring in the then well-known seniors like Shane Battier who were also thought to be good pros. None of the attention, however, was really on Cook. Which would be something that he would have to soon get used to.

Cook did look good in the NBA Draft camps leading up to the event itself. Cook might have been able to explain to himself in his own mind that the second rated point guard prospect wouldn’t slip to the second-round, but at that point the writing was on the wall. He was going to be an at-best late first-round selection, but a likely second-round draftee. Which turned out to be the case when the Orlando Magic picked him with the third pick in the second-round.

It definitely shook him that he went in the second-round. Even looking back at it now he couldn’t understand how any of the point guards, sans one, wouldn’t go in the first-round. But to his credit, he also saw the NBA game at the time.

“Teams needed point guards. At the same time the NBA was using bigger guys at point. Orlando had (Grant) Hill playing a lot of point. Sam Cassell and other guys with size were playing the position. Back to the basket point guards were what they wanted. I wasn’t that.”

Sticking to a team who didn’t guarantee him a roster spot would be Cook’s next objective. Unfortunately there was already a growing perception of him as a person in the league. It was once even said that Jeff Van Gundy lectured Cook at a Knicks draft workout because of the way Cook criticized Jarvis for not fully supporting his decision to go pro. Whether it was a good idea or not to turn pro from a talent standpoint, it certainly wasn’t a great circumstance for some to already consider him an insubordinate before he could even prove himself to teammates or coaches.

 The idea of who he is as a person bothers Cook. He brought it up multiple times.

 “I just wish people knew me. They take the way I played on the court and tried to make that who I was. It’s not. I think if people really knew me everything might have been different. I’m not a bad guy. Maybe if guys really knew me I would have went in the first-round. Then I would have had a guaranteed contract and time to prove myself.”

***

The business of the NBA would be taught to Cook quicker than he probably would have liked. Almost immediately after being drafted by Orlando he was traded to the Denver Nuggets.

“Denver spent a first-round pick to get me. I was a second-round pick, but they used a first-rounder to get me. Think about that. I thought it was going to be my home. They used to tell me all these different things. [Denver] even said I should wear number 7 so I could be their basketball version of John Elway. I thought that this was it. They wanted me.”

A transition in Denver’s front office quickly changed everything for Cook, though. KiKi Vanderweigh was now in charge, brought in another point guard and Cook’s contract was not only unfavorable, but it didn’t seem like Denver wanted him after all. Which ended up being the case.

There he was not able to make the roster and he spent the majority of the next few years playing in the preseason for NBA teams, but never making a roster. It wasn’t until the 2003-04 season that Cook saw any real NBA action. He played 17 games for the Portland Trail Blazers, where he shot under 30 percent from the floor, scored less than a point per game, all in eight minutes of action a night. None of which helped his future NBA hopes.

“Darius [Miles] was telling me to come to Portland. He was telling Portland to get me. It seemed like they could have really used a backup point guard to [Damon] Stoudamire and I would be it. It just didn’t work out because they ended up bringing in another guy and I fell out of the rotation. Can’t do a lot without the time.”

He was good enough to get on another NBA team, though. It took some time, but he eventually made his way onto foreign soil, but still in the NBA.

Cook managed to play five games for the Toronto Raptors and even flash the brilliance of what people once thought he could be. In just 15 mpg, Cook averaged nearly five assists per. Even with the flashes, though, it wasn’t enough as those last five games with the Raptors would be the last time he would be a part of an active NBA roster.

“I got cocky,” Cook said as he realized he made a mistake. “I thought I played well enough that I didn’t have to go through Summer League. I figured it was finally my time. Those games with Toronto were the first time in my professional career that I didn’t have to play in fear. It was just a game again. When you are playing not to fail it is really hard. I was always playing not to fail. Not in Toronto. I thought I did enough.” 

Because our conversation bounced all over the place, we even got back to discussing the business side of the NBA. Cook brought up his time with the Boston Celtics. Despite never playing a game for them he felt like his whole time there was a mess.

“I was given a contract but not allowed to practice with the team. They had a guy working me out, but I wasn’t allowed to actually practice with the guys. I was told that [Jim] O’Brien was a superstitious guy, but I didn’t get it at all. I know he liked combo-guards, but why not even give me a chance to workout with the team or show what I have. At least have me get acclimated to his style of play.”

That was the first time in our talks I felt any bitterness come out of Cook. It wasn’t from his time with St. John’s, his long professional road or what people think of him. It was about Cook not thinking he got a fair shake in Boston.

“O’Brien worked me out like a free agent. I was already under contract. I was never his guy. I don’t think he ever wanted me there. But why would they bother signing me to start? It‘s like too many people have the power to make decisions and the one with the most power gets to keep his guy. I guess I wasn‘t O‘Brien’s guy.”

What follows would be what some would use to push their cautionary tale narrative. Stints in the D-League and long trips overseas and playing for several teams during that time.

***

At the same time that Cook was trying to make a living by playing basketball anywhere that would have him, people started using him more and more as the cautionary tale that he is known as today. Some would even use him as the butt-end of their jokes—as if playing basketball, no matter the region of the planet, is somehow horrible because it’s not in the NBA.

Then, without even pushing the issue any further, Cook started to open up.

“I hear jokes that people see me working in a Walmart,” Cook laughed. “I’m still playing basketball at a really high level.” 

Cook currently plays in Europe for Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius. Even more than a decade after becoming a cautionary tale, he is only 32 years old. But he is still playing basketball at a high level. He has also improved upon his much maligned shooting (was even invited to, but declined a spot in their version of the three-point contest in their all-star game).

Legacy, reputation or whatever you want to call it is certainly important to a player. Probably none more so than one who was once thought to be one of the best point guards to ever come out of a city that really loves itself some players at that position.

“I am still one of the guys from New York who people remember. I might be the one that people say not to follow, but I’m doing okay for myself. I still get to play basketball for a living and I make good money doing it.”

Cook is married to a woman he met while at St. John’s. One of the biggest reasons he says he has no regrets from his time with the program. He also has to children, two acres of land that is just a short drive away from Madison Square Garden and talks about everything with passion but without an ounce of anger. For us his story might seem like it’s over, but for him it’s still going on. Almost nothing we talked about was in the past tense. He is still living this dream and to him it is not over.

“I don’t want to come off cocky, but I am doing more than OK for myself,” Cook says as I pushed for a level of current happiness. You could hear it in his voice, too. He meant it. He is happy. 

I had to know if Cook still watched, dreamed of or thought about the NBA in any way. Or if he would attempt to go back to make a roster.

“I watch [NBA games]. I feel that I am better than some of those guys. But I’m at a different place now. I have a family and providing for them is the most important thing. I couldn’t give up the money I make now for less just to get back to the League unless I was guaranteed a roster spot and some playing time.”

Pretty much how everything started, really. Cook looked to the NBA early to help provide for his family. Now he avoids it for the same reason.

***

My “take” on the matter is this. Simple really. He can, was and is all the things people have said about him. He was one of the best point guard prospects during his time with Christ the King. Cook was also a tremendous player at St. John’s who looked like he had the potential to be the type of point guard who rallied 15 dimes on the regular in the NBA. He, too, was a player he couldn’t shoot consistently enough to garner an NBA spot long enough to develop an even better one. Cook is even a player who is mostly forgotten except to be brought up in all the negative ways. Somewhat of a mystery and all but vanishing from the basketball radar.

What he is not, though, is a cautionary tale. If doing what you love and getting paid for it—which in his case is playing basketball—is considered a failure or a reason for others to not follow in that person’s footsteps, I wouldn’t mind being one of them as well.

Joseph Nardone is the Managing Editor of Busting Brackets.