Meet Sharife Cooper, Jalen Green and Josh Christopher—the three-headed snake at the center of high school basketball and the latest stars to grace the cover of SLAM. Get to know each player in the stories below.
Sharife Cooper is nowhere to be found.
It’s a Saturday afternoon in mid-August, a day before the SLAM Summer Classic at Dyckman Park, and the players are cruising through NYC on a double-decker.
But Cooper isn’t there. He’s slipped away from the group and crossed the bridge into New Jersey for a workout. He spends hours training and then casually rejoins the bus as it makes a stop in Times Square, like he was never gone.
The moment is a microcosm of what Cooper, a star in the class of 2020, has been doing for the last several years. With no one watching, he’s quietly adopted a work ethic unlike most in the world of basketball, at any level. And it’s paid off.
He guided McEachern (GA) to an undefeated season and a state title in 2018-19, averaging 27.2 points, 8.1 assists, 5.6 rebounds and 4.3 steals. He became just the third junior—along with LeBron James and Greg Oden, who both went on to go No. 1 in the NBA Draft—to win USA Today’s Boys Player of the Year and the first to be named MaxPreps Boys Player of the Year. He is the highest-ranked recruit ever to commit to Auburn. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul are among the current NBA stars who have reached out to offer their advice. He’s trained with Jaylen Brown and hooped against Lou Williams in the Atlanta Pro League. He has over 370,000 followers on Instagram.
As a kid, Sharife would watch his older sister Te’a, a former McDonald’s All-American now hooping at Baylor, work on her game. He’d sit on the sidelines, restless and annoyed that he wasn’t allowed to join. He begged for an opportunity.
“I wouldn’t let him,” his dad, Omar, says. “He was too young, too little. So when he got his chance, he’s like, I’m not looking back. I want to go. I’ve been waiting for it for so long.”
On a typical summer night, he and Omar would pull up to the Life Time gym in Atlanta close to 1:00 am, following a day packed with weightlifting, pool workouts, pick-up and shooting drills. Sometimes they wouldn’t leave until 5:00, getting lost in competitive games of one-on-one.
Sharife’s chill demeanor can be misleading. There’s a whole different side to him, one that sets him apart from your average teenager.
“I’m definitely one of those guys who’s not trying to be your friend [on the court],” he says, a stern expression on his face. He’s soft spoken, but the words don’t match. He sounds more like Russell Westbrook than a laid-back 18-year-old.
“I don’t care how long we’ve known each other, I don’t want to talk to you. That’s my mindset.”
Combine that mindset with his ambition and Cooper has evolved into one of the best HS guards in the country. He’s not the most physically imposing (6-0, 160 pounds), but his skill level is insanely advanced. There’s a patience to his approach that you just don’t see in other players his age. He’ll study the defense, figure out its weaknesses and then exploit them, either with his scoring or playmaking. Everything looks effortless.
“I have no problem guarding anybody on the basketball court, but when it comes to Sharife Cooper,” fellow cover star Josh Christopher pauses and smiles, “just make sure you don’t mess up.”
“I’ve guarded Sharife a couple of times and he’s got me. It’s crazy what he does with the basketball.”
“Shit, I wish I had what he had [during my career],” says retired pro Brevin Knight, who grew up with Omar and remains close to the Cooper family. “I look at the way that he plays the game with his head—that’s probably the most similar to what I was able to do. But in terms of skill, I wish I had a tenth of the skill that he’s able to play with right now.
“You could see that there was something a little bit different about Rife,” Knight continues. “He was always willing to do whatever Omar wanted him to do in terms of getting better. Whenever there was another challenge put in front of him, he was always able to conquer that challenge with ease.”
When McEachern got bounced in the 2018 state quarterfinals, Cooper vowed not to let it happen again. He went straight to the gym afterward, clocking in at 11:30 pm.
“I kind of felt like it was my fault, really. My team did their job, I just didn’t do mine,” he says, reflecting back. He’s at the SLAM offices in Manhattan to shoot the cover of this magazine, wearing his blue and white McEachern jersey. On the back, where his last name should be, is the phrase “We>Me.”
“It definitely hurt but you can’t dwell on it forever,” he adds. “Every loss is a lesson.”
“I saw his mindset change,” Omar says. “I think it really sunk in like, It’s going to take a different mindset to get this thing done. From that day on, he had a different look on his face.”
“Normally, for a kid, you see it in their frustration, their face, their tears,” Omar adds. “With him, and that’s when I said, You know what, he’s going to be alright, because I saw it not in the face, not in the tears, not in the frustration, but in the drive and the work ethic in order to get a different result.”
Sharife’s squad hasn’t dropped a game since, going 32-0 en route to the 2019 GHSA chip and starting this season 3-0. Of course, that doesn’t mean Cooper’s drive has subsided at all. He finds motivation in countless things, whether it’s defending the title, defeating newly-formed super teams or chasing an NBA dream that seems well within reach. Those goals never stray too far from his mind, especially during those 1:00 am workouts.
“I understand the main goal and I feel like me taking the sacrifices and these steps right now,” he says, that stern expression still on his face, “it’ll pay off in the end.”
Over 7,000 miles away from his hometown of Fresno, CA, Jalen Green is looking to start his morning by grabbing something to eat at one of the only shops he recognizes in Manila—Starbucks. Spending a week in March in the capital of the Philippines for the second consecutive year, the five-star Class of 2020 prospect has his guard down as he prepares to get his usual from the coffeehouse chain—vanilla bean with extra caramel and a warm chocolate chip cookie. Being that he’s so far away from the United States, where he has emerged as arguably the most recognizable name in the senior class and a top-3 recruit, the 6-6 stud isn’t really worried about being stopped or recognized by hoops fans, which tends to happen on what feels like a daily basis in America.
But as he walks into the restaurant, he begins to feel that something is off. He’s being followed.
“He walked by me this way, followed me to Starbucks and then walked by me again leaving Starbucks,” says Green, who has Filipino heritage from his mother’s side. “I’m still in there. He came back, sat outside, and he just kept pacing back and forth but he was in the same room as me at the same time. I’m like, ‘Do you want a picture?’ He was like, ‘Yes, bro—I’ve been waiting!’ He walked by me like five times. He was probably, like, my age.”
And it’s during instances like these that he quickly remembers that his brand has begun growing internationally, especially in the Philippines. And so there’s no escaping being recognized in public, whether home or abroad, for Jalen Green.
In Manila for the annual NBTC League National Finals, Green was suiting up for FilAm Sports USA—a team composed of Filipino-American hoopers. He played for the same team in 2018 during his first visit, but this past spring’s visit culminated with him being named the Most Outstanding Player of the event after leading his team into the final eight and breaking the scoring record. The week-long festivities also included a dunk contest, where he wowed the crowd with his jaw-dropping athleticism and was ultimately named co-champion. In the process, he earned a nickname from the local crowd: “Idol.”
He became such a big star out there that after the games, fans would gather outside of his locker room, waiting for him to come out in hopes of quickly capturing a photo with him or even just a glimpse of him from afar. Some just wanted to tell him how much they liked his game. Others were looking for memorabilia they could collect. And then there was the weirdest request he’s ever heard.
“It’s a big event. They take basketball seriously out there. I think that’s, like, one of their main, [if not] only sports, actually. So they’re always around it. And then, if you’re a Filipino basketball player and you’re representing that side of you, they treat you like a god. I don’t even know how to explain it. It’s just crazy how their [support] goes. It’s like they’ll do anything. They’re crazy out there. Like, I couldn’t even leave the locker room. It was all flooded with people,” he recalls. “And then one [fan] asked me for my underwear. He was asking me for my jersey and I was like, No. Shorts? No. Underwear? No! Asked for socks before, too. This was at the arena after the game. Like, ‘Can I just get your underwear?’ That’s different.”
After starring at San Joaquin Memorial HS for the past three seasons, Green decided to relocate to Napa, CA, for his senior year and play for Prolific Prep instead. Leaving behind all he’s known, he understood it was a life and business decision that needed to be made.
“Mostly it was just to get away from all the distractions. And Prolific got the gym access all the time. I get in the weight room whenever I need to just to prepare me for the next level,” says Green. “I love Fresno. Fresno is my hometown. That’s where I grew up most of my life. I got all my friends there. I know everybody. They support me all the way. But Fresno is known for having really good players that just fall into nothing and turn into a bust. So if I got [ahead] of that early, I [could] have my head on straight and keep staying on the right path.”
Josh Christopher is being followed by a group of kids who’ve flooded the court at Dyckman Park. He’s from L.A., but NYC is showing him love like he grew up in the city. They want selfies and shout outs and they want to link up with one of the biggest high school hoops stars in the country.
He and his older brother, Caleb, are trying to make their way to the back of the park, where security will help them get into a VIP area. But then Josh stands up on some chairs. The crowd of kids, many of them only a few years younger than he is, feverishly wait. His jersey is gone by this point. He gave it away a few moments earlier. His kicks are about to go, too. He flings his “Concords” into the crowd and then he stands frozen, admiring his work. He’s a rockstar. And he knows it.
The simple fact is that, in 2019, with the landscape of high school basketball rapidly developing into an incubator for celebrities, Christopher has been at the forefront of a basketball renaissance. His high-flying, trash-talking, non-stop-bucket-getting style has been detailed for years, combining elite jump-shooting with violent drives to the rim. He’s approaching 500,000 Instagram followers. He’s hooped with NBA and overseas pros, both in the Drew League and at the ultra-competitive UCLA runs hosted by trainer Rico Hines. He’s dominated nearly every high school game he’s played in. He’s been a staple in our fashion and sneaker coverage for the better part of a year. He’s on the cover of this magazine as a 17-year-old.
We know all of that.
But what he doesn’t want you to know is that the moment at Dyckman or the endless stream of highlights, fit pics and neck-breaking sneakers don’t tell his full story. The real story of Josh Christopher is about the work that he puts in and the passion that he has for the game. His father, Laron, can pinpoint the exact moment when Josh’s true journey began.
“Josh, in elementary school, lost a teammate at a practice,” his father remembers. “The kid has a heart attack on the court and dies. People don’t know inside of Josh, who he is. He watches this kid sacrifice his life. So think about where Josh plays from, carrying this kid with him on the court. I’ve cried too many tears that none of you know.”
“I was literally in the basketball gym and I saw him fall on the floor and die right there on the court,” Josh says. “From there, I was like, man, he gave it all for this game. Anytime I step on the court, just be serious about it.”
The Instagram stuff and the mixtapes and the kicks don’t define him. The effort does.
“I think people don’t realize how much I love basketball,” the Mayfair product says. He sees the comments that people leave, talking about how he does it for the status and not for the love of the game. “I think that they think I’m using basketball as a way to do other things and not because I like the game. They don’t see. I put in a lot of work. I put in a whole lot of work.”
“You can’t be who he is without work,” his father says.
It’s difficult to become a multi-dimensional, five-star recruit who reigns terror on every opponent who gets in his way without putting in the time. That’s usually reserved for the players who have a furious dedication to the game. Please believe that despite all the negativity and despite all the outside noise, Josh Christopher is really for real. He’s not here for the clout. He’s here to hoop.
“I watch basketball,” Josh says. “I know basketball. Basketball is my life.”
Portraits by Jon Lopez