For six previous summers, he was the unlikeliest of stars in the unlikeliest of cities.
The scene always was the same for former Notre Dame power forward Jack Cooley. Undrafted after a collegiate career capped by a first team All-Big East selection his senior season in 2013, Cooley often scratched out invitations from this team or that team or some team willing to give him run in the annual NBA Summer League.
Cooley would arrive in Las Vegas, sport the gear of this team or that team or any team in need of some frontcourt depth, and go to work. For him, it always was about work. Putting it in. Doing it on the floor. One night, he’d play on the main stage of Thomas and Mack Center. The next, the practice gym next door at Cox Pavilion. Afterward, he’d follow through with his routine of grabbing some Dippin’ Dots from the arena concourse concession stand. He’d collect his $130 per diem and head for his hotel room at the Four Seasons high above the Strip for some rest. The next time out, he’d do it all over again.
The hardcore NBA fans — the ones who actually care what happens in July — began to notice. Soon, those fans wearing their teams’ colors would chant his name, cheer his every move, track him down for autographs and pictures. Cooley would return the next summer and the next and the next. He’d play so many games for so many different teams — seven over six seasons — that he became a mythical basketball figure on the Strip.
Jack Cooley, summer basketball legend.
How does that happen? Not even the 6-foot-10, 274-pound Cooley can say.
“I don’t know,” he said Sunday morning from his home in the far northern suburbs of Chicago. “Just because I’d been there for so long and I played so hard that people really liked it. They’re like, ‘Man, this guy’s out here always playing hard. He’s not the most athletic or insane finisher, but he plays hard and gets it done.’
“A lot of people appreciated the effort.”
Last week was a strange one, a different one, for Cooley. While NBA Summer League swept into full swing with the nine-minute cameo of top pick Zion Williamson and an opening-night earthquake and the seismic free agent moves, Cooley remained in the Midwest. Instead of battling traffic on the Strip trying to get to and from games, Cooley was battling traffic to and from his local Menards. Instead of running the picket fence play – does that even exist? – he was repairing the fence at his home. Instead of carving out space in the paint, he was painting his deck.
It was nice for Cooley to have an additional few days to tinker around the place he purchased last year after 10 months playing professionally in Italy, where he averaged 11.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 19.5 minutes per game. He craved the down time and the chance to reconnect with family, to continue planning a July 2020 wedding, to keep training in preparation for another professional season far from home.
Still, July hasn’t been July without Cooley playing ball in what he termed the “epicenter” of the NBA. Being a home owner and doing home owner stuff was a nice change, but Cooley felt a piece of him was missing.
“It’s extremely weird not to be there,” he said. “Watching the game is really different. I had quite the time out there.”
Cooley wouldn’t completely unplug from Las Vegas. He’s scheduled to leave Tuesday for the desert and a three-day NBA leadership conference. It’s designed to help current and former players transition to possible post-playing management careers in the league. It will be good for Cooley to get back in the NBA swing, to see some old friends, to feel that basketball vibe.
“There’s no other time when everybody in the NBA is in the same place,” Cooley said. “Summer League is it. If you’re in the basketball world, it’s the place you want to be.”
A summer sabbatical
Cooley could have been playing in Vegas again if he chose. Following his season with Dinamo Sassari, Cooley said 10 teams contacted his agent, Adam Pensack, with offers to play on their summer league teams. In the past, Cooley would have had Pensack lock down the first good deal that surfaced. Not now. Not after all those summer league appearances for all those teams.
Something about the offers this time around felt hollow to Cooley. Like teams were bringing him as more of a curiosity piece than possible rotation player.
“It was getting kind of patronizing,” said Cooley, who shares the record with former NBA vagabond Dionte Christmas for most career Las Vegas Summer League games (32). “I was never going to do it just do to it. I always wanted to do it to increase my advantage of making an NBA team.”
Cooley felt he’s been around the summer league block often enough that NBA teams know what he can do. He helped his hometown Chicago Bulls win the 2016 Summer League championship. He earned extended NBA regular-season looks in 2014-15 with the Utah Jazz, and again in 2017-18 with the Sacramento Kings, where he’s still considered a cult hero. He averaged 2.9 points and 2.4 rebounds in 7.6 minutes over 23 NBA regular-season games.
July often has been the uneasiest of months for Cooley. Yeah, he was in the NBA playing in Summer League, but what would be next? Would a team offer him a chance to secure a roster spot in preseason camp? If they did, should he chase it? Would another sweet overseas deal surface? If he did, should he grab it?
Basketball has taken him to Turkey and Germany and Spain and Italy. Taken him to the NBA. Taken him to the G League, where he still owns the record for rebounds in a game (29). Next season, it takes Cooley to Japan, a deal that he finalized last week just as summer league was starting.
Financially, Cooley said, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. He’ll make a comfortable six-figure salary with the Ryukyu Golden Kings, one of the top teams in the Japanese B (highest level) Professional League. For him, its have passport, will travel. Anywhere.
“I’ve never played in the same country twice,” said the 28-year-old. “It’s another year to go learn something new.”
And another year to play, which is what really drives Cooley. He’s been around the world and has hooped at the highest levels. For all he’s already done and all the places he’s been, Cooley believes he’s only now hitting his stride as a player. He’s in the best shape he’s ever been in. He better understands the game. He thinks it better. He sees it better. He plays it better.
“I’m just going to play as long as I can,” he said. “It’s been a blast.”
Cooley will return from Nevada later this week and continue work on his house. Maybe finish fixing the fence and painting the deck. Continue working out, continue getting better. He might even swing past his parents’ home in Glenview, Ill., and collect his old summer league gear.
Cooley has his old Utah and Sacramento jerseys at his house, but the stuff from his six seasons and seven teams in Las Vegas is gathering dust at mom and dad’s.
“I basically have an NBA.com store of gear in their basement,” he said. “It’s all there. I don’t know what to give away; I don’t know what to keep.
“It’s something else how much stuff I have.”