Notre Dame's ACC opener a reunion for Atkins, Cook and Thornton
Sometimes a stray spot on the floor for a night’s sleep would suffice for two kids too busy chasing basketball dreams together to care.
They would play a bunch of AAU games before lunch, which might consist of a hot dog or two, a bag of chips and a sports drink before more games occupied their evening. Needing a place to crash for a couple hours, they often settled for the floor, either at the other’s house or a teammate’s hotel room in some strange city.
Even then, exhausted from another long day, sleep seldom would come easily. While everyone around them would be snoring away, Eric Atkins and Quinn Cook drove the dialogue deep into the night and early into the next day, sharing thoughts about what it would be like when they made it big on the basketball court.
Both were young guards in the area that locals call the DMV – D.C.-Maryland-Virginia. Atkins, who had relocated from Connecticut early in his childhood, lived in Columbia, Md. Cook was from Washington. Atkins was nine years old and Cook eight when they formed a friendship as teammates on a Maryland Select team run by former California coach Todd Bozeman. Eventually, they would star for area AAU power D.C. Assault.
On Saturday, Atkins and Cook will play against one another for the first time at any level when Notre Dame (9-4) hosts No. 7 Duke (11-2) in the Atlantic Coast Conference opener for both teams at sold-out Purcell Pavilion (4:10 p.m., CBS).
“I’ve always looked up to him,” Cook said of Atkins. “It’s been a brotherhood. From where we came from and being on the same team, sleeping on the floors together and competing at the highest level, this is a dream come true.”
Atkins and Cook have been there for the other for basketball, and in life. They worked through the toughest times of their lives, times that had nothing to do with basketball, thanks to the support from the other. Prior to his sophomore year at Mount St. Joseph High School, Atkins lost his father, William, to cancer. He leaned heavily on the support of Cook for a long time afterward.
“I wanted to be there for him,” Cook said.
Less than a year later, Cook’s father, Ted, died from cardiac arrest. Knowing he needed to be there for his buddy the way Cook was there for him, Atkins skipped school for several days to offer his support. The bond between the two only deepened.
“He was right there with me,” Cook said of Atkins. “He wanted to make sure I was OK.”
The two talk or text in some form or fashion every day. On Thursday, Atkins sent Cook some random picture of Kobe Bryant just for the heck of it with some goofy comment attached. Typical Atkins, Cook said. On Friday, their mothers planned to travel together out to Indiana for Saturday’s game. For at least 40 minutes, neither guard will want to see the other enjoy the afternoon.
“It’s going to be surreal,” Cook said. “Man, it’s been a great journey with us so far.”
Not long after Atkins and Cook became friends, they added a third member to the mix – Duke guard Tyler Thornton, like Cook a native of Washington. If someone spotted one of them around a gym during AAU play, the other two were likely nearby. They did everything together. Always.
“That’s my brother,” Thornton said of Atkins.
They thought and worked as one during their latter years of high school while hearing about guys like fellow DMV talents Kendall Marshall and Josh Selby, players who received far more attention than the trio. Hearing everyone talk of Marshall and Selby, both future NBA draft picks, drove the three to be better.
“Everybody in our area knows who we were, but we still wanted to play with a chip on our shoulder and we wanted to be mentioned with those guys,” Thornton said. “Eventually, we were. That mentality helped us get to where we are.”
The only three-time team captain in Notre Dame history, the senior Atkins is coming off a career-high 30 points against Canisius. Cook, a junior, currently leads the ACC in assists (6.3) and is averaging a career-high 13.5 points per game. Thornton has appeared in 117 career games and is a team captain his senior year.
The three discovered early during their friendship that they each carried the same hoops drive and dreams.
“We clicked so well because we were all going after the same goal,” Atkins said. “We all wanted to be the best player on our teams at that age. But at the same time, we did it as a team.
“That competitiveness really made us bond.”
That bond remained when the three went their separate ways in 2010. Atkins and Thornton went off to college and were role players as freshmen. Cook, who spent a year of prep school at Oak Hill Academy after three years at DeMatha (Md.) Catholic, arrived in Durham a year later.
Back home during winter breaks, they made sure to get together to work out and catch up. During breaks between his spring semester and summer school, Atkins regularly traveled to Durham to be with his brother-like buddies.
When it was time to go their separate ways, they did so knowing their collegiate careers never would cross. Atkins would return to Notre Dame and compete in the Big East; Cook and Thornton spent their winters in the ACC. When the three gathered this summer, they would occasionally look at the other and laugh, wondering if it was true – were Duke and Notre Dame actually conference colleagues?
When they parted ways last summer, they did so knowing they would meet again – Saturday, to be exact – in the first-ever ACC game for first-year member Notre Dame. Thornton called Atkins earlier in the week to see if snow was in the forecast for Saturday. Snow is. Cold is. Nah, bluffed Atkins. Weather’s fine. Come on up.
“They don’t go many places like this,” Atkins said. “For them, that’s weird. For us, having our first ACC game against Duke, that’s weird.”
“For us to be on the court together,” Thornton said, “is a dream come true.”