Career path leads former Irish PF Jack Cooley to NBA opportunity

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Each time he stepped out to set a pick, rolled down the lane for a rebound or scored any points, former Notre Dame power forward Jack Cooley did so last winter with his mind half a world away.

Playing in Turkey during his first season as a professional, Cooley missed his family, missed his friends and missed his fiancé all back in the States. He thought of them often, but also had his mind on what was happening in Cleveland and in Milwaukee and in Sacramento and in Toronto and every other city that has an NBA franchise.

Each time Cooley took the court it was with the thought of getting better to be good enough the second time around to earn an NBA roster spot.

That alone was almost enough to combat the constant homesickness.

“You’re kind of alone over there,” Cooley said. “That’s kind of hard, but it was good to play against such good competition like that for an entire year and learn just how you have to play, how you have to take care of your body to be successful for a season. I was just able to learn the pro game a little bit better.

“That was the goal all along – go overseas, prove myself and get back here. It was a good experience.”

One that paid off for the former first team All-Big East selection. In 29 games for Trabzonspor in the Turkish Basketball League, Cooley averaged 12.5 points (second on the squad) and a team-best 6.8 rebounds. He shot a team-best 61.5 percent from the floor and 68.8 percent from the free throw line, where he had a team-high 128 attempts.

Last month, after auditioning through a second round of summer-league basketball that saw him play for two different teams in two different cities, Cooley earned a training camp invitation from the Utah Jazz.

He’s been in Salt Lake City the past couple of weeks, living alone in a downtown hotel as an NBA free agent rookie. For now, that’s meant plenty of pickup games against fellow roster hopefuls, getting up plenty of shots and a whole lot of down time wishing that his French Bulldog, Lola, who kept him company overseas, was with him in Utah instead of back with his parents in suburban Chicago.

“I just haven’t had much to do here other than practice and lay back at the hotel; I don’t know anyone out here,” Cooley said. “It’s a tough gig.”

One that Cooley wouldn’t trade for anything right now. Turkey was good for Cooley’s development – 200 shots a day this summer added enough range on his shot that he’s confident to occasionally step beyond the NBA’s 3-point line – and he always believed that his game could translate to the highest level.

This summer, Cooley averaged 9.8 points and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 57.7 percent from the field in 22.5 for Memphis in Orlando. Playing in Las Vegas for Cleveland, Cooley averaged 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds in 16.0 minutes. He shot 61 percent from the field.

Cooley admitted he wondered a time or two exactly what would be next when summer ended. Had he done enough? Did anyone notice? Would he have to go back to Europe?

“I was a little anxious,” he said. “But I was pretty confident that I had done what I needed to do and that I would be able to get a shot here.”

Cooley was in a similar situation coming out of Notre Dame as an undrafted free agent. He had also played in the Orlando and Vegas summer leagues and had an offer to join the Grizzlies for training camp – but had no solid guarantee that he could earn a roster spot. Not wanting to leave much to chance his first year out, Cooley chose a guaranteed deal in Turkey.

Nothing’s guaranteed with Utah, though the roster seems a bit more flexible than it did in Memphis last fall.

“They are open to having me come in and earn my spot,” Cooley said. “They’re just an organization that I feel like I fit best with their style of play.”

Utah currently carries 19 players, four over the league maximum, under contract.

With NBA camps prepared to open Tuesday, Cooley is the only former Irish set to participate. Former Notre Dame guard and 2011 Big East player of the year Ben Hansbrough worked out last week with the Detroit Pistons and is still waiting to hear back. Last year marked the first time since 1969-70 that NBA teams carried zero former Irish on their rosters.

Cooley has already earned a reputation during pickup games. His style may not always be easy on the eyes, but it’s effective. His role is simple – rebound and use his 6-foot-9, 249-pound frame to be physical. With anyone.

“I’ve already shocked some of the guys with some of the rebounds I’ve been able to get,” Cooley said. “I just feel like I can be a great fit for what they’re trying to do here.”

As does first-year Utah coach Quin Snyder, whose relationship with Notre Dame coach Mike Brey dates back to the days when both were at Duke – Brey as an assistant coach (1987-95) and Snyder as a top point guard (‘85-‘89) and then an assistant (‘93-‘99). Not long after Cooley signed with the Jazz, Brey shot Snyder a text telling him how much he was going to love coaching Cooley.

“Already do,” Snyder responded.

“He impressed the (heck) out of people in summer league,” Brey said. “He keeps it simple. I’m thrilled for him. He deserves it.

“He’s really come a long way.”

Garrity, Quinn back in

Two former Irish – power forward Pat Garrity and point guard Chris Quinn – are back in the NBA this season.

A 1998 first-round draft pick of the Milwaukee Bucks who played 10 seasons with the Phoenix Suns and Orlando Magic, Garrity has joined the Pistons as director of strategic planning. In Detroit, he’ll work for new team president of basketball operations and head coach Stan Van Gundy, who coached the 38-year-old Garrity during his final season with the Magic.

Quinn was hired last week as an assistant coach/player development with the Miami Heat. An undrafted free agent following a first team All-Big East senior season at Notre Dame, Quinn played for four teams in six NBA seasons, including three with the Heat.

The 30-year-old Quinn spent last winter working under first-year Northwestern coach Chris Collins as director of player development.

Former Notre Dame power forward Jack Cooley hopes to play in the NBA this season, his second as a professional.SBT FIle Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN