Tyler Cook will get his Big Dance moment, but he also must help the Hawkeyes rediscover their mojo
Tyler Cook dabbled in sports other than basketball during his St. Louis childhood.
He was an expert skateboarder.
There was a two-year foray into ice hockey. That ended when Stephanie Cook tired of constantly buying new skates for her son’s rapidly growing feet.
Cook’s football days ceased in grade school after a broken thumb.
“That was about a wrap for my mom,” said Trenton Cook, Tyler’s older brother by six years. “She was about done with that.”
Basketball was constant. Cook grew to 6 feet, 9 inches tall and became a forceful dunker. He was accomplished enough to start a few varsity games at mighty Chaminade Prep as a freshman. The expectation there was a Missouri state championship and by his senior year, Cook helped deliver it.
Now the junior leader of the Iowa Hawkeyes, Cook is on the verge of another lifelong goal: the NCAA Tournament. It has been a bumpy three-year journey. But that has made Cook savor it even more.
“When you love the game, you’ve got to love everything that comes with it,” Cook said last week, his Hawkeyes suddenly in the midst of a four-game losing streak. “The fun thing about being in that kind of hole is that you get to figure out how to get out of it. Even when you’re in it, you think, ‘When we get there, it’s going to feel a whole lot better.’”
Sliding into the postseason and another big decision to make
First up for Cook and the Hawkeyes (21-10) is the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago. Iowa is the 6 seed and will face the Illinois-Northwestern winner at 8:30 p.m. Thursday. A win would bring up a rematch with Michigan, which Iowa defeated 74-59 on Feb. 1 for its best outcome of the season.
Cook, averaging 15 points and 8.1 rebounds to lead the Hawkeyes, must play better than he has the past two games. He scored only nine points total in losses at Wisconsin and Nebraska to close the regular season.
His teammates look to Cook to set a tone. He feels the weight of that, too.
“He’s a mentor. He’s our leader,” Iowa sophomore center Luka Garza said of Cook. “He’s a guy I look up to. It’s an honor to play with that guy every day.”
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Cook was named second team all-Big Ten in a media vote. That’s some validation of his decision last spring to return for his junior season at Iowa rather than pursue a professional career. But he’s also been under scrutiny all winter as a result, bearing the brunt of fan criticism when things haven’t gone well.
Cook believes it goes back to late last season, with Iowa struggling to a 14-19 finish and word starting to get out that he was thinking of testing the NBA waters.
“It was a lot of chatter on how me and my teammates had been disconnected, when those guys wanted me to do that. They were as excited, if not more, for me than I was for myself,” Cook said. “Once I decided to come back, there was no dropoff. We just got back to work.”
Cook will have a decision to make again this offseason. He said it was a 50/50 call last year and that he hasn’t made up his mind yet. His announcement will wait until the Hawkeyes have played their final game.
“I owe it to my guys and myself and this program to give everything I have in our last few games. I’m fully invested in whatever I have to do to help us keep winning games,” Cook said.
A childhood spent growing and competing
Trenton and Tyler Cook have a close bond despite their age difference. They are the only two children of Trent and Stephanie.
Trenton was a wide receiver in football and a sprinter in track. He “only” grew to 6-foot-2, so basketball was not his sport. But he helped make Tyler the competitor he is.
Tyler was always big for his age and early on it became apparent that he could hold his own against Trenton and is friends.
“You always had to stop and remember that he was only a little kid,” Trenton said. “Hanging around with older people made him mature. You really didn’t see a lot of hiccups like you see with normal kids growing up.”
By his freshman year of high school, Tyler was as tall as Trenton. That was also when their games of one-on-one basketball stopped.
“Once he was able to start tossing me around, it was clear that I had to get out of the way,” Trenton said. “He backed me down and threw one down on me. I was like, ‘OK, he’s about ready.’”
Delivering a state title by winning over the locker room
Frank Bennett took over Cook’s development from there. Bennett is the head coach at Chaminade, and he first spied Cook as a seventh-grader.
“He hadn’t grown yet, but he had huge feet and huge hands,” Bennett said. “I was like, ‘My gosh, this kid has got to grow into those.’”
He was the starting power forward for three seasons for Bennett, on a team that featured 11 athletes who have gone on to play Division I sports. Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum was among those.
Bennett worked with Cook on becoming a better rebounder, on blocking shots out of his area, developing a shooting touch 10 feet from the basket, aspects of the game athletes with Cook’s size and strength don’t always discover.
In the first game of his senior season, Cook had seven dunks, including a windmill so vicious that Bennett thought the rim would need replacing.
In his final game, Cook was at his best. Chaminade was chasing that elusive state title, but the team had gone cold in the third quarter. That’s when Cook took over, scoring 10 of his 17 points in that 8-minute stretch. Chaminade won 72-59.
Bennett said Cook’s greatest contribution may have been his leadership of that team. He was content to sacrifice individual statistics to bring his school just its second state championship (the other was in 2009). Cook, a top college prospect in is own right, was comfortable letting Tatum be the undisputed star.
“He was one of those guys that would win the locker room and keep the locker room healthy and not have one that was full of egos and ulterior motives. When you have a team that talented, all that stuff can creep in,” Bennett said.
“I’m indebted to him. He was good for me and our program.”
From carefree freshman to scrutinized junior leader
Cook has been in Iowa’s starting lineup from the day he arrived in June 2016. He averaged 12.3 points and 5.3 rebounds as a freshman on an NIT team led by senior Peter Jok. Cook said he was carefree that season, just looking to run and dunk and have fun.
As a sophomore, Cook increased his totals to 15.3 points and 6.8 rebounds. But the season was a slog, followed by the drama surrounding his immediate future. He said he enjoyed getting NBA feedback, but denies that he carried that back to the team and this season.
“When I got back to Iowa, I realized I had to do whatever this team needs me to do to win here. And I understood that, first of all, winning here helps me, helps our team, and I’ll always have time to work on my game individually,” Cook said.
Cook’s junior season started with a uniform change, one with deep meaning for him. He had worn No. 5 his first two seasons, but always wanted No. 25. When Dom Uhl graduated, that number became available.
In the Bible, five is synonymous with grace, Cook explained. He wanted to multiply that by five.
“It was just symbolic of me growing and getting better and expecting more things from myself and from God,” Cook said.
The season started with great promise. Cook scored 26 points as the Hawkeyes defeated Connecticut to win the 2K Classic tournament in New York’s Madison Square Garden. He put up 26 again in a home win over rival Iowa State as the Hawkeyes completed an 11-0 non-conference slate and became a fixture in the national rankings.
But the Hawkeyes lost their first three Big Ten games and now their last four. They have fallen out of the rankings and tumbled down the projected seedings in the NCAA Tournament.
Cook hasn’t always been able to make the positive impact he wants on the court. Turnovers (84) and missed free throws (64) continue to hinder him.
The season will end in the promised land. Iowa is a lock for the NCAA Tournament. But Cook and the Hawkeyes are in desperate need of rediscovering their mojo. Cook insists it’s still there.
“Playing a game that I love with a group of guys that I love, I try not to take those things for granted,” Cook said.
“I think this team’s equipped to do special things in the NCAA Tournament.”