Leader Blues

Friday, February 26, 2010

SPORTS >> A head coach today, a father forever

Aaron Cooper, (3) above and at right, is in his senior season at North Pulaski and in his last year playing for his father, Falcons coach Ray Cooper.

By TODD TRAUB
Leader sports editor

The clock dominates everything in basketball.

Whether time is running out on a close game or winding down in a mercy-ruled blowout, the ticking seconds are a reminder that, like most good things, the game must sooner or later come to an end.

Raymond Cooper can almost hear the seconds blinking off the clock these days. Each one seems to carry a certain weight.

With the 5A state tournament beginning Tuesday, Cooper can measure the time he has left to coach his senior son Aaron by a handful of games, and he hopes that, together, they can make each one, each second, count.

“Tonight it really kind of sunk in that this would be the last home game,” Ray Cooper said after North Pulaski, with Aaron scoring 18 points, beat White Hall 74-49 on Tuesday night. “So I’m kind of soaking it all in. It’s a great experience. It’s un-describable. I started thinking about the days.”

The days have included smiles and frowns, long talks on the drive home from practice and a few stony silences. It has been a period of learning for father and son, a run that included a bid for a state championship last year and, for the most part, good times.

“It’s hard for him to be a dad but it’s also good because he’s also going to push you, push you to be your best,” Aaron Coop-er said.

The Falcons, who suffered a shooting outage in last year’s 39-34 state final loss to Greene Co. Tech, are 23-5 and the 5A-Southeast’s No. 2 seed to the state tournament in Alma. While Ray Cooper has had his successes, he readily admits a coach always has room to learn and grow.

Cooper said he may have over coached his team during last year’s state tournament run and volunteered he was probably too hard on his oldest son Quinn, a former North Pulaski player now at Lyon College in Batesville.

“We’d be at home and we’re talking about basketball, we’re in the car and we’re talking about basketball,” Ray Cooper said.

“We’re in school and we’re talking about basketball. It got to the point where he didn’t want to go to the gym. And I realized that he’s got to have a break. He’s got to be a kid too and I can’t be coach all day every day, I’ve got to be Dad too.”

So Ray Cooper sat down with Quinn, a junior guard at Lyon, and worked out some ground rules. And when he needs advice on Aaron these days, Ray Cooper calls Quinn.

With Aaron, a 5-11 guard, basketball is of course the subject when he and his father are in the gym, and usually on the ride home. But after that, restrictions set in, and Ray Cooper leads a kind of double life.

“He’s two different people,” Aaron Cooper said. “When he’s at home he’s a father. When it comes to basketball he’s a coach, because I call him coach and Dad.”

“We may watch a tape sometimes at home,” Ray Cooper said. “But I don’t make him watch it. I ask him if he wants to watch it.

If he doesn’t, fine. I try to make home be home to him and school be school. At school he calls me ‘Coach.’ At home he calls me ‘Dad.’ So we’re trying to create that to where he’s not feeling pressure all the time.”

There have been nights when keeping to the home rules are harder than others, Ray Cooper said. Sometimes, after a tough loss or dissatisfying performance, it is harder to flip the switch between coach and father and his wife Treva takes over.

“So sometimes after games they’ll know that they’ll ride home with their momma so they don’t get that ride home with me,”

Cooper said. “Home is off limits.”

One thing that hasn’t been discussed much since the start of the season is a return to the state final. While the Coopers want to get back to Summit Arena in Hot Springs, Ray said they wanted to enjoy the ride this year too.

“You can’t look in the rearview mirror and go forward at the same time,” Ray said.

Ray never pushed Aaron to play basketball. The son makes that clear.

“I just love basketball, I’ve just been around it my whole life,” Aaron said.

But when he chose basketball as his main game, it was inevitable Aaron would spend a lot of time getting coaching from his father, a former Arkansas State player. Aaron is not only a fighting Falcon; he has been a member of the AAU Arkansas Wings and played for his father on the 17-and-under team, among others.

“I’ve played for him my whole life,” Aaron said.

It is almost a cliché the coach’s son will be the starting pitcher, the quarterback, the point guard. But there are no cries of nepotism at North Pulaski because Aaron, averaging 16.8 points, is one of the senior leaders and one of the hardest-working players on the team.

Ray Cooper is more than happy to step aside and let Aaron and the other seniors run the first 20 minutes of practice, and Aaron is usually among the group of players, including 5-2 guard Joe Agee, who voluntarily sticks around afterward.

“He makes it a lot easier on both of us because he is as hard a worker as I’ve ever coached,” Ray said of Aaron. “He’s there after practice without being told, him and Agee, they’ve got a group of guys and they do drills on their own. If he’s hurt I’ve got to make him sit out. He goes hard every day. That makes the other guys respect him and that makes it a whole lot easier.”

Aaron’s hard work paid off in a scholarship to Missouri State and he signed his letter of intent in November. When asked about having two sons on basketball scholarships, Ray Cooper reverted first to father mode.

“It means that I saved a lot of money,” he said with a laugh.

Turning serious, Cooper said he was gratified that his sons had achieved the opportunity most parents want for their kids.

“Most of all they get a chance to move on to a phase of their life and get an education,” Ray Cooper said. “Pro basketball is one in 10 zillion, but everyone has to go to work. Now those guys have got a chance to go to college and not be burdened by student loans and those kind of things.”

“He was happy about it,” Aaron said. “At first I was thinking about it but he told me to go on and sign, because he didn’t really want me waiting on it. That’s where I wanted to go, he liked the school and the coach.”

The final season is growing short, but there is still time before Aaron begins practice at Missouri State. There are still a few more games to play and, hopefully a championship at the end.

There are still a few more precious seconds.

“The biggest thing is, he’ll leave me as a player this year but he’ll be my son for the rest of his life,” Ray Cooper said. “And I want him to leave here with a positive feeling.”