For 14 years, Ted Cook woke up his son, Quinn, in the mornings. On March 4, 2008, Quinn woke up to the sounds of his mother and sister crying. Ted had passed away from a cardiac arrest the night before.
“It was really, really hard because he was my best friend. He was somebody who I was with all the time,” Quinn said.
More than that, Ted was responsible for putting a basketball in Quinn’s hands when he was just two years old. The two would often go to the park or the gym together and play one-on-one. His father was his coach for the early part of his life, and Ted would tell countless stories about his own playing days.
The death was sudden and unexpected. Less than two weeks before, Ted had undergone colon surgery. “He was good after surgery. I had a big game that night, and we were texting after the game,” Quinn said. “The next day, my mom was at the hospital, and she called me and my sister and told us that something was wrong.”
Doctors ran numerous tests in the following days to find out what exactly went wrong. During that time, Quinn was excused from school; he divided his hours between the hospital and the gym.
On that fateful day in March, Quinn was at the gym with his best friend, Norman Pope. While they were playing basketball, Quinn’s cell phone recorded 10 missed calls. After he finally took a breather and checked his phone, realization dawned on him that something drastic must have happened.
“The calls were from my uncle. He’s like, ‘I’m outside at the gym. We need to go to the hospital right now.’ When we got there, my mom told me what happened,” Quinn said.
Ted had passed away. Quinn didn’t even pause to think about the magnitude of the situation. He and Pope immediately went back to the gym and shot baskets until well past midnight.
“I didn’t want to be around anybody. I blocked it out. I was just trying to get my mind the furthest thing from my dad,” he said. “It didn’t really hit me until I woke up the next morning. You’re on top of the world one day, and then you hit rock bottom the next. Everything changed in one second; it was crazy.”
Cook kept much of the pain to himself. His mother, Janet, never knew that her sobs were the first sounds he heard the next morning. “He’s never shared that with me,” she said. “I probably don’t understand all that goes on in Quinn’s brain because he probably keeps a lot of that away from us. It’s difficult all around.”
The basketball court was his sanctuary. He felt genuine happiness every time he stepped onto the court, but even then, the pain filtered through. “My dad was my biggest fan. Him not being at my games, it was hard,” Cook said.
His high school coach of three years at DeMatha (Hyattsville, Md.), Mike Jones, noticed it, too. “You could tell he was missing something. He was no longer innocent. I would catch him looking up into the stands for his dad out of habit, and his dad wouldn’t be there,” Jones said.
Junior Year at DeMatha
Somehow, Cook kept going. He had been a top prospect for nearly his entire life, and he played up to the billing. He averaged 20.0 points, 5.9 assists, and 3.3 rebounds as a junior for the USA Today No. 14th-ranked DeMatha team (32-4) that won the highly competitive Washington Catholic Athletic Conference and became the D.C. City Title Champions.
Cook also became the first junior in over 40 years to win the All-Met Player of the Year award. Scout currently has the five-star point guard ranked at No. 21, Rivals at No. 28, and ESPNU at No. 25.
However, the talent and increasing fame attracted the wrong kind of people. “Quinn’s exceptional because he’s very social, very smart, very handsome. When you’re a child prodigy, which he is, you have all kinds of influences that were pulling him in different ways,” Janet Cook said. “Every man has a thing that they think a kid should do. They were telling him, ‘I think you should go to Arizona, I think you should go to Kentucky…’”
His mother wanted Cook to leave D.C. for his senior year and go someplace where he could focus on school and basketball: Oak Hill Academy, an isolated boarding school in Mouth of Wilson, Va.
Cook received Jones’s blessing to transfer. “It was a very wise decision. He was definitely vulnerable. Most young men don’t have to deal with the things he has had to deal with. He was in a situation where he was a man of his house and he had a lot of responsibilities; it was different for him,” said Jones, who has known Cook since he was in fifth grade and played the role of a father figure after Ted’s passing.
“There were all these distractions because of his status as an elite basketball player. A lot of people who wanted to get with him, people just trying to be involved in his life who didn’t have the best intentions. I think Quinn is able to figure out who has his best interest at heart and who doesn’t now.”
As for Cook, there was nothing left to accomplish at DeMatha. “I won two city titles, two conference titles. I just felt that I did everything I wanted to do in the D.C. area. I wanted to go someplace where I could win a national championship,” he said. “Oak Hill is a lot different because you play the best competition every night, you’re playing a highly ranked team every night.”
Thus, his mother made the call to Oak Hill head coach Steve Smith, who welcomed Cook with open arms. “Quinn actually saw us play in Hawaii at the Iolani Classic two years ago, and he was attracted to our program then,” Smith said. “He really wanted a challenge to get him ready for college.”
Senior Year at Oak Hill
Cook has thrived in the boarding school environment. His packed schedule each day consists of waking up at 7:15am, walking to campus with teammate Ben McLemore for homeroom and chapel by 7:50am, going to six classes with a lunch break, basketball practice from 2:30-4:15pm, lifting weights from 4:15-4:45pm, social time from 4:45-5:45pm, dinner from 5:45-6:15pm, watching television and relaxing from 6:15-8:30pm, quiet time to do his homework from 8:30-9:30pm, and then lights out at 11:00pm.
The structured schedule and rigorous surroundings at Oak Hill also include a cell phone ban. “We live in a dorm with (Assistant) Coach (Wilbur) Allen. He takes all of our phones and puts them in a shoebox. We get our phones back anytime we’re off-campus or sometimes during the weekends,” Cook said.
He misses his family and friends from home, going out when he wants, and playing video games, but he knows that this is a sacrifice he has to make to get to the next level. He calls the experience a “tutorial for college.” He and his teammates do their own laundry, are responsible for waking up on time, and make their own meals if they’re hungry outside of the specified lunch and dinner times.
In addition, it’s much easier to focus on academics because of the one-on-one attention. At Oak Hill, there are a maximum of 12 students per class. At DeMatha, Cook had classes with 25-30 students. Smith also penalizes the players for missing homework assignments or receiving bad grades with reduced playing time.
The team’s cohesiveness from living together transcends the dormitory, as well. Cook said, “I think that’s what makes us get along so well on the court. Here, you eat dinner with your teammates, do your homework together sometimes. We’re brothers, for real, because you definitely get along off and on the court.”
Future as a Duke Blue Devil
His future has never been brighter. He committed to Duke earlier this year, partly because he wanted to play with close friend Austin Rivers, who committed to Duke before Cook did.
“I’ve known Austin for a long time. He’s a heck of a player. When you play with a guy like him, you have to be on top of your game. He motivates me to work hard and he brings the best out of me. He’s a better person than he is a player,” Cook said. “We want to be the best backcourt in the country.”
The fact that he might have to back up Kyrie Irving if Irving decides to return for his sophomore season doesn’t faze Cook one bit. In fact, he looks forward to the challenge. “It’s definitely motivation. I said it before he [Irving] got to Duke. I was telling everybody he was the best player I’ve ever played against,” he said.
“If I go against the best point guard in America in practice, that’s only going to make me better. If I get a chance to start, I’m happy to try to help Duke win another championship.”
As for Ted, not a day goes by that Quinn doesn’t think about his father. Before each game, he even wears a t-shirt with an imprinted image of Ted underneath his warm-up attire. “I’m playing for my dad now. I know he’s with me,” he said.
Jones, who is still very close to Cook, feels immense pride. “I watched him grow up as a young man before my eyes. His dad was one of my golfing buddies,” he said. “I think it’s amazing that he has handled all of this so well, succeeded so much. Truly amazing.”
*Special thanks to Quinn Cook, his mother, Janet, Coach Mike Jones, and Coach Steve Smith for the interviews.