November 23, 2011

Steve Solloway: Learning his place in basketball, and his place in life

PORTLAND - Darren Cooper thought he heard a voice from the Portland Expo crowd call his name. He decided he imagined it.

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Darren Cooper, a member of the Maine Red Claws this season, underwent personal tragedies that short-circuited his basketball career. But he stood up for his family, found the opportunity to play basketball again, and is beginning his fourth season in the D-League.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Darren Cooper

He was in town last winter with the Dakota Wizards, out of Bismarck, N.D., to play against the Maine Red Claws. He grew up in Oregon, in the other Portland, and graduated from the University of Portland.

He was a good college player without the long or gaudy resume, and he was more than 3,000 miles from home. Who had bought a ticket to the game and knew him enough to try to get his attention?

Cooper heard his name again. He looked into the bleachers and found perhaps the one person in the Expo who appreciated him for more than playing basketball.

Julie Lapomarda Natale, back in her hometown, caught Cooper's eye and beamed. He knew her and she knew his story.

He was picked by the Red Claws in the fifth round of the D-League draft this fall. Maine will be his third D-League team in four years. He is 28 and the window of opportunity is lowering quickly.

What he does on a basketball court is only part of his story.

Darren Cooper lost his father to colon cancer before taking a basketball scholarship to Eastern Washington 10 years ago. He lost his grandmother and uncle to brain cancer.

His mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. He was a teenager rapidly becoming a man and his world was spinning. So personal were his tragedies, he couldn't tell his college coach at the beginning of his sophomore season in 2002 the real reason he was leaving to return home to Portland.

"I told him I didn't think I was getting enough playing time," said Cooper. "I was young. I didn't know how to tell him what was really happening."

Back home, Cooper settled into a regimen of taking his mother to chemotherapy and helping run a household that included a sister 10 years younger. He got a full-time night job with United Parcel Service in a warehouse. He became a part-time student at Portland Community College.

"I took classes that were late in the morning so I could get more sleep."

Visits to a basketball court were an escape. His faith provided comfort. Someone else might have collapsed under so much loss, so many fears and a life interrupted. "It took prayers. That was the only thing that would pull us through. We believed that."

As his mother's health stablized, Cooper went to see Michael Holton, the University of Portland coach who recruited him in high school. Holton was a four-year starter for UCLA and played for several NBA teams. Might the coach have a place for him?

"This was all Darren's doing," said Holton, now a Portland businessman and Portland Trail Blazers TV analyst. "I liked him in high school. He had taken on the responsibility of his family and was even more mature."

So eager to return to school, Cooper enrolled as a full-time student during the spring semester of 2004, paying his own tuition. He lived at home. Soon after, Holton found scholarship money for him.

"Sitting in the stands, you might not see his leadership on the court. His teammates did. He's really quiet, soft-spoken."

Cooper appealed to the NCAA to restore the year of eligibility he lost when he attended one practice for Eastern Washington before going home. He got the year back.

In his junior season at the University of Portland in 2005, Cooper was a finalist for the Comeback of the Year Award presented by the V Foundation. The award goes to someone who triumphs in the face of adversity with the courage and spirit embodied by Jim Valvano, the North Carolina State basketball coach who lost his life to cancer.

Sitting with me Tuesday in the Portland Expo, Cooper never mentioned his nomination and at the time I didn't know. He won't beat the drum for himself.

That was Julie Lapomarda Natale's job. She's worked as a sports information directer at a number of colleges. The University of Portland was her most recent job in that field until she returned to Maine a few years ago to be close to her ailing mother.

That's why she had a ticket to the game last winter when the Dakota Wizards were in Maine. And why she'll probably be at more games this season. You invest in people like Darren Cooper.

His mom follows his career. Her daughter-in-law is with her. Cooper met Zakiya when he was with the Los Angeles D-fenders of the D-League. They've been married for three years and talk every night on Skype.

"She's my best friend," said Cooper. "She's so uplifting. She made me a sweet potato pie for Thanksgiving. My plan is to help the team win (in Springfield, Mass., on Friday), come home and eat that pie."

Cooper has a general studies degree from the University of Portland, a Catholic school. He minored in drama. He wants to be a stage actor, working in Christian theater.

He's been studying that role for years.

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

 

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