James Cooper didn’t have a favorite basketball court growing up in Springfield. He knew the rims all over town.
“I played hoops everywhere, anywhere, all the time,” Cooper said. “I had a rough home life, so getting away from home was always important. Basketball was my answer. Get the ball and get away for a while.”
In those formative years, Cooper developed the shot that took him to a starring role for some great teams at South High School and then a remarkable career at the College of Wooster. Ten years after he scored the last of 2,037 career points for the Scots, Wooster will induct Cooper into its hall of fame in a ceremony Friday night.
“This is a dream, honestly,” Cooper said. “To go from a kid playing at Davey Moore Park, Rose Park and on Selma Road in Springfield, to make it to the hall of fame, it’s almost overwhelming honestly.”
Four years at Wooster (2004-08) changed his life, Cooper said. He ranks second in school history in scoring, one of only two players to top 2,000 points. He ranks second in 3-pointers made (241) and second in 3-point percentage (.461). He ranks third in North Coast Athletic Conference history in scoring and tied for fifth in 3-pointers made.
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Cooper helped lead Wooster to a 105-17 record in his four seasons. In his freshman season (2004-05), the Scots began a streak of seven straight NCAC regular-season championships.
Cooper saved some of his best performances for the games against the team from his hometown, Wittenberg, Wooster’s biggest rival then and now. He hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 4 seconds remaining in an 86-83 victory at Wooster in 2005. He scored 24 points against the Tigers later that season in an 86-77 victory in Springfield.
Wooster was the winningest team by percentage (255-45, .850) in NCAA Division III between 2000 and 2009.
Asked if he thought the Wooster teams during that era elevated the program to a new level, Cooper said, “I would humbly say yeah. We were the first team to win the conference four years in a row, the first team to make it to the national tournament four years in a row. We had a great group of guys, not just talent-wise, but team players who bought into the system, and coach (Steve) Moore was the best coach I ever played for in my life by far. We put a lot of work into it. We were all hungry for success.”
The Wittenberg graduate Moore remains Wooster’s head coach. In 31 seasons at Wooster, he’s 735-174, ranking second in Division III history in victories. His career record is 822-239.
In a press release promoting the 2018 Wooster Hall of Fame class, Moore called Cooper a phenomenal shooter.
“He had the ability to score from long range,” Moore said, “but what made James so difficult to defend was his ability to score on the mid-range jump shot off the dribble. James had exceptional dribble moves, which made it extremely difficult for defenders to contain him.”
Cooper still has his shot but said he can’t run and jump as he did a decade ago. To pass on his shooting expertise, Cooper started a business — @JCHoopTraining on Facebook — in 2017 to tutor young players. He starts with the fundamentals.
“How to hold the ball, your stance, your balance, your timing, very basic things,” Cooper said. “Then we go from there. We start in close and get that part down first with a lot of reps, and then we go off the dribble and do moves.”
Cooper also works as a youth director at Inside Out Youth, a faith-based organization with the mission of creating positive change for at-risk youth in Springfield. Cooper called it the favorite job he’s ever had.
“I get a chance to be an example — that it’s possible to still be decent even coming from a rough background,” Cooper said. “Most of the kids come from the south side, where I grew up, from a rough environment — poor, to be honest. Rough home lives. I give examples of ways to get away from that and still be successful in life.”
Cooper soon will be able to do more than share his story in words. He has put his whole life into print, writing an autobiography of more than 77,000 words for the past year and a half. He plans to self-publish it in December.
Cooper dedicated the book to his children: Jayda Nicole Cooper, 10; Javon Allen Cooper, 2, and Jerin Domonick Cooper, 11 months. He also dedicated the book to his late brother, George Walker.
A standout football player at Springfield High School, Walker was shot and killed in Springfield in 2014. He was 20. Walker will be on Cooper’s mind this weekend at Wooster.
“It’s a dream,” Cooper said, “but it’s also a reminder he’s not here. He would be here. So it’s tough. I just keep myself rounded and try to stay positive.”
Walker witnessed one of Cooper’s biggest moments at Wooster. The Scots reached the Final Four in Salem, Va., in 2007, when Cooper was a junior. Cooper brought his brother, then 13, to the national semifinal.
“We had a rough childhood, so being able to provide a positive experience for him was everything,” Cooper said. “As an older brother to show him something when all he saw growing up was negative, to have him in that arena in Salem and have him see something like that, it was great.”
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