Hallice Cooke and Darien Williams both signed their letters of intent to play for Iowa State to have an opportunity to play for head coach Fred Hoiberg. However, that opportunity never materialized as Hoiberg decided to leave the program to coach for the Chicago Bulls.
After Hoiberg left for the NBA, Williams decided to follow the coaching staff that recruited him to St. Johns. On the other hand, Cooke played a season under Steve Prohm.
While they ended up going up in different directions, today the two end up playing their final years of eligibility for Nevada under head coach Eric Musselman.
Williams is a graduate transfer and looks to bring his versatility to the team. Upon the departure of first team All-MWC member Cameron Oliver, alongside returning senior Elijah Foster, Williams hopes to provide the Wolf Pack a much needed presence in the interior.
Through his first two preseason games, Williams has been a pleasant surprise for Musselman who was happy with the big man’s energy in the charity exhibition game against Grand Canyon University. The highlight of that game was Williams’ post baseline spin tomahawk slam, a move that brought the crowd to its feet.
“Me shooting threes, being able to put it on the floor and being able to take it inside is where I can help the team,” Williams said.
While outside expectations for the program are at an all-time high following the team’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in over a decade, Williams wants to take on challenges on a day by day approach.
“At practice every day, we have to try and get better each time out,” Williams said. “It sounds kind of cliché but that’s what it is. If you get too ahead of yourself, then you’re going to suck. I was at back to back losing teams when I was at Saint John’s and you think, ‘Oh, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that.’, then you’re not going to do it.”
While Cooke did not see the floor last season, he may have experienced one of the most emotionally taxing year and a half for any student-athlete.
Cooke, who has been a part of top notch programs throughout his basketball career, last played for an Iowa State team that went to the Sweet 16 wherein he averaged 2.6 ppg in 10.9 mpg. He left Iowa State to pursue a larger role on the court.
Upon transferring to the Wolf Pack for the chance at more playing time, Cooke’s aspirations of being a steady contributor were derailed upon being medically disqualified before the season even started. He was diagnosed with a serious heart condition, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition that has caused the sudden deaths of multiple young athletes.
Over the course of the season, Cooke had to visit multiple doctors for second and third opinions of the initial diagnosis, often having to fly across the country to meet with heart specialists.
Last December, after undergoing an exhaustive number of tests, Cooke was given the green light to return back to basketball, an opportunity that he hopes to maximize this upcoming season. He currently has a loop recorder embedded inside his chest that monitors his heart but he has been cleared to play without any restrictions. Throughout the process, Cooke has been grateful for the support that he received from his coaches and teammates.
“My teammates from day one, they’ve always been positive, from the time that I was even going through anything, they were talking to me, keeping my vibes up, telling me everything’s gonna be okay,” Cooke said. “When I got the news, they took it pretty tough but they all came around me and gave me that family atmosphere that I needed. Once, I got the news that I could play again, everybody was happy for me and there’s guys that come up to me saying ‘I still can’t believe you get to play again.’ It’s surreal for not only myself but for my teammates as well.”
Over the summer, while training to get back into basketball shape, Cooke suffered another tragic loss: the death of his closest supporter, his father Robert. The Cooke family had been dealing with the ongoing battle of Cooke’s mother’s breast cancer. Robert’s diagnosis came almost immediately after Cooke’s clearance to return to basketball.
While his mother DeLayne was able to beat her breast cancer, Robert was unable to overcome his terminal lung cancer.
“It all happened too fast,” Cooke said. “He was supposed to have a year to live and get to see me play again but he ended up passing away on June fourth. It was a tough time because he was my best friend. He put the ball in my hands. Basketball was something that we did together. It’s my dream and his dream as well.”
Cooke and his father bonded through basketball. The elder Cooke lives his basketball dreams vicariously through his son. Following everything he has had to go through over the past year, according to Cooke, he is currently in the best shape of his life and looks to take advantage of every opportunity he has on the court.
“Knowing that he’s watching me play again, I know that he’s pretty excited from where he’s at to see me back on the court doing what I love again,” Cooke said. “I just take everything he’s taught and run with it. Everything I’ve gone through has just helped speed up the maturation process for me growing up but it’s something that I’m happy that I went through because it shapes me to who I am as a person today. Just having the opportunity to play again coming back to full circle, is just crazy and sometimes it’s overwhelming but I come out here and I get into this little zen and I just get in the zone. I’m running, I’m talking, I’m the last in the gym because I love what I’m doing.”