In life, we often have a plan that we map in our minds, but quite often the vision doesn’t match the outcome. For NBA veteran Darwin Cook, a career in professional basketball was always a part of his boyhood dreams growing up in Los Angeles, California. The dream of playing for a major NCAA Division I basketball program and being selected in the first round of the NBA Draft would be the perfect narrative to Darwin’s hoop dreams. But let’s ask this question, What if the predictable Hollywood story wasn’t meant to be Darwin’s basketball story?
I had the opportunity to sit down with Darwin Cook, the current head coach of the Pioneers men’s basketball team at the University of Antelope Valley. While the 2017 season was filled with countless awards and team accolades, Darwin had a sense of focus and motivation during his talk with me that tells me the best is yet to come. There was a sense of optimism going into his 2018 season based on the new recruits and the momentum they created to close out the 2017 season.
“My path in life is a carved out vision from God that has brought me clarity around my continued legacy on this earth.”
As Darwin reflected on where he is today, he couldn’t help but say, “My path in life is a carved out vision from God that has brought me clarity around my continued legacy on this earth. My entire legacy was not playing in the NBA or winning two European championships with Scavolini. Yes, I was blessed to have amassed a professional basketball career by achieving my childhood dream and traveling all over the world and playing with and against some of the best athletes on the planet; but when it’s all said and done my legacy revolves around inspiring and mentoring young men to achieve their dreams.”
Every professional athlete’s path to glory has its own unique story and narrative. From the outside looking in, the average fan may assume that these future professional athletes knew from a young age that they were head and shoulders better than their peers and it would be just a matter of time before they turned pro. While there’s partial truth to some of that narrative, there’s a lot of hard work, struggle, adversity, and untold stories that make up an athlete’s path to glory.
Darwin summed up his high school, college, and professional career in the following statement, “In high school, I was a shy student-athlete that went from barely playing varsity at Crenshaw High School to be one of the better high school basketball players out of the state of California by the time I was a senior. My high school coach, the legendary Willie E. West Jr., believed in me and taught me to not give up until the clock reads 0:00. My foundation and DNA as a basketball player and as a man starts with the values and wisdom you bestowed upon me as my coach and mentor.
“My heart and hustle in high school became part of my calling card that I would take to the University of Portland. While I came in as an under-the-radar recruit, I earned the respect and trust of my coaches and teammates as I started all four years without missing a game. My head coach at the University of Portland, Jack Avina, pushed me to my limit and held me accountable all four years. I found myself being more of a vocal leader to my teammates and growing out of my shyness due to my confidence and maturity. To this day, I’m still ranked #3 of all time in scoring at the University of Portland. I have nothing but fond memories of my college experience, academics, and friendships made.
“A week before the NBA Combine I sprained my ankle. I’m quite certain, that more than likely affected my draft stock. I went from a projected first or second-round draft pick to a fourth-round pick by the Detroit Pistons, only to get cut by the team three days into rookie training camp. If it wasn’t for the New Jersey Nets Head Coach Kevin Loughery giving me a shot, there’s no telling where life would have taken me from there. As an NBA player, I’m thankful for the fact that I had to work hard for everything and wasn’t anointed the label of starter or star from day one. As a professional athlete, whether you are a superstar, costar, or role player, it’s your responsibility to show up every day and do your job. I took pride in being confident in my ability and work ethic to compete against the best of the 80s and 90s. I had to realize I was there to serve a role and it was my job to be the best teammate to the stars and superstars on the teams I played for. My tenure of 8 NBA seasons with the New Jersey Nets, Washington Bullets, San Antonio Spurs, and Denver Nuggets is a chapter in my life I’ll never forget.
“My experience overseas in Italy with Scavolini Pesaro represented a brotherhood and family that remains with me to this day. I was blessed with the opportunity to win two championships and we are approaching our 30th anniversary this year in June. My teammates message me weekly on Facebook and have tried to sway me into coaching overseas. While the thought of it is flattering, my direction in life landed me in the perfect position to inspire young men chasing a similar dream I faced 40 years ago.”
Upon retirement from professional basketball, Darwin’s next chapter would lead him to a mentoring role as an assistant coach for two NCAA men’s basketball programs. It started with Rollie Massimino at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV); from there he joined Lorenzo Romar’s Pepperdine University coaching staff, and eventually, he would return to work as a scout for the team that gave him his first shot as a rookie, the New Jersey Nets. While the California native always found a way to keep his roots in the west coast, no matter where life took him; the years following his transition from coaching to scouting, Darwin would find himself touching multiple things professionally in his backyard of California. He remained very active within his community with fundraising and nonprofit work. He made his rounds with motivational speaking and stayed engaged with the game of basketball with private training for athletes being a part of his every day.
In recent years, he’s tried applying for the head coaching job at his alma mater, the University of Portland and was rejected on three separate occasions. From his words, “They felt I wasn’t ready to take on that role as head coach. The rejection made me think about the words I’ve heard my whole life from nonbelievers, ‘You are not . . .’ and it just reinforces the fact that for every person that says that to me, it’s my job to prove the doubters wrong and I tell my current players when you hear those words, dig deep, and prove that ‘You are . . .’”
The rejection made me think about the words I’ve heard my whole life from nonbelievers, ‘You are not . . .’ and it just reinforces the fact that for every person that says that to me, it’s my job to prove the doubters wrong and I tell my current players when you hear those words, dig deep, and prove that ‘You are . . .'”
Regardless of the rejection, Darwin faced, it never stopped him from believing he was good enough to make a difference and lead as a head coach. On May 19, 2017, the University of Antelope Valley in Lancaster, California, made Darwin Cook an offer that would forever change his continued legacy in life. Darwin was named head coach of the Pioneer men’s basketball program, where the president of the University, Marco Johnson, shared, “Adding Coach Cook to our staff is a huge step in the right direction. Our goal at UAV is to produce quality young men and women; Darwin has clearly demonstrated that he possesses the qualities needed to accomplish both. Knowing what it takes to compete at the highest level both academically and athletically will be transferred to our basketball players daily. We expect to compete at a high level immediately.”
The NAIA program is in its fourth year with the University of Antelope Valley and in just the first year of hiring Darwin, he was able to achieve remarkable feats that did not go unnoticed. In the 2017 season, the men’s basketball program won the Cal Pac regular season championship, won their first Cal Pac conference title, and Darwin was named coach of the year. The accomplishment he’s most proud of is raising the bar academically with his student-athletes. Darwin shared, “When I got there the average GPA of the team was around 2.2 and this year the avg GPA of the team is around 3.5. I credit that to the kids buying into the system and realizing if your grades are not up to par, you don’t play. I’m grateful the stronger students on the team with a 4.0 GPA lead study hall sessions, tutor, and help their fellow teammates out as one big family.”
Darwin provided perspective on his current team, “The young men on this team represent student-athletes that major college programs overlooked. A lot of them were expecting to play Division I (D1) college basketball out of high school. As I reflect on my current purpose in life, it’s a commitment to helping these young men believe and instill confidence in them. My ability to build this program, change the history of this program, and make an impact on these student-athletes will be a big part of my legacy. To my players that successfully graduate from Antelope Valley University, a piece of my legacy will remain with them in life. I appreciate the praise over our individual and team accomplishments but as I’ve told everyone, it’s not about me and we truly haven’t done anything yet as a unit. I’m not scoring any more career points, I’m here to score character points as a coach, advisor, and mentor to these young men. I’m eagerly looking forward to the 2018 season because we have five new players we are bringing in and seven returning from the existing team.”
During our sit-down, Darwin couldn’t help but think about the influential people in his life that believed in him and made him who he is today. As a reflection of gratitude, Darwin would like to thank the following individuals:
“To the ‘big brothers’ I grew up with in the neighborhood, thank you for taking me under your wings and showing me what I needed to do both on and off the court. You’ve prepared me both mentally and physically for whatever life would bring me and raised my confidence as a young kid playing against grown men in California.
“To my fellow Crenshaw High School brothers, Robert Smith and Marques Johnson. You both played a role in breaking me out of my shell and making me more of a vocal leader later in life. Marques was one of the first guys to add me to his team if they needed an extra guy in a pick-up game. For three kids from Crenshaw to have successful college careers and live out our dreams of making it to the NBA is a dream come true. The icing on the cake was being able to come back home and have all three of our Jerseys retired at Crenshaw High School.
“To Kevin Loughery, thank you for giving me an opportunity as a rookie with the New Jersey Nets. You took a chance on me and valued my ability to outwork everyone.
“To Larry Brown, you truly brought it all out of me as a head coach. You reminded me daily to play the way I play, don’t worry about mistakes, and be relentless on the court.
“To my high school coach, Willie E. West Jr., thank you for your support in life. You attended my first college game at UAV where I was the head coach and that was the highlight of my career. When the night was over you said, ‘wow, you look like me out there.’ I’m proud to take a piece of your coaching legacy and pass it onto my players.
“Thank you, to the late Rollie Massimino and Lorenzo Romar for giving me a sneak peek into my future calling in life. My time at UNLV and Pepperdine served a purpose and it all happened for a reason. As a personal note to Rollie, I still have the playbook from UNLV to this day in my possession.
“To current NBA All-Star, Paul George, I still have fond memories of the midnight basketball league I ran in California where you participated as a high school student-athlete. Between me and my good friend Joe Triggs that was also running the league, we recall sharing with you the collective advice around shooting three’s, focusing on assists, and working on your ball handling (dribbling). I recall Joe warning you not to dunk on some of these guys because a lot of them had nothing to lose and would have no issue with ending someone’s career if they got embarrassed. Being the consummate professional you were at a young age, you took our advice and turned some heads in the league. You were a special talent and we knew you were a surefire pro. I tried to get UCLA to look at you and they missed out on bringing you in. I was fortunate enough to reach out to a friend of mine at Fresno State about your ability and they ended up recruiting you, where you played for two years. Paul, I wish you nothing but continued success in the NBA and beyond the game. The state of California loves you.
“If someone was to tell me 40 years ago that at the age of 59, I would become a first-time head coach for a college basketball program, I’d laugh in their face. Once again, this sacred path I’m on is part of God’s plan. I’m blessed to have my beautiful fiancé, Sakita, by my side, and my two sons, Cayce and Dion, living their dreams with both their families and professional endeavors. While faith, family, and inspiring my student-athletes is my every day, I look forward to venturing into future endeavors surrounding my passions. I have big plans for a high-end cigar lounge that will have all the amenities and entertainment a cigar aficionado could dream of. Once the business venture is put in place, I’ll be in search of the perfect motorhome to drive into the sunset with. For those that know me well, 18 holes of golf with a cigar in hand will always be a part of my life. I tell people this all the time: If you believe you can, follow your beliefs, and make a difference with the time we are blessed with on earth.”
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