An hour after Duke’s loss to Maryland in the Blue Devils’ opening game of the ACC tournament last Friday night, sophomore guard Quinn Cook returned to the team hotel and switched on his cell phone. He spotted a text from a familiar name: Brother Showtime. Cook was pleased to see that name pop up because he needed to talk to someone who could understand his disappointment. Brother Showtime is former Duke guard Nolan Smith.
Smith’s text read: Keep your head up, little brother. Tough one. Bounce back in the NCAA tournament. Call me if you need anything.
The first call Cook made that night was to Smith. “He told me that I wasn’t being aggressive enough against Maryland,” Cook recalls. “He told me I wasn’t out there talking. I wasn’t myself. He’s my biggest supporter and my biggest critic and he was getting on me, but I know he’s been through it, so it was an uplifting conversation. That’s what he’s always done for me.”
Cook has known Smith for more than a decade. Growing up together in Prince George’s County, Md., just outside of Washington, D.C., the 10-year-old Smith was a local hoops legend known as Showtime Smith. Eventually Smith and Cook joined the same AAU program, Smith playing for the Maryland Crusaders and Cook for the Mitchellville Trailblazers. Cook, five years younger, liked to study Smith’s game.
In the summer of 2000, their AAU teams traveled to Memphis for a tournament and Smith watched Cook struggle through a loss. After the game, Smith sought out Cook, wrapped his arm around the 7-year-old’s shoulders and said, “You’re my little brother now. I’m always going to be watching over you and you’re going to be all right.”
Nolan Smith became more than a big brother. He became Cook’s idol. Quinn Cook wanted to be just like him.
A touchy subject
Nolan Smith lost his father when he was eight years old. Derek Smith died suddenly and unexpectedly of cardiac arrest. Derek Smith was part of an NCAA championship team at Louisville in 1980 and played nine seasons in the NBA.
“Nolan had a lot of pictures of his dad, so one day I asked him, ‘Where’s Mr. Smith?’ ” Cook recalls. “He told me the situation. It was a touchy subject at that time.”
Smith and Cook lived just five minutes apart and Smith spent lots of time at Cook’s house where the two played one-on-one for hours on the backyard court that Ted Cook had built for his kids. Cook never won a single game against Smith.
After basketball, the boys liked to hang out with Cook’s father, who would often tell the boys a basketball story, like the night Ted’s Glenville High team in Cleveland, Ohio, defeated a team led by future NBA first-round pick Clark Kellogg. “My dad became like a second father to Nolan,” Cook says. “Nolan loved my dad. My dad took us to Nolan’s high school graduation. We did a lot together.”
Over the years, Smith forged such a close relationship with Cook’s father that he called him “Uncle Ted.”
T-Shirt for dad
Quinn Cook lost his father when he was 13 years old. Ted Cook died suddenly and unexpectedly of cardiac arrest. Cook found out about his dad’s passing while at the gym playing pickup basketball. Suddenly, Quinn had lost his mentor. That night the phone rang. It was Brother Showtime calling from Duke.
“It was something that I had dealt with in my life so when it happened to Quinn I told him, ‘I’ve been there and I’m here for you, little brother,’ ” Smith says. “I told him, ‘Keep on the path. Your dad would want you to stay in the gym. If you’re upset, use the gym as your sanctuary.’ ”
Cook returned to the gym the night his father died and shot by himself until well past midnight.
For her late husband’s funeral, Janet Cook printed 1,000 t-shirts with Ted’s picture on it that she gave away to mourners. Before the first basketball game Quinn would play after his dad’s death, Quinn wore one of those t-shirts under his warm-ups.
“My dad’s passing made me stronger,” Cook says. “I had to become a man overnight. I didn’t cry at my dad’s funeral. That’s a strength that’s still in me today.”
Cook eventually attended DeMatha High School and became the first junior in three decades to earn D.C. Player of the Year. Recruiters were stalking him and he didn’t have his father to shepherd him. Once again Cook needed to escape and Smith had an idea. Smith suggested that Cook follow in his footsteps to Oak Hill Academy in remote Mouth of Wilson, Va., to help hone his game for college. Smith made a phone call to Oak Hill coach Steve Smith and Cook was invited.
Then when it came time to settle on a college, Cook followed in Smith’s footsteps once again. Cook had visited Smith at Duke several times and relished the environment. Smith became Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s primary salesman.
Nolan Smith and Quinn Cook communicate every day. Sometimes they text. Usually they talk on the phone. They have been known to Skype for hours. Both say that they laugh a lot. Sometimes the conversation even winds around to basketball. Smith watches every Duke game and last season when Cook struggled through a difficult freshman season slowed by recovery from a knee injury, Smith regularly called to counsel him. Smith would even speak to Krzyzewski on occasion for advice in helping Cook navigate through the disappointing season.
“Somehow, Nolan knew that he would be the best person in the world to help Quinn,” Krzyzewski says. “There’s just so much familiarity there. They’ve really become brothers through one of the worst adversities. For Nolan to reach out like a big brother and want to give Quinn the best possible chance of being successful, says a lot about Nolan, and it says a lot about Quinn that he accepts that.”
Last summer Cook traveled to Portland, Ore., for 10 days to visit Smith. The two immersed themselves in basketball the way they once did in Ted Cook’s backyard. Smith dedicated himself to improving Cook’s defense, so the two hit the gym for two-a-days, Smith dribbling the basketball up and down the floor, over and over and over again, giving Cook tips on how to apply pressure as Duke’s point man on defense. They also played one-on-one three times a day. “I still to this day have never beaten him,” Cook says. “I almost got him this summer. All these years and I still haven’t got one, but it’s coming.”
Smith, who was drafted in the first round by the Portland Trail Blazers in 2011, has struggled to find a foothold in the NBA. When he was demoted to the NBA’s Developmental League in January, it was Cook’s turn to be the mentor.
Says Smith, “Quinn told me, ‘Go to the gym, brother. You’re good. Keep working hard.’ My little brother telling me the same things I once told him when he was going through tough times, that means a lot. I listen to him the way he listens to me.”
Cook is fulfilling his childhood wish to be just like Smith. They were both launched by the same AAU program. Both starred at Oak Hill. Both were McDonald’s All-Americans. Both have played lead guard at Duke where both have worn No. 2. Both have one sibling, a sister, who is two years and eight months older. Both have a widowed mother. “It’s crazy,” Smith says. “It’s like we’re identical. We are living the same exact life just in different bodies.”
Both miss their fathers so much that on Father’s Day both often go to the gym to escape. Cook has punctuated every one of his more than 19,000 tweets with the phrase, RiP DAD! And when the Blue Devils take on Albany in their NCAA opener this afternoon, Cook will be wearing a t-shirt with his dad’s picture on it under his warm-ups, the same threadbare shirt he’s been wearing before games for the last five years.
Earlier this week, Smith phoned Cook to give him some advice on how to handle the grind of the NCAA Tournament. “Play every game like it’s your last college game,” Smith told Cook. “Play those games for your seniors, not for yourself. If you can somehow put that in your head and go out there and play with that emotion, that chip on your shoulder, that hunger, you’re going to have the energy to get through the tournament.”
Both Smith and Cook are keenly aware that in their parallel lives, Smith has an NCAA championship and Cook does not… yet. Smith says he will do everything he can to blaze that trail as well.
“For the longest time, we have been living the same dream,” Smith says. “Given our surreal history together it seems only right that at some point little brother will get his ring as well.”