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ABBOTSFORD — He was not an A-list recruit coming out of Terry Fox Secondary in the spring of 2014.
And when he finally did get an offer to play post-secondary basketball, the PacWest program at Surrey’s Kwantlen Polytechnic University wound up folding at season’s end.
A lesser hoops warrior than Matt Cooley would have taken that as a sign from the basketball gods to look long and hard at his hardcourt compass, then perhaps contemplate a change in his life’s direction.
Yet along his journey to Seniors Night festivities this Saturday with the Fraser Valley Cascades’ program which helped him reveal his true identity as a student-athlete, the 6-foot-9, 240-pound Cooley will be rightly celebrated as the diamond who so inspiringly emerged from the rough.
“I really didn’t think it was going to come out like this, and that I’d be able to do some of the things I’ve been able to do,” explained Cooley earlier this week when asked to describe a fifth-year breakout campaign in which his true persona as the team’s post-defending, pivot-passing linchpin has been allowed to so fully flourish.
“I can only attribute it to getting in the gym and working on my craft,” continued Cooley, 23, who this past Jan. 11 became the tallest player in Canada West conference history to record a triple-double when he supplied 14 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in the Cascades’ 87-58 win in Prince George over the UNBC Timberwolves.
A self-confessed fan of Nikola Jokic, the Denver Nuggets’ 7-foot dime-dishing machine, Cooley’s game has been duly influenced by the Serbian sensation, and that’s been impossible to miss down the stretch drive of the regular season.
“He is unlike any player I have ever watched, and as soon as I saw him my eyes lit up,” laughs Cooley. “Being able to affect the game without scoring is something I have always wanted to do in my game.”
Now, after starting 18 combined games over his first four seasons at UFV (including an injury redshirt in 2016-17), Cooley has matched that number this season for a 12-6 Cascades team which will look to extend its conference-best nine-game win streak when it wraps up regular-season play at Envision Athletic against the 9-9 Regina Cougars (Friday 8 p.m., Saturday 7 p.m.).
“It’s great to see a fifth-year player play his best in his final year,” says UFV head coach Adam Friesen, who knew he was bringing in a high-ceiling player back in 2015-16 yet was a little unsure what the fully-formed Cooley might represent.
“He gets more joy out of making a pass that leads to a basket than he does scoring one himself,” continues Friesen of Cooley who is averaging 8.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists overall per game while shooting 59 per cent from the field.
In so many ways, his presence is the perfect compliment for the likes of team scoring leaders Parm Bains (19.7 ppg), Sukhjot Bains (16.0 ppg) and Vic Toor (10.0 ppg).
“I saw the passing skill there, but with FIBA game developing the way it has, maybe we were too slow in how to fully use the five-man in that way,” added Friesen of a player who over his past eight games is averaging 4.3 assists-per-game on a team filled with three-point aces and dynamic cutters. “We always knew he had a lot of potential. He was a big body with good hands and a solid basketball IQ.”
The first coach to take a chance on Cooley collegiately has watched with pride from afar and remains adamant that his is a success story which far too often goes unwritten.
“He’s a kid that needed to be given a chance,” says Vlad Nikic, the former KPU head coach and current vice-principal at North Delta’s Seaquam Secondary, who watched as Cooley won the CCAA’s PacWest Conference rebounding title as a rookie (9.7 rpg). “He loves to be challenged. He loves to play everywhere on the floor. Yet a lot of college coaches passed on him because they wanted immediate results instead of building a program. And that’s the type of player that (Cooley) is. He just needed a chance and I am just so glad that after everything that happened, he found a home at UFV.”
Cooley, however, wasn’t playing it so cool following his senior year of high school at Terry Fox because while he was determined to become a next-level player, he wasn’t getting recruited.
“I really didn’t have all the offers, and it wasn’t until the summer that I graduated that I went down to this tournament in Lynden (Wash.) and Vlad noticed me,” says Cooley, who credits local coach Marcial Reyes, the father of former Terry Fox point guard Jomari Reyes, for putting together an AAU team which ultimately got him in front of college coaches.
“For Matt it was all about having loads of potential,” remembers Terry Fox co-coach Brad Petersen. “There was always the thought he could be a late bloomer if he found the right style of team that could help him enhance all of his skills. He could hit the mid-range shot, and his vision was next-level, and so you’re happy when you see that he’s playing his best basketball at the next level.”
Yet for Cooley, it’s not just the Cascades’ playing style that he loves, but the team culture as well.
“We’re not just a bunch of guys that show up for practice,” he begins. “We’re the kind of team that goes over to each other’s houses for dinner. We’re all such great friends off the court and I think it creates a level of team chemistry that just sets up apart.”
And now, all the stuff he persevered through in order to experience the thrill of a late-season run to the playoffs, just makes everything that much more meaningful.
For Nikic, this is a journey which has unfolded in the ways he had always hoped.
“When I interviewed him coming out of high school, I loved his attitude,” Nikic says. “He was the guy who always worked hard, and who always showed up for everything. His former teammates from Kwantlen, a lot of them still get together and go to UFV games to support him.”
And when the 2019-20 season and his university career does come to an end in the near future, the business administration major just might decide to make basketball his professional business for a while.
“Marcial Reyes has some connections in The Philippines and so I might take a look at playing overseas,” says Cooley.
At which time another big adventure is sure to begin.
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