If a 10-second YouTube sequence can encapsulate why Jack Cooley has been a fan favorite at every one of his stops across the NBA, G-League and overseas, it’s his relentless motor and ferocious hustle in the closing minutes of blowout victory on April 1, 2015.
The 6-foot-9 forward – then of the Utah Jazz – still smiles when he recounts muscling his way inside to score on a put-back off his own miss, and then sprinting the length of the court to reject a transition dunk attempt by Nuggets guard Gary Harris.
His teammates jumped off the bench in celebration, and All-Defense First Team center Rudy Gobert even gave him a well-deserved salute.
It’s no wonder then, why Kings fans began chanting “MVP” from the rafters at the Thomas & Mack Center not long after No. 45 stepped on the court during 2017 Las Vegas Summer League action.
In his first appearance, Cooley provided an instant spark off the bench – notching an 11-point, 10-rebound double-double – and left Las Vegas on a similarly positive note with 13 points and 11 boards in the team’s finale. In five contests in Sin City, the undrafted free agent averaged 9.2 points on 64 percent from the field and 6.6 rebounds per game, his positive impact most evident by his team-leading +27 plus/minus.
“I go out there and give 110 percent every time I step on the floor, and I think fans pick up on that,” said Cooley on The Two-Way Podcast. “When you see the players giving their all and playing as hard as they can out there, you kind of respect that. I guess the fans appreciate that I always go out and I always play my hardest regardless of who’s there (or) who’s not there.”
Cooley’s rugged style of play caught the eye of no less than four NBA organizations, but his familiarity and affinity for the Kings coaching staff from their shared time in Memphis made the decision easy. The big man signed a two-way contract with the Kings on July 29, which allows him to spend up to 45 days on Sacramento’s roster and the remainder of the 2017-18 season on the team’s G-League affiliate, the Reno Bighorns.
The 26-year-old has no disillusions about his role or expected playing time on a deep Kings roster. But when he steps foot on the court, whether it’s an early-morning practice or a primetime matchup, players on both sides take notice.
“He’s a monster on the boards,” former teammate Rodney Hood told Jazz.com. “He’s really physical. It’s hard to keep him off the boards. He sets good screens. He’s a great team player.”
A throwback big man, Cooley occupies the paint, fights his way into position and attacks the basket. According to NBA.com, over the course of his G-League career, nearly two-thirds of his shot attempts came from within the restricted area, on which he converted a nearly-automatic 73 percent.
Despite being undersized for a center, the undrafted Notre Dame product has utilized his burly frame and court awareness to boxout opponents and convert on crucial second-chance opportunities, collecting 23 percent of available rebounds while on the floor for the Idaho Stampede.
Cooley’s infectious energy initially lead to Summer League stints with the Rockets and Grizzlies in 2013, and eventually, his first training camp invite from Utah a year later.
In between, the Evanston, Ill. native found himself playing professional basketball in the Turkish Basketball League, homesick in a three-story townhouse on the outskirts of Trabzonspor.
Luckily, his landlords needed a dog sitter for their French bulldog, Lola. The pair formed an instant bond, and when Cooley returned to the states to resume his NBA dream, his canine companion stayed right by his side.
“I started watching the dog, who lived with me, and I come to find out they were abusing the dog – they were making her live outside,” he said. “So I told them when I was leaving, ‘I’m just going to take the dog with me.’”
Cooley was, in fact, out on a long walk with Lola in the fall of 2014 when he looked down at his phone to discover eight missed calls from his agent and another half-dozen from his father.
Utah, after releasing him prior to the start of the 2014-15 regular season, called-up Cooley from Boise, at last validating his NBA journey.
“It was just a relief flowing off my shoulders when he finally told me that I got the 10-day with Utah,” he told The Desert News. “It was justification of all the work I’d done and all of the numbers I’d put up. All that came together. I always knew I belonged in the NBA, but to get it verified, it was a really good feeling.”
Although his first 10-day contract expired without an extension, Cooley was in a Jazz uniform less than two weeks later – but not before taking his frustrations out on hapless G-League opponents.
“I knew there were 10 days I couldn’t get called up by the Jazz, so I knew I had four games in those 10 days to show the Jazz and everybody else in the NBA that that was where I belonged,” he said. “And I went on a pretty ridiculous tear during that run.”
Cooley averaged 21.8 points and 20 rebounds during a dominant four-game stretch, setting a G-League record with 29 rebounds to go along with a career-high 27 points against the Los Angeles D-Fenders on March 13, 2015.
“I’m pretty sure the only person who can break that record is myself,” he said.
In 16 games with the Jazz, Cooley averaged a modest 1.7 points and 1.6 rebounds in 5.4 minutes per outing. Extrapolated over 36 minutes, his full stat-line is much more indicative of his oftentimes overlooked contributions: 11.2 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 1.2 blocks.
After a brief preseason stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, as well as another go-around with the Stampede, Cooley returned overseas to join Unicaja of the Liga ACB in Spain 2015-16.
Last season, the veteran forward helped lead the Chicago Bulls to the 2016 Summer League title, before finding himself boarding another cross-country flight, this time to Stuttgart Airport in Germany. Cooley racked up 13.2 points and 6.9 rebounds in 19.2 minutes per game for MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg, connecting on 28 consecutive two-point field goals over an impressive three-game stretch in the Basketball Champions League.
All the while, Cooley was certain his hard work wouldn’t go unnoticed by NBA scouts, and few places could present a better opportunity than Sacramento.
“There were more lucrative deals overseas to go take, but the ultimate goal of my career has been to make it to the NBA and have success there, and I still believe I can do that,” he said.
“To (join) the Kings organization – just the fanbase and the coaches – it’s unique in its own sense,” he told KHTK’s The Drive. “I feel happy that I can succeed in the setting that I’m currently in, and it’s an opportunity that I’m extremely blessed to have.”