Quinn Cook was 7. Just a kid. Nolan Smith was 11. Just a kid himself. Even then, Cook looked up to Smith. The bond began then, when someone introduced one budding basketball star to another, long before the events that would bind them together so strongly.
Ten years after they met, Smith led Duke to a national title. Monday night, Cook has a chance to lead Duke to another – but not without Smith's guidance and help.
Cook is the unquestioned senior leader and emotional center of a team that is one win from a national title, but he did not come by it naturally. He is the product, the benefactor, of unending tough love from not only Smith but Duke coaches Mike Krzyzewski and Jeff Capel as well, all of whom encouraged Cook to shed his youthful immaturity and grow up.
“Some people take longer than others,” Smith said. “Better late than never, because obviously they're here, about to play for a national championship. I'm just proud that it finally happened.”
It has been a long process, one that really began in earnest when Cook's father died in 2007, when first Smith and then Krzyzewski and then Capel stepped in to try and fill that void. Smith's father, the former Louisville and NBA star Derek Smith, died in 1996.
Their shared experience began there, extended to Duke and continues to this day.
“Growing up, I wanted to be just like him,” Cook said. “Everything he did, I wanted to emulate. Especially after my father passed away, he kind of stepped up, especially my freshman year taking me under his wing. For us to have that guy to talk to as an outlet is just a blessing. It's crazy how we mirror each other's careers.”
Both Smith and Cook played for the DC Assault AAU team, meeting through its youth programs. Smith played his junior and senior years of high school at Oak Hill Academy. Cook played his senior year there. Smith starred at Duke. Cook followed him there.
Smith's influence on Cook is long-lasting, but the culmination of that effort did not come quickly, nor easily. Cook freely acknowledges his immaturity was still an issue even as late as last spring. Smith has been trying to knock it out of him for years. When Cook made the Washington Post's all-Met team as a sophomore, he felt pretty good about things. It was a big deal. So he challenged Smith, 1-on-1.
“He beat me 11-0,” Cook said. “Three straight times, reminding me that I'm the little brother.”
The relationship is reciprocal: When Smith went overseas to play in Croatia and Turkey, Cook was the one calling, face-timing, reaching out. When Smith had knee surgery this winter, Cook had already gone through it twice. The little brother became the mentor – and the landlord, when Smith moved into Cook's off-campus apartment while he recovered.
“It's a true big brother-little brother relationship,” Duke guard Matt Jones said. “They're always together. They go to the gym together. They're in the training room together. They even live together right now. It's just a joy to watch.”
There's no doubt whatsoever that despite the considerable talent amassed, Duke doesn't make it this far without Cook's fiery leadership, something the Blue Devils have generally been missing since Smith and Kyle Singler departed in 2011.
And there's also no doubt Cook doesn't develop into a leader without Smith's help. Smith scolded him for years about his body language, his impatience, his out-of-control emotions. It never sunk in. But when Cook called him on the phone last spring, after meeting with Krzyzewski in the wake of the loss to Mercer, Smith knew something had changed.
After all those years, four years at Duke and the decade they knew each other before that, something finally clicked.
“After so long telling him those things, I saw him begin to change and want to be that leader,” Smith said. “He wanted to be that this season.”
Smith led Duke to one national title in Indianapolis. Five years later, he could be helping Duke to another, in a very different way.
DeCock: email@example.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947