BEHIND THE NUMBER: The death of Gabrielle Cooper’s father fueled her passion for basketball, which led her to become a star at Syracuse

first_img Comments It was about 6:30 a.m. on Feb. 10, 2011 when Benji Hardaway reached for her phone to call her mother-in-law, Margaret. But when she picked up the phone, she saw Margaret’s number already calling.Margaret told Hardaway that her ex-husband, Torrance Cooper, had died after being rushed to the hospital. Stunned, Hardaway began to cry. She turned to Gabrielle, the daughter she had with Cooper, who lay in bed beside her in a downstairs room. Hardaway choked out the words.Hardaway and Gabrielle woke up the rest of the house with their cries. Gabrielle’s brothers, Justin and Johnathan, ran downstairs to find out what had happened. Justin recalls running in and looking from Gabrielle’s face to his mother’s.The story slowly spilled out to the boys. Torrance had gone to warm up his car after work early in the morning when he passed out. His daughters and stepsons all knew he had been dealing with sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that attacks different organs and, in Torrance’s case, built up tissue in his lungs that made it harder to breathe. It is rarely fatal. Gabrielle’s family thought, at 39, Torrance would be OK. But outside on that cold day, he collapsed and never got back up.AdvertisementThis is placeholder text“It was unexpected,” Gabrielle said. “It wasn’t like you see him and be like he’s looking bad. It was completely a shock. I knew he had it but I never thought anything of that.”Gabrielle was 12 years old when she lost her father in 2011. In that moment, she never could have known the significance of that year. How it would become a symbol of her dad’s passing. How his death led her to picking up basketball competitively. And how the last two digits, 11, would soon be donned by the new face of Syracuse basketball.Shortly after her father’s death, when Gabrielle was in middle school, she decided to play basketball more competitively. Before then, she had only played in recreational leagues and pickup basketball. She had watched her older siblings play, attending every game she could. When they shot around on the hoop outside their house, she tagged along. Despite being the youngest child by five years, she wanted to imitate her two brothers. Without her father, they became her basketball foundation.But if she wanted to play in the lot, her brothers would treat her like “one of us,” Johnathan, who is seven years older than Gabrielle, said. Her age, gender and size were irrelevant. That meant when driving to the hoop, her layups and jump shots were swatted into the neighbor’s yard. It wasn’t until she was 10 or 11 when she could actually get a shot off.Gabrielle Cooper looked up to her brothers and, after her father’s death, played basketball with them often. They were much bigger than she was, blocking her shots often. Courtesy of Benji Hardaway“It was, ‘You going to the rim?’” Justin, who is five years older than Gabrielle, said. “Your shot (is going to) to get blocked.”Back then, Gabrielle couldn’t beat her brothers, but she never stopped trying. There were times she cried and walked away, but she wanted to get better. Instead of driving to the hoop, Gabrielle practiced the jump shot that became a staple of her game.In 2011, Gabrielle joined multiple AAU teams to improve her play. Ebony Jones, her middle school coach, led one of the teams she joined, called the Orange Crush.There, Jones told the Orange Crush they were allowed to pick their numbers. She walked from person to person, asking their choice. When she got to Gabrielle, it was an easy decision. Later that year, on the middle-school team, Jones laid out the jerseys for her players to choose. Gabrielle, once again, secured No. 11.“At the time, I really started picking up basketball,” Gabrielle said. “That’s when I made my decision to choose a real number.”Gabrielle donned that number until high school, when it became unavailable. So, she wore No. 15 until the player who wore No. 11 graduated.With hopes to improve even more, Gabrielle joined another local AAU team, the Lady Hurricanes. The training and competition took off from there. In addition to the Crush and her middle school team, the Lady Hurricanes practiced twice a week, trained another day and played about 120 games from November to August every season, head coach Gary Lewis said.The first AAU team Gabrielle joined was the Orange Crush. When head coach Ebony Jones was handing out the numbers, Gabrielle made sure to snag No. 11. Courtesy of Benji HardawayAt those games, Gabrielle sometimes peeked into the stands. She always knew her mother would be there, and that her father would not. She especially missed her dad during the training sessions.One day at the end of the training, the players ran a 5-on-5 scrimmage against men, including players’ dads. The person she matched with was “calling the weakest fouls,” Gabrielle said. The situation became tense and Gabrielle grew upset.On the drive home from the scrimmage, Gabrielle broke down. When her mother asked what was wrong, Gabrielle responded, “I wish dad was here.”Gabrielle’s coaches tried to fill the void. At times, Lewis drove her to practice to help the family. He wanted her on the Lady Hurricanes and convinced Gabrielle’s mom to let her stay on the team, though, he said, Hardaway thought her daughter might be outmatched by the competition at that age. So, Lewis worked with a raw Gabrielle on various dribbling drills and off-ball movement. He started using her at the free-throw line in games. Over the years, she slowly moved toward the 3-point line. By high school, she transformed into the team’s main shooting threat.At the time, I really started picking up basketball. That’s when I made my decision to choose a real number.Gabrielle CooperEven the brothers who once schooled her in their driveway noticed. One day during a pickup game, Gabrielle tightly guarded her brother Johnathan, who saw it as an opportunity to embarrass her. He crossed her up, dribbled between her legs, spun and tried to cross her up again. But Gabrielle stole the ball.She went on a breakaway. Johnathan turned to trail behind her with a plan. As she went up for a layup, he took flight after to pin her shot against the backboard. But the ball wasn’t where he expected. His sister had ball-faked and hit a reverse layup.“That was the turning point,” Johnathan said. “When I knew my sister had it.”Gabrielle started receiving letters from Division I programs. Recruiting picked up in the latter years of high school after shooting 7-for-8 from beyond the arc in a Tennessee tournament and then 12 more 3s a year later in North Carolina, Gabrielle remembered.“Her passion, desire and drive went up a level (after Torrance’s death),” Jones said. “… Mentally she got very tough, that’s very difficult to teach any kid.”In September 2015, when Gabrielle officially visited Syracuse as a senior year, two-time captain Brittney Sykes hosted her and the two players bonded.After verbally committing to the Orange, Gabrielle traveled to watch SU play in its first-ever Final Four. Sykes walked up to her and remembered telling Gabrielle to “hurry up and get to Syracuse so we can get back here.” In that tournament, Syracuse won its Final Four matchup before falling to Connecticut in the national championship.Gabrielle’s father died in 2011. After his death, she picked up basketball competitively and chose to honor him by wearing No. 11. Alexandra Moreo | Photo EditorThe next year, Gabrielle immediately found herself thrown into a starting role as a freshman. She started 32 games, was the only non-senior in the starting lineup, and served as the team’s main 3-point shooter.Sykes saw the freshman’s improvement and became a mentor to Gabrielle. Sykes saw Gabrielle’s role as similar to her former teammate Brianna Butler’s, who had been put in an “uncomfortable position,” Sykes said, by being told to shoot the ball while playing alongside more experienced teammates. Despite Sykes being a fifth-year senior and Gabrielle a freshman, the two became close friends.“That’s my kid,” Sykes said. “I guess I adopted her. … She doesn’t know how much she changed me as a person, as a player and as an individual.”In her first game, Gabrielle shot 4-of-18 from 3 and followed it up with a 3-of-14 performance from behind the arc against Siena. In SU’s sixth game, the first big one Gabrielle played in against top-10 Ohio State, Sykes walked over to Gabrielle in the locker room.“It was one of those moments when I was like, ‘I need to tell her this,’” Sykes said, “because she didn’t realize how important she is.”Andy Mendes | Digital Design EditorIn the middle of a shooting slump, Sykes reminded her that next year she would be the lone returning starter. That it didn’t matter how far in the postseason Syracuse got because she would be the one everyone is going to talk about. That she was a freshman with a green light to shoot despite her slump. That she had to lead because of the players she played with before.“Now you have to be that player everybody else wants to play with,” Sykes remembered telling Gabrielle.Torrance’s death became the fire that helped Gabrielle to transform basketball from a hobby to a full-time commitment. It fueled her to hustle in AAU, to become a three-star recruit and to lead Morgan Park (Illinois) High School to its first-ever trip to the state semifinals. If she ever needed to gather her thoughts, she’d go to the park alone and shoot around.“It made me want to go even harder,” Gabrielle said.While her mom traveled to every game or practice she could, she was new to the basketball circuit and didn’t know as much as other parents did. Hardaway sacrificed every summer until 2016 because of AAU basketball and even became a stylist so she could work for herself and make time for Gabrielle.Yet it’s different than the fatherly guidance that Torrance once bestowed upon Gabrielle. She was a “daddy’s girl,” Hardaway said. She idolized her father because he always stuck around to watch her before and after school. After Hardaway and Torrance divorced, Gabrielle always made it a point to see her father.One day, driving to Wisconsin for vacation, Gabrielle made her mom turn the car around because her father was coming into town because she never wanted to miss a moment with him. In high school, as homecoming, graduation and other milestones passed, her brother Justin saw that Gabrielle missed her father.“You could never see it on her face,” Justin said, “but you knew.”When she needed an outlet for that frustration and sadness, she turned to basketball. It was a way to give her all. A way of carrying something bigger than a sport. A way of giving back to her father, wearing that No. 11 to serve as a constant reminder.“Basketball helped me get through a lot,” Gabrielle said. “It’s always been there for me.“Basketball never changed.”Banner photo illustration by Josh Shub-Seltzer | Staff Photographer Published on November 5, 2017 at 11:38 pm Contact Charlie: [email protected] | @charliedisturco,Comments are closed.last_img

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