NEW YORK—Aside from playing in the NBA, one of the most common dreams of a college basketball star is to someday win a gold medal for his country.
But when USA Basketball offered Quinn Cook that opportunity last summer, the point guard didn’t flinch.
“No thanks,” Cook told them.
Nearly six months later, Cook explained his decision Monday.
“At the time,” Cook told Bleacher Report, “Duke basketball was more important.”
Surprising as it may have been to outsiders, Cook’s choice illustrates the maturity that’s helped him become one of the top point guards in the country. Cook enters Thursday’s game against UCLA at Madison Square Garden averaging career-highs in points (14.7) and assists (6.6).
But his leadership is the biggest reason No. 8 Duke has been able to jell despite a starting lineup that features three new starters.
“This year, he’s the veteran,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “It’s kind of like the torch was passed of maturity, of leadership.
“It’s his team now.”
Indeed, Jabari Parker is averaging 22 points a game and Rodney Hood (18.9) isn’t far behind. But Cook’s selflessness in the backcourt has made him the catalyst for a Duke offense that’s connecting on 51.7 percent of its shots, a mark that ranks sixth in the country.
And his poise during tight games has paid off huge in the Blue Devils’ huddle, where there’s no question who’s in command.
“He’s optimistic,” Parker said. “He’s always positive. He knows how to communicate with us. We flow off his energy. He doesn’t have anything negative on his mind. That’s how good of a leader he is.”
Cook, who’s started 44 straight games, has always had the respect of his teammates. He earned third-team All-ACC honors after averaging 11.7 points and 5.3 assists as a sophomore. Last November he was named the Most Valuable Player at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas following the Blue Devils’ title game victory over eventual national champion Louisville.
But it was Cook’s decision to remain in Durham last summer that elevated his status as team leader even more.
Cook knew how valuable it would be to spend June, July and August working out and playing pickup games with newcomers Hood and Parker. And he realized he needed to help enhance the confidence of seldom-used reserves such as Amile Jefferson and Josh Hairston, who would be seeing their roles increase.
“It’s a completely new team and we needed to be comfortable playing with one another,” Cook said. “With the new rules and us being [allowed] to work out a little with the coaches, I felt like it was important that I stay.”
The result has been a noticeable cohesiveness that has Duke fans excited about the potential of this year’s squad.
Cook is shooting 50 percent from the field and has scored in double figures in all but one game. He has had his moments of frustration—Cook said a Nov. 12 loss to Kansas stings the most—but even then, he said he’s learned to handle those situations in a different manner than the past.
“My attitude, my body language has changed,” Cook said. “It’s about me just having a poker face out there. I’m an emotional guy. I wear my emotions on my sleeves sometimes. Focusing on just having a poker face out there and having a strong look has been big.
“I know how I act can affect my teammates.”
Cook spent some of his summer working out with former Duke All-American point guard Nolan Smith (his god-brother) and former Indiana star Victor Oladipo, his best friend. Oladipo was the No. 2 pick in last summer’s NBA draft.
“Wanting to be where he is...that’s part of my motivation,” Cook said.
The Blue Devils don’t have any doubt that Cook can play at the next level, especially if he continues to perform as consistently as he has this season.
“He has something that a lot of people don’t have, and that’s his awareness as a point guard,” Hood said. “He sees things before they happen. He kinda sets me up in the right ways where I can be smart and not have to force things. He’s the best point guard in the country, in my opinion.”
Others haven’t always agreed.
Although the respect level is beginning to increase, in the past Cook has rarely seen his name on lists identifying the top point guards in the country. That seems peculiar considering the breakthrough season he had a year ago, but Cook insists the slights don’t bother him.
“I mean, I notice it,” Cook said. “On Twitter, when you check social media, when you go on websites or watch TV and guys don’t mention your name...I don’t take it personally. I use it as motivation in the gym. I don’t get mad or dislike a guy for not mentioning me.
“I’d rather just go out there and prove everyone wrong who doesn’t believe in me. I know my value to my team. My teammates know my value. Anyone outside the program who doesn’t appreciate my value, that’s their opinion. As long as my coaches and my teammates believe in me, that’s all I really care about.”
Such a response couldn’t make Quinn’s mother, Janet, any more proud.
Cook’s father, Ted, died of cardiac arrest when Cook was 13. Instead of letting the situation get the best of him, Cook used basketball as an outlet and a way to honor his dad. His high school coaches became the type of mentors and male role models Ted would’ve been, and Cook hung on their every word.
Krzyzewski took over that role when Cook, a McDonald’s All-American, arrived at Duke three years ago.
“I think Quinn just feels so fortunate, so blessed,” Janet Cook said Wednesday. “This isn’t just about basketball anymore. He’s learning life skills and how to be a better man.
“He understands that this is all so much bigger than him. He’s just glad to be a part of it and thankful he has the ability to contribute to something so big. He knows his role and he’s accepted it.”
Janet said she jokingly calls her son “Maximus”—the character from the movie Gladiator—because of his ability to persevere.
“He’s a fighter, a child of God,” Janet said. “He loves the Lord. He’s done a lot of soul searching and undergone a lot of spiritual growth to get to where he did today.”
Thursday’s game against UCLA will be especially meaningful for Cook. His mother grew up in New York—“It’s my city—me and Beyonce,” she joked—and regularly attended New York Knicks games at Madison Square Garden with Cook’s father before his passing.
Seeing her son compete in a historic arena with so many memories will be something she’ll never forget.
“It’ll be an OMG moment for me,” Janet said. “I’m just so proud of Quinn. This whole thing, his whole career...it’s been very surreal.”
And it’s not over yet.
Not even close.
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @JasonKingBR.