TUCSON, Ariz. — If the idea of finding a lost puppy tugs at your heart, the sight of Anthony Cook in a basketball uniform a year ago would probably have caused uncontrollable sobbing.
In 1985, when Cook weighed in for the beginning of his freshman basketball season at the University of Arizona, he tipped the scales at 175 pounds. What would be a little light for a 6-2 point guard is ridiculously scrawny for a 6-9 "power" forward like Cook.
His new teammates immediately gave him the nickname Manute Cook (not to be confused with a short-order cook) after the Washington Bullets 7-7 beanpole center.
"We'd make all kinds of jokes," said Sean Elliott, who was also a freshman. "We'd say, 'Anthony, you go down low and we'll throw up a lob for you. They'll never stop it. When you turn sideways to get the pass, no one will be able to see you.' "
But to Coach Lute Olson, Cook's physique was no laughing matter. Olson realized he could see practically every bone on Cook's upper torso. The coach originally wanted to cover him with a redshirt and give him a year on the Tommy Lasorda diet for knobby-kneed teen-agers.
"He was getting pushed around a little," Olson said, trying to be diplomatic, "and because of his lack of strength we thought it might be best to give him another year to mature."
But by the time the season started, Cook had not only earned a spot on the roster, but was getting a lot of playing time. By the eighth game, he was a starter.
"When it got down to the nitty gritty of game preparation, it became obvious we were going to be counting on him," Olson said. "He made good progress and the more we saw of him, the better we liked him."
Cook has always been a little deceptive because people concentrate on his frail frame rather than just how far his bony body can stretch. Standing flat-footed with his arms skyward, Cook measures 9-foot-2. Better still, he was an outstanding high school high jumper.
"I have a picture of Anthony hanging in my office," said Jeff Halpern, who coached Cook at Van Nuys High. "Kids come in and are in awe of a person getting that high off the ground."
At Van Nuys, Cook gained notoriety as a spectacular dunk artist. "Left-handed, right-handed, two-handed, reverse, he did it all," said Halpern, who is now coach at Birmingham High. "He brought down the house. It's not very often you see a high school player do the kinds of things Anthony could do."
Cook has switched gears since coming to Arizona. Defense is now his forte. He is averaging a modest 9.6 points and 7.1 rebounds a game this season, but the same attributes that enabled him to average 22 points and 14.3 rebounds at Van Nuys have helped him become one of the best shot blockers in college basketball. As a freshman, Cook had 50 blocks. This season, he has broken his school record with 61.
"I came in and worked on my defense while the other guys concentrated on scoring," Cook explained. "Defense is the way to Coach's heart. He always stresses that you can score 40 points, but it's defense that wins games."
Olson says the value of Cook's defensive skills extends well beyond his number of blocked shots.
"In our defense, it is extremely important for our big guys to get out and pressure perimeter shooters," Olson said. "A.C.'s work that way has been vital, especially this year with the three-point line.
"With his quickness and long arms he's able to make shooters hesitate on the outside and often times make them fake the shot, giving the rest of our defense an extra split second to recover and get in position."
When Cook was a freshman, his defense helped Arizona win the Pac-10 title after it was picked to finish eighth in a preseason vote of conference coaches. This season, the Wildcats (18-10, 13-5 in conference) finished second behind UCLA during the regular season. Arizona will play Oregon tonight at Pauley Pavilion in the second round of the inaugural Pac-10 tournament.
Cook led Arizona in scoring through the first seven games of this season, but his point and rebounding production fell late in the season. This doesn't seem to bother either player or coach, however.
"We have certain guys who score," Cook said. "That's just not my role. Trying to shoot more just to get my average up would disrupt the balance of the team."
Olson says Cook was not purposefully made a defensive specialist.
"I think in his next two years Anthony could develop into a real factor offensively as well," he said. "He has good touch and a good feel for the game."
The only thing holding Anthony Cook back from being a dominant scorer, according to Olson, is Anthony Cook.
"A.C.'s one detriment is that he is not a gym rat," Olson said. "If you look at the top offensive players, almost all of them have one thing in common: They're gym rats. If they have 15 spare minutes, they're going to find a ball and a basket and go to work. That's not something that happens with A.C.
"If he gets turned on enough to recognize that he can have a great future in basketball, and he is willing to put the time in, then I think he could score from 15 to 18 points a game."
Elliott, Cook's roommate and Arizona's top scorer, says he has tried to coax his friend in the right direction. "When 9 o'clock comes around and study period ends," Elliott said, "Steve Kerr is out there shooting his 200 to 300 jumpers and Anthony is headed for home."
Cook says academics take up a lot of his spare time. "If my time has to be geared more toward studying than basketball, then that's the way it has to be," he said.
"Anthony is very into the academic part of school," Halpern said. "He was very proud of his grade-point average in high school (3.2). He enjoys basketball, but academics is important to him."
Cook is hoping that his GPA will rise as fast as his weight. He is up to 197 pounds, although his body-fat count is still about the same as the number he wears: 00.