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ON THE PREP PATH

Undersized Center Puts Teeth Into Western's Style

January 22, 1992|BARBIE LUDOVISE

Here's the situation: You're playing basketball. There's a loose ball. You dive for it. Pow! An elbow slams you in the mouth. You open your eyes in time to see your two front teeth bouncing across the gym floor. The pain is unbelievable. You want to die.

Do you:

A) Try to convince yourself that a life of oatmeal and applesauce is a life worth living?

B) Hope the tooth fairy's rates have gone up since you were a kid?

C) Lie there like a man but cry like a baby?

D) Jump to your feet and keep playing?

If you're Josh Cook, Western High School's junior center, you don't consider the alternatives. You get up and play.

It happened Friday night during the Western-Savanna game. Cook collided with Savanna's Marlon Watson. Watson connected with Cook's mouth. Cook's two front teeth went flying.

We go to Western Coach Greg Hoffman for the rest of the story.

"I look up and Josh's head's snapped back," Hoffman says. "I see this look on his face. It's excruciating. I'm like 'Hey! Ref! Ref! The kid's face is gone!' Josh didn't stop. He got up. He scooped up one tooth with one hand, and was running downcourt, playing defense with his other hand.

"I'm yelling at the ref, 'The kid's lost his teeth! The kid's lost his teeth!' Finally, they called an official's timeout and everyone's scurrying around the floor, looking for the other tooth. Lo and behold, there it was, sitting there on the baseline.

"But Josh didn't even want to be taken out of the game. Any other human would've been flat out on his back with an ice pack on his head. But there he is, fishing around for his teeth as if nothing's wrong. . . . If anyone epitomizes basketball at Western High School, it's Josh."

And not only because he's tenacious. Like many Western players before him, Cook is not blessed physically. At 5 feet 10--5-10 1/2 on days he uses extra mousse--he is one of the shortest centers in the county. Hoffman gave him the nickname "Barney Rubble" at the season's beginning. But Bam-Bam would be more like it.

Most of the time, Cook is playing against centers six to eight inches taller. He sets his sights high, of course, but what choice do you have when you're eye to eye with your opponent's Adam's apple?

"When the season started, I gave Josh two choices," Hoffman says. "He could play center--or not play at all. It was that simple."

Simple because Hoffman, Orange County's version of Bobby Knight, runs what he calls the Indiana motion offense and Cook is the key to its success. He sets picks, takes charges and generally makes life as miserable as he can for opponents.

And most of the time, he succeeds.

It doesn't matter that he averages four points a game. Or less than three rebounds. Or shoots 55% from the floor, 57% from the line. Cook manages to make the important plays when it counts, Hoffman says.

Just like Friday night.

With Western trailing, 67-66, with 1:15 left, Cook stole the ball from Savanna's Tobie Priest, was fouled and made the first of two free throws to tie the score. Western went on to win, 75-71, on Chris Jackson's six points in overtime, but Hoffman points to Cook's steal and free throw as if they were the game's biggest moments.

"In high school, you don't have to have big huge guys to be successful," Hoffman says. "You need guys with heart. And Josh is one big heart.

"He can't shoot the ball beyond two feet. He isn't tall. He isn't quick. He isn't athletic. But he sets screens, he steps in front of these big monsters to take a charge, he dives all over the court, he'll do anything--anything--for this team."

At this, Cook shrugs. Asked why he continued playing when his teeth were scattered around the gym, he simply says, "I wanted to win."

But maybe it's because he's used to it. The same two teeth were knocked out last year in a junior varsity game, and about 10 years ago during a skateboard crash. Now he sports a big blue mouth guard to keep what's left of his teeth intact.

The mouth guard must help, especially in practice when Hoffman makes the players go through diving drills. The players line up in twos, Hoffman rolls a ball down the court and screams, "Go!" The players dive for the ball, and the first one to it wins.

The scene is symbolic of Western's hard-driving, high-flying intensity. So is the banner hanging above the school's gym.

"It's not the size of your body that counts," it reads. "It's the size of your heart."

As if Cook, or any of the Pioneers, needed to be reminded.

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