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Friends' Central, Pitt alum Mike Cook takes reins at alma mater

05/13/2021, 3:00pm EDT
By Kevin Cooney

Kevin Cooney (@KevinCooney)

It certainly didn’t feel like it at the time. But Mike Cook said that one of the best moments for his personal growth occurred at one of the toughest moments of his basketball career.

That’s when the Friends Central graduate — in his fifth year senior season at Pittsburgh — tore his medial collateral ligament during a game at Madison Square Garden against Duke back in 2007. That moment, followed by a denial by the NCAA of an extra medical redshirt year, caused his NBA hopes to fade away.

Mike Cook watches during a Friends' Central game

Mike Cook (above, last season) will be taking over the head coaching job at Friends' Central. (Photo courtesy Friends' Central)

“Some people look at me sideways when I look at it that way,” Cook said. “The injury was a blessing. I had to refocus. It forced me to look at things completely different- even when I went over to Europe and was trying to get back in the eyes of the NBA, it forced me to build relationships within the game and make sure that I wasn’t wasting one single moment.”

There’s not a moment now for Cook to waste. The 37-year-old was named the head coach at his alma mater last week and will take over for Jason Polykoff, who had returned for two years after coaching in the college ranks at both Penn and Earlham (Ind.) but stepped aside to spend more time with his family.

“I’m excited for the opportunities that we’ve got here,” Cook said. “The Friends School League is an extremely competitive league.”

The Phoenix went 3-2 during an abbreviated 2020-21 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They graduate a solid group of seniors, led by Penn commit Ed Holland III. But Cook has a solid young group to build around, including a strong 2024 class that includes 6-5 Isaac Moore, 6-3 Fazl Oshodi and 5-11 Reid Belcher.

Cook is looking forward to a more normal off-season for preparations, followed by a return to a normal looking 2021-22 campaign. “I’m hoping that we can find a way to make it work for these kids,” Cook said. “I think it will happen, but I’m hoping for it as well.”

Cook (above) was a standout at FCS before playing at East Carolina and Pitt. (Photo courtesy Friends' Central)

Cook’s coaching style has been highly shaped by the lessons he learned when he was at Pitt under head coach Jamie Dixon, who is now at TCU. Those Panthers teams –– a continuation of the Ben Howland era –– saw Pitt focus mainly on one end of the floor.

“I want to focus on defense,” Cook said. “A big part of our success at Pitt was based on defense, defense, defense and the opportunities that it helped create at the other end of the floor. I want to have the kids excited to play defense. But I’m also coaching to base my coaching on my players ability and play to the strengths that they’ve had.”

Friends Central has been a highly successful program that has a history of sending players like Cook to Division I programs. Hakim Warrick, Mustafa ShakurAmile Jefferson and DeAndre Hunter have all played major roles at Syracuse, Arizona, Duke and Virginia respectively before heading to the NBA. Warrick, Jefferson and Hunter all went on to win NCAA titles in college.

And yet, in the Philadelphia high school basketball landscape, the Friends School League and Friends Central can get lost in the shuffle because they are not in the PIAA and perhaps don’t get the attention that leagues like the Catholic League, Suburban One League or the Ches-Mont can receive in media circles.

Recently, the league has been dominated by the Westtown School, which under Seth Berger has become a national-level program with NBA players Cameron Reddish (Duke), Mohamed Bamba (Texas) and several other high-level alumni wearing Moose uniforms the last decade. Westtown’s won the last seven FSL titles, a run starting in 2014 (the league didn’t have a postseason this year).

But the push is on to compete, and Cook isn’t the only notable hire in the league of late. George School’s second-year head coach Ben Luber has put together a talented coaching staff and has brought in some high-level transfers, including rising junior forward Kachi Nzeh, and Shipley just hired former Villanova standout and NBA guard Alvin Williams to run its boys’ programs.

“I think one thing that college coaches understand is the level of play that we have here,” Cook said. “They know the caliber of players that we have in this league. They know the style of play we have here and they know how competitive players have become when they leave here and play in their programs. What I want for our guys is to have the best experience and the best opportunity possible when they are here. That’s my job as a coach and that’s what I want to provide.”

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