On the second-to-last day of Paul Cook’s life, two of his friends and his wife began talking about what made Cook so successful as a basketball coach over more than half a century.
The consensus: competitiveness.
“Boy he hated to lose,” longtime friend and colleague George Fox said Wednesday, the day after Cook died at the age 89 at his home on Lansing’s east side. “He hated to lose, and I picked that up from him. I think that separated him.”
Hate is an ironic term to use in taking about a man who loved so much — both gently and fiercely — and was loved by so many.
Cook coached high school basketball in seven different decades, from the 1940s to the 2000s, most notably the Lansing Eastern boys and Lansing Catholic girls, both of whom he guided to state championships.
He was a husband for 68 years, a father to 13 children, a grandfather and great-grandfather.
“Every one of them had their own relationship with him,” Cook’s son, Joe, said Wednesday. “Everyone of them felt like they were special.”
No one was more special to Cook than his wife, Mary Ellen.
“The last thing my mother said (Tuesday) night to people (gathering at their home), they were together 71 years, and he never said an unkind word to her,” Joe said.
Cook’s coaching career began weeks after they were married in August of 1948, at St. Johns High School in Jackson, which later became Jackson Lumen Christi. He might have stayed there forever if the parish had given him a raise, Joe said.
Instead, he became a Lansing icon and treasure, coaching kids born into the Great Depression and those who barely knew life without home Internet. Thousands more experienced his summer basketball camps.
“He wasn’t one of those coaches that screamed and hollered all the time, but you always wanted to work hard for him,” said Jim Lynch, who was a member of the 1980 Eastern High School state championship team. “He had that magic to really get the best out of everybody and get everybody to play together with their strengths.”
Cook won 828 games in his coaching career — compiling a 639-245 record as a boys coach from the late 1940s until 1991. He began in Lansing at Resurrection High School in 1953, then moved to Gabriels in 1962. Gabriels became Lansing Catholic just before Cook took over in 1973 at Eastern, where he’d spend the next two decades. He then coached the Lansing Catholic girls from 1993 to 2002, winning his second state title in 1995.
“Paul is one of the finest coaches that I’ve ever associated with,” said former Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote, who recruited several of Cook’s players, including Jay and Sam Vincent, both of whom played at MSU.
“I think he really loved the role of not only coaching basketball, but being a life coach,” Sam Vincent said. “He really tried to get guys good information and really tried to make guys better and was just very, very positive. I thought he did a really great job during the times I was there and I know (my brother) Jay felt the same way. He was just an exceptional coach.”
“He made adjustments to the style of the game. That’s important,” said Dr. Charles Tucker, who used to speak at Cook’s basketball camps and vice versa. “When you’re coaching you have to adjust sometimes to the climate, to the culture and to the time when you’re coaching. He was able to manage (different eras and genders).”
He did, in part, because his basketball teachings were laced with fundamentals.
“I tell you what, he was old-school,” said Doug Herner, who coached against him at Lansing Sexton from 1964 to ’84. “He was extremely fundamental based. His guys were tough to play. It wasn’t complicated, but it was fundamentally sound and always a battle.
“Even before the Vincents and the Greg Lloyds, Paul changed Eastern basketball. They really were not much of a power before Paul got there in the early ’70s. And of course, after a couple, three years there, it didn’t take him long to turn them into one of the top programs in the state.
Herner first met Cook in the late 1950s, when Herner was playing at Sexton and Cook was coaching at Resurrection.
“He used to come watch practices. I remember growing up watching his teams play at Resurrection,” Herner said. “ … We lost one of the pillars of the profession. That’s how I’ll remember him.”
Fox, who worked for Cook briefly at Resurrection, met him even earlier, when Cook was still coaching in Jackson and Fox was playing at Fowler High School in 1952.
They later coached against each other in games between O’Rafferty and Resurrection high schools and then in epic battles between Lansing Everett and Eastern — including those featuring Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Jay Vincent in the late ’70s.
“He wanted to win in the worst way,” Fox said.
Fox and Cook entered the Greater Lansing Sports Hall of Fame together in 1988. Twenty-six years later, Cook’s 1980 Eastern and 1995 Lansing Catholic state title teams were inducted during a memorable night in 2014.
“He spoke to the teams and did a great job,” Hall of Fame director Bob Every said. “It was like he was born again that night. I’m so glad that we had an opportunity to do it. The timing was great, obviously, because he’s no longer with us now. I would have hated to miss that boat.
“He was a great guy. He’s going to be missed.”
Contact Graham Couch at email@example.com and Brian Calloway at firstname.lastname@example.org.