Above: Coach Eric Cooper, right, has created a strong program at La Verne Lutheran High School with the help of his newphew C.J. Cooper, left, and son Eric Cooper Jr., right. (Leo Jarzomb)
By Fred J. Robledo Staff Writer
It’s probably safe to assume what the La Verne Lutheran High School boys basketball team did in coach Eric Cooper’s first season was one of the biggest turnarounds in CIF-Southern Section history. Before Cooper’s arrival in 2007, the Trojans were 7-12 and finished near the bottom of the Arrowhead League standings. A year later the Trojans won 28 consecutive games with an infusion of new talent to take the CIF-SS Division V-AA title and finished the season 29-1 after losing to Price in the state playoffs.
If someone gave an award for most improved, they could have given the Trojans the trophy after the first game. But naturally, the age-old assumption of illegal recruiting came with it and many wondered how a small school could load up on so much talent so quickly.
“That part always bothered me,” Cooper said of alleged wrongdoings. “I have a solid coaching background, have been respected everywhere I’ve been and then you hear that stuff.
“I had enemies when I never had enemies before. When people sit down and talk and listen to why I came and what we’re doing here, they understand pretty quickly that we’re here to give the kids a great education and give them them all the (basketball) knowledge and experience that our coaching staff brings.”
Last season Lutheran advanced to the CIF-SS Division V-AA finals, where it lost to Windward.
This season Lutheran beat Windward on a buzzer-beater by Bruce English to win the CIF-SS Division 5AA championship, its second title in three years.
The Trojans (26-8) now are a game away from competing for the CIF-State Division V championship with a rematch against Windward (26-8) in Saturday’s Southern California Regional final at Colony High at 3:15 p.m.
Cooper’s nephew, junior C.J. Cooper, has been part of all of it, arriving as a freshman and playing the biggest role in the turnaround, something that isn’t so unrealistic when a coach has a highly sought college recruit playing in a small high school division.
“I thought it would be great to put this school on the map,” C.J. Cooper said. “Playing for my uncle, now with my cousin, and guys I know, it’s been a dream.”
With a student enrollment generously listed at 155, the Trojans have become a Southland basketball powerhouse with a handful of players college scouts are drooling over, and that includes freshman Eric Cooper Jr., Cooper’s son.
Those wondering how the dynasty has been forming need look no further than the Cooper family.
“It’s not that complicated really,” Eric Cooper Sr. said. “This was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. It was the right time in my life to do this.”
A few years ago Cooper had no interest in high school coaching. He was playing professionally in Europe. He played at L.A. Banning, for Lute Olsen at Arizona and then overseas for nearly a decade.
Then he got into coaching as an ABA assistant to Scott Brooks, who now is head coach of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder. Cooper also was an assistant with the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA.
“You know what changed?” Cooper said. “My son (Eric) was growing up quickly and he was seeing me more on television than in person.
“Something was wrong with that picture. It didn’t sit right with me, so I made the decision to coach in (AAU) to be closer to him and also help with his development as a player.”
Cooper’s AAU teams took off. His Rising Stars of America team, sponsored by the Clippers’ Baron Davis, won the U-12 national championship in 2005, a team that C.J. Cooper played on.
“He played but he wasn’t much of a factor,” Cooper recalls. “It bothered him. He was my nephew and he wasn’t playing much.”
A short time later, Cooper recalled a conversation with C.J. that changed everything.
“He’s worked to become who he is,” Cooper said. “There was a day in the park when he asked me what he had to do to get better and I made a pact that I would give him all the knowledge and time that I could give him, but that he had to do everything his uncle says.
“If that meant working out eight hours a day and four and five hours a day during the summer, that’s what he had to do.
“My son (Eric) idolized him. He was going to do whatever C.J. did, so the both of them made that commitment and I made it to them. That was before C.J.’s eighth-grade year. By the time he was a freshman, he was one of the best (in the country) in his age group.” C.J. Cooper attended small private elementary schools, so when it was time to enroll in high school he and some of his friends in AAU decided to enroll at Lutheran, which at the time had big plans of building a state-of-the-art gym, which never materialized.
“When they were making that decision (to attend Lutheran) I was in China, something I had done for years, taking teams on tour there,” Cooper said. “When I found out Lutheran didn’t have a coach the summer before C.J.’s freshman year, I inquired about it. I talked to the athletic director, I talked to CIF to find out what the guidelines were because I had been coaching in AAU.
“Once we worked everything out I thought what a great situation. I’m coaching my nephew and can coach my son when he gets here.”
Not just that, Cooper’s background in professional sports and reputation on the youth circuit prompted several more standout players to enroll, such as English and 6-foot-8 sophomore Grant Jerrett.
“Mostly everyone who came here started as freshman,” Cooper said. “I’m coaching my nephew, my son and whoever else comes along for the ride. “What you have are parents and players that realize I have a lot of professional head coaching experience and a ton of knowledge that I want to share. If you play for me, I’m going to give you everything I’ve got, which is why you’ve seen the players we have come here.”
C.J. Cooper averages 15 points and Jerrett 18 to lead the Trojans. Both are being heavily recruited.
Eric Cooper Jr., a 6-foot-2 guard, is averaging 7.0 points per game because of a sore knee. UCLA coach Ben Howland already has watched him play and his father said his son probably will get scholarship offers from several schools.
“What you have to understand is this just doesn’t happen,” Cooper said. “These kids work extremely hard in school and practice. They’re honing their game and doing their school work every day.
“That’s the price you have to pay. A lot of players have talent, but you have to be willing to pay the price to take the next step and that’s what they’ve done. That’s what everyone on this team does. They put in the work. We demand it and they do it.”
Cooper is hoping the negative stigma that surrounds the Trojans’ success some day will go away, but he realizes it probably won’t, a stigma that schools such as Mater Dei have dealt with for decades.
During Lutheran’s championship runs it has never been flagged by the CIF-SS for illegal recruiting or had a player declared ineligible for athletically motivated reasons. Yet the perception remains.
“I guess it’s going to be there,” Cooper said. “All we can do is play basketball.”
With a state title appearance a game away, his focus is where it always has been, on his team and its players.
“It’s the next step,” Cooper said. “These guys have earned the right to have this opportunity. Who wouldn’t want to cap their season with a state title?”
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