Perhaps more than any other in the 122-year history of Illinois high school basketball, the 2020-21 season presented student-athletes with a character-defining choice:
Dwell on the opportunities lost – a late start, reduced schedule, frequent quarantines, no state playoffs, mandatory masks, gymnasiums bereft of fans – because of the state’s efforts to contain the coronavirus, or instead make the most of those opportunities still presented to you.
It’s safe to say the Ottawa Pirates, led by The Times 2020-21 Boys Basketball Player of the Year Anthony Cooper, chose the latter.
“From August until we got the news we were going to be able to play, it was always bad news, negative news, the season was going to be moved back, stuff like that,” the Ottawa senior said. “You want to be out there, especially when it’s your senior season, so when we found out we would get to play, we were definitely excited.
“A lot of us wanted to win every single game, and we almost did. I felt like in years past with our group, sometimes we kind of looked past teams, and that’s why we lost to them. This year, every night we were locked in and ready to go.
“We only had 15 games. We didn’t want to have a bad night.”
The Pirates – especially Cooper – didn’t.
Ottawa posted a 14-1 record and claimed the outright Interstate 8 Conference championship, its only loss coming in its seventh game, a 55-46 road defeat against a solid Morris team in which Cooper led all scorers with 27 points. Over the course of the shortened season, the Pirates’ leader put up per-game averages of 23.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.3 steals.
“Whether creating for himself or his teammates or grabbing a contested rebound, sometimes when you’re the best player on a team you have to be able to [make those clutch plays], and Anthony did that a number of times for us this year. He was just very good.”— Ottawa boys basketball coach Mark Cooper
“One thing about Anthony: When we needed him to be at his best this year, he was,” said Pirates coach Mark Cooper, Anthony’s uncle and the brother of Ottawa athletic director Mike Cooper, Anthony’s father. “There were times in certain games where we needed the best player on the floor to be the best player on the floor, and he was.
“Whether creating for himself or his teammates or grabbing a contested rebound, sometimes when you’re the best player on a team you have to be able to [make those clutch plays], and Anthony did that a number of times for us this year.
“He was just very good.”
Perhaps more impressive than the raw numbers, however, is the relatively few touches Cooper required to accumulate them. Although the obvious focal point of the Ottawa offense – and opposing defenses – he did not require to be fed an enormous number of shots, finishing the season shooting 51.5% from the field, 41.7% from 3-point range and what is believed to be a school-record 88.9% from the free-throw line.
“I worked hard in the offseason and put on some muscle because I knew I was going to have to be the leader of the team ...” he said. “I always wanted to have a season like this one, and being able to do it was special for sure.
“I think I’m a versatile player, a scorer, and I think a pretty good rebounder, too. A lot of people just viewed me as a spot-up shooter [after the 2019-20 season], and that was motivation for me this year. I think I definitely showed I’m more than just a spot-up shooter.”
He’s awfully good at that too, however, and given a full season, Cooper almost certainly would have become the 15th player in Ottawa boys basketball’s long history to reach 1,000 career points.
“I always wanted to have a season like this one, and being able to do it was special for sure.”— Ottawa's Anthony Cooper, The Times 2020-21 Boys Basketball Player of the Year
Those personal accolades – or the other lost aspects of his senior season – aren’t something the Division III Augustana College signee tends to focus on.
“Anthony is such a humble kid and was well-respected by his teammates,” coach Cooper said. “They were very happy for the individual success he had, but Anthony was all about the team and doing what he needed to do for the team to be successful. ...
“With his uncle being the coach and his dad being the athletic director, things can get messy in a hurry. But with the way he handled everything and how humble he was, the situation worked out really well.”
“The reason I had this type of season was I had great teammates and great coaches who put the ball in my hands,” Anthony Cooper said. “When you have good guys around you, people can have a great season like this. ...
”Last year we had a few games where some of the teams in the conference blew us out, and that was a lot of motivation for us. We wanted to go out and be one of those great teams, and we won the only thing we could win this year – the conference. I really wish we could’ve had fans in the stands, won a regional or won our Christmas or Thanksgiving tournaments.
“But we’re definitely very grateful. A lot of people did a lot of things to allow us to play at all this year, a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff. For a while there, I didn’t think I’d get the opportunity to play my senior year. I grew up my whole life in Kingman Gym going with my dad, watching my uncle coach, watching John Carroll, McKe Tucker, Isaac Gassman, guys like that.
“I pretty much grew up in Ottawa High School watching those teams, and I wanted that opportunity. ... That I got it, it means a lot.”