At only 22 games played, former St. John's point guard Cook’s NBA career lasted about as long as John Wall fast break.
What many people may not know is that Cook shares a distinction with NBA all stars such as Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Kyrie Irving. He and the other players on this list are former McDonald’s All-Americans who turned pro after one year of college.
However, unlike those players, Cook’s basketball career has been a rockier journey, even if it has landed on the shores of the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas.
Talk to an older New York basketball fan and you will hear that the former Christ the King standout is a legend, basketball royalty. He is mentioned in the same sentence as Stephon Marbury, Lance Stephenson, and Kemba Walker as one of the great guards of New York's past 20 years.
Fifteen years ago Cook, along with New York guards, Andre Barrett and Taliek Brown were New York’s "Big Three" or "Holy Trinity," the best group of players to come out of New York in years. While Brown and Barrett chose to play out of state (but nearby - at Connecticut and Seton Hall, respectively), Cook decided to stay at home and play for Mike Jarvis at St. John’s.
Staying home only increased the hype surrounding Omar Cook, who came to a Red Storm team off of a second-round loss in the NCAA Tournament behind guards Erick Barkley, Bootsy Thornton and Lavor Postell.
During Cook’s only year at St. John’s the team struggled to a 14-15 record, despite Cook posting great numbers for a freshman. He led the team in scoring with 15.3 ppg, finished second in the country in assists 8.7 assists, while making the Big East all-rookie team.
Cook delivered 17 assists in a win over Stony Brook, one better than the previous record, which had been held by Mark Jackson in 1986. But the despite Cook's flashy skills, the team went from ranked in the top-25 to a losing record, while leaning on freshman Cook, two other hyped freshmen in Kyle Cuffe and Willie Shaw, and sophomores Anthony Glover and Alpha Bangura; the lone senior was Reggie Jessie.
The rocky beginning of Omar Cook's pro career
What came next shocked many observers. In May of 2001, Cook decided to enter the NBA draft, a move that shocked his coach Mike Jarvis and many scouts. Everyone knew that Cook had the playmaking ability, but his shot needed a lot of work. He had only shot 36% from the field at St. John’s.
Looking back on the decision now, Cook even admits that the one year of college didn’t prepare him for the NBA.
"[Asking if] St. John's prepared me for the next level is a tough question because I didn't stay there long. One year and out. I had to learn the ropes during my early pro career," Cook told the Rumble.
On the day of the NBA draft, Cook waited until the 31st pick to get drafted into the NBA by the Orlando Magic. Before the draft, there was talk that Cook could be the first point guard off the board. It was a huge disappointment when Raul Lopez from Spain was selected as the first point guard with the 24th pick.
Nothing is guaranteed in the NBA - especially for a second round pick. After getting drafted by the Magic, Cook was immediately traded to the Nuggets. The Nuggets cut Cook from the team because they questioned his shot making ability. There were inquiries from NBA teams, but none signed him.
The next three years for Omar Cook were spent in the NBA D-League, playing for the Fayetteville Patriots. North Carolina was a far cry from the Mecca of Basketball he grew up in. Cook was making $27,000 a year, not exactly the luxury lifestyle that many young players have imagined for themselves.
There were inquiries from teams, again, but no concrete contract offers came.
Finally, in February 2004 Cook got the call he was waiting for from the Trail Blazers. He made the team and his dream of playing in the NBA became reality.
As a 15th man on a NBA roster his opportunities were limited. Cook only played in 17 games for the Blazers and apparently did not show enough to warrant a roster spot, as he was cut after the following training camp.
In 2005 Cook got another chance with the Toronto Raptors when they signed him to a 10 day contract. He may have not realized it then, but 2005 would appear to be the end of Cook’s brief NBA career. He played in just five games with the Raptors and did not impress the team enough to receive a contract for the subsequent season.
The next chapter, successful across the Atlantic
It was clear for Cook the next chapter in his basketball career wasn’t going to be on this continent, it was going to be in Europe. At 24 years old Cook moved to Europe in order to keep his dream of playing basketball alive.
The first stop was Dexia Mons-Hainaut, a club in Belgium’s top basketball league. He would later go on to play for eight other teams all over Europe, most recently suiting up for the Lithuanian club Lietuvos Rytas, leading the team with 6.7 assists per game. In that span Cook led the league in assists twice and won the FIBA EuroCup Challenge in 2007.
Cook described his initial adjustment to a foreign country and a different style of play as difficult. "At first it can be hard. Two practices a day sometimes and bad travel. I've been lucky. My family goes with me. That makes it a lot easier. And I've been blessed for the most part to have played for some great teams," Cook said.
This year Omar Cook will suit up for his his tenth season in the Euroleague and possibly his eleventh different club. In that time Cook has turned into one of the better players in Europe. He attributes this to his selflessness on the court.
"A lot of the time [Americans playing] in Europe think you have to be a great scorer. However, all teams care about is winning. That and being a leader is most important. I've been successful doing those things," Cook said.
Cook might be one of the best and steadiest players in Europe; that does not mean he hasn’t received criticism from Europe’s historically raucous fans.
"Fans can be a bit crazy. Most teams who have soccer teams have crazy fans. I've been spit at before and it definitely can get out of control. But they love their teams. It can be great to play in front of fans like that, home or away," Cook said.
Besides having the opportunity to play basketball for a living - even if abroad - Cook has had the opportunity to see the world.
"In Europe I get to see a lot of different countries," he said. "My passport is filled up. I enjoyed Milan, Italy a lot and Malaga, Spain. In Milan the food was great and there were a lot of things to do. In Malaga the weather was amazing."
Looking back on NYC, the Mecca, and his past
Cook may have spent the last decade in Europe, but he still has a soft spot for New York. Cook has played in New York’s vibrant summer league circuit and could be seen this summer at Nike Pro City at Baruch College, where his team lost to Malik Boothe's team in the championship game of the summer league. He enjoys playing indoors because the hard floors of blacktop haven’t been kind to him as he has gotten older.
Cook also had something to say about a recent Grantland article that said New York was no longer the "Mecca of Basketball."
"I think overall the game is different everywhere," Cook mused. "Too much media, too much Internet, and too much hype. But NYC is the mecca. It will always be the Mecca."
New York’s basketball image has slipped and Cook believes that his former college could be instrumental in repairing its image. "I follow St. John’s, [and] think Coach Lavin is doing a okay job. I think former St. John’s players including myself need to stick together like [Duke, Kentucky, UNC]. We need to get more New York city guys to stay home. I hope I can do a better job of that and I hope other players are open to the idea with me," Cook said.
It has now become commonplace for players to go pro after their first year of college, especially since the NBA's age restriction keeps players from going straight into the NBA Draft. The top four selected players in this year’s draft were all "one and dones."
In addition, high school players are beginning to consider skipping college altogether and playing overseas. In a bombshell move, the nation’s top point guard prospect, Emmanuel Mudiay, chose to play in China instead of attending Southern Methodist.
Cook has advice for other players considering this path.
"Everyone is different. You have to live with your decision and be ready to handle the outcome of the decision you make," Cook said.
"Maybe one more year could have helped me. But I've had a great career and a great life. So I'm happy with how things have happened."
Many people will view Omar Cook’s decision as a blunder, one that ultimately doomed a promising NBA career, but Cook has no regrets.