By Emilie Medland-Marchen, August 30 2016 —
It was a historic moment for the Dinos men’s basketball team. After securing the Canada West title, the Dinos played their way to the CIS championship finals for the first time since 1966. Losing to the six-time champion Carleton Ravens in the final game of the season was heartbreaking — especially for powerhouse guard Thomas Cooper, who was named to the tournament All-Star team after the game. Cooper’s leadership helped push the Dinos to one of the top spots in Canada last year, and he returns to the Dinos poised to take the CIS crown. The Gauntlet sat down with Cooper to talk about his approach to the season and his hopes for the upcoming year.
The Gauntlet: First of all, can we talk about the success of the team last season? Canada West Champions, you made it all the way to the CIS finals. What was that like for the team?
Thomas Cooper: I think it’s going to help change the culture around here. It was a huge, historic season. We just went out there and we had fun every day. And I think now the guys see that mindset where [we know] we can compete with anybody. So, hopefully this year we will pick up on that mindset, not just once in a while, but every day from start to finish. If we do [there] will be a good future to come around here.
G: When was the moment last season when you stepped back and realized, “Wow, we could actually win this title?”
C: I would say Trinity Western. [It was] a January trip. We went in and we beat them by 40 plus and maybe six guys scored double digits. The next night we came out and we beat them by 50 plus and six guys scored double digits again. That weekend I felt like everybody started believing in themselves and we started believing in each other. That was the weekend I knew we could do anything.
G: And how did that change the dynamic of the team, knowing that this was something that was possible for you guys?
C: I think it made everybody closer. I started hanging with people on the team more, whereas in the past, teams can be kind of “posse up” sometimes. The winning, the good attitude, the optimism, all that stuff — it creates friendship and team chemistry that made us even more powerful against our opponents, especially when we faced adversity. It was great, the way we grew together.
G: In that final game your opponents were the six-time champion Carleton Ravens, so pretty tough to beat. What were your thoughts during the game?
C: It was an unreal game. It didn’t feel like a national championship the way it went. The Canada West felt like more of a championship than the CIS one. I think people get caught up in the hype. Carleton, they are like a dynasty, right? It doesn’t matter though, we can’t worry about them. We didn’t play every game this season, we didn’t practice at 6:00 a.m., we didn’t practice twice a day to get scared against Carleton. But I think everybody got caught up in that hype. Now that we got that experience of actually being there we’ll know what it takes to get there. Anybody can be beat. So I think we won’t worry about them this year at all. We’ll just play one game at a time.
G: You came to Calgary to play basketball from the United States. What made you decide to come here?
C: It was just the best ride for me. Coach Dan [Vanhooren] — he was great. He stuck with me for a long time. He let me battle it out and figure out my problems that I was having before in my past life. He just kept faith in me the whole time. I felt like I could have easily went to anywhere and immediately been placed on a bench. Dan trusted me to help our team. I think that is big for me — just the loyalty he showed me. The fans are great, the atmosphere is great, the students are great, the social media is great — the school, they show us so much love all the time. Everything is great here. The people love it. I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else, to be honest with you.
G: What do you think makes the Dinos program so successful compared to other programs across Canada?
C: I think the city, to be honest. The city is underrated. It’s an attractive place to be. I feel that stuff like that is so important for having success in a school program or even a professional program, whatever it is. Because you are not always going to be at school, you are not always going to be playing your sport. You’re not always going to be around the same environment. I think when people get out they see it is a beautiful place. The people here are nice, they’re friendly. You create so many friendships here. There’s opportunity here.
G: In events like Pack the Jack when hundreds of students come out to watch you play, how does that affect your performance? Is it any different playing huge games like that?
C: [At] Pack the Jack I was just living in the moment. I [played my best] in that game. I do the same routine every game. I prepare ahead of time. I wake up, I do what I do, whatever I have planned. I listen to my music, I don’t turn my phone on. I get really in tune for a game — I take them really seriously. Nothing changes, I just stay the course.
The crowds are great. It is something I grew up with in my life so I think it’s great, it’s amazing just to see the people come out. Even the stuff that they do — I’m not sure what goes on at halftime but I’m sure it’s something cool. The swimmers that they had, the distractions, all that stuff is unreal. Just the time and effort they put into it just for one night just for us, it’s lovely, it’s beautiful.
When we go out for a tip-off, it’s the same thing no matter if there are zero people there or 3,000. We just play the same way no matter what.
G: What are your goals and hopes for the upcoming season? What is the team aiming for this year?
C: National Championship, that’s the number one, always. I want to be able to leave here with people saying, “They almost got it, then they came back and got it.” That would make it even more memorable for me to lose the first one then come back and win the second one. It would be easy for us to say, “Hey we made it this far, first National Championship in 50 years — nobody is ever going to do this again in Calgary, nobody has ever done this before.” Just coming back here and winning it, actually winning it — that would define who we are.