It was February when Nevada freshman Elijah Cooks got an unexpected call.
Nevada basketball coach Eric Musselman was short on bodies for his bench, so he reached out to football coach Jay Norvell for help. Turns out, Norvell knew two guys who would be perfect for the job — Justin Brent and Cooks, an Atascadero High School graduate, according to a story published Tuesday in the Reno Gazette-Journal. Both were basketball stars in high school who had recently displayed their skills for the football coaches in a five-on-five basketball tournament.
Now both players, along with the rest of the Wolfpack, are enjoying an improbable run to the Sweet 16 after pulling off a 22-point comeback to beat No. 2-seeded Cincinnati on Saturday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“I never in my life thought my coach would let me do this, missing all of winter conditioning, and we want to go on, so we could miss some spring ball,” Cooks told the Reno Gazette-Journal. “I was shocked he let us join the team.”
High school basketball fans on the Central Coast know Cooks can play.
The 6-foot-4, 210-pound point-forward filled up the stat sheet during the 2016-17 season, averaging 13 points, seven rebounds and five assists per game. In one game last season against Lompoc, Cooks had seven first-half dunks and 16 points.
Cooks thought he was headed for a college basketball career just like his older sister, who played at Washington State, until the football scholarship offers started rolling in from Fresno State, Wyoming and Nevada.
Cooks hasn't played in the two tournament wins for No. 7-seeded Nevada — and has played a total of four minutes in four regular season games since joining the team — but he appears to be enjoying his role as bench hype man. Cooks was easily spotted by friends and family celebrating on the sidelines during the overtime win over Texas in the first round and the improbable comeback against Cincinnati.
“My parents are tripping,” Cooks told the Reno Gazette-Journal (He could not be reached by The Tribune). “They see me on TV all the time and they’re shocked. They called me right after the (Cincinnati) game and my sister was crying. It was her dream and I’m doing it now.”
On the football field, Cooks had two catches for 23 yards his freshman season but is expected to see an increased role as he transitions from tight end, where he played at Atascadero High, to wide receiver.
But for now, Cooks and the Wolfpack are in Atlanta preparing to take on No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago, a game set for 4 p.m. Thursday. According to oddsmakers, Nevada is favored to advance to the Elite 8. If they do, there's no doubt college basketball fans will see Cooks celebrating in high definition.