OU's Hooper perseveres amid father's declining health

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Head coach Greg Kampe, right, talks with Max Hooper(10), during practice.

Rochester — It was an emotional night on many levels. It was Senior Night, for starters. Oakland had just beaten its rival, Detroit, for the second time this season. And in winning the regular-season finale, the Golden Grizzlies, after all the ups and downs over the course of this season, had clinched the No. 2 seed, and a double-bye, in the Horizon League tournament.

But all that, well, that was practically nothing for Max Hooper.

His dad was in the stands at the O'Rena, seeing him play for the first time in black and gold.

Cancer, which he's battled for years, and then a stroke suffered last October, had kept Chip Hooper from seeing any games at Oakland.

On Friday, Feb. 26, after the 108-97 victory during which Max Hooper had scored 12 points, Max was able to climb into the stands to hug his dad, who watched the game from a mobile hospital bed.

"An indescribable moment," said Max Hooper said, before a shoot-around on campus Friday, "that me, my sister, mom, and him will never forget anytime soon. What makes it so special is my basketball journey started with me and my dad.

"He's been there every step of the way.

"I can't even put into words how much that moment meant to me."

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For the sake of this story, Max Hooper, a senior sharp-shooter, agreed to try.

Hooper, whose basketball career has taken him from high school in California to Harvard to St. John's to, finally, Oakland, has become a national story this year for the fact he's not attempted a single shot inside the 3-point arc.

He's taken 229 shots, all of them 3-pointers. He's made 102.

But the narrative switched on Feb. 26, when fans and the TV cameras caught a glimpse of that heart-tugging embrace between dad and son. The Hoopers live back in California, and while Max and Chip talk after pretty much every game, Max hasn't been able to get home.

He laments the fact his sister, Valerie, 21, is back home and has to bear the brunt of their father's situation. But Max takes comfort knowing he's still doing his part.

"It's like a tribute to his dad," Oakland coach Greg Kampe said. "I think he believes every shot he makes gives his dad more life, gives his dad a smile. I think that's probably true."

Third time is a charm

Hooper's journey to Oakland was longer than most.

He attended high school at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California, and that's where Kampe first started recruiting him. Max Hooper, though, decided to do prep school for a year, at Brewster Academy, where he was valedictorian. Kampe kept on recruiting.

"We were persistent," Kampe said, laughing. "I will say that."

Harvard and Tommy Amaker came calling, however, and Max Hooper jumped at the chance to go to the Ivy League. That season, while Harvard made the NCAA Tournament, didn't go well as he rode the bench and played in only two games. Max Hooper decided to transfer.

Guess what? Kampe called again. And he lost again, when Max Hooper transferred to St. John's, which plays its home games at Madison Square Garden.

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Hard to pass that up, eh?

"That was a dream of mine," Hooper said.

While Hooper, 6-foot-6 and 201 pounds, played more there than at Harvard — one start in 25 games — he still felt his minutes didn't equal the work he had put forth. So, after earning a degree from St. John's, he decided to move on and play, still, somewhere else.

That's when Chip Hooper called Kampe, who happened to be losing a sharp-shooter, Travis Bader, to graduation.

Kampe's response: "I have a scholarship. I'm not recruiting him. You're not visiting a third time."

This time, Kampe finally got the girl, so to speak.

And, Max Hooper has a hard time not thinking that this is where he always belonged.

"I don't think 'regrets' is the word," Hooper said. "I'm happy I ended up here."

Last season, Hooper averaged 5.9 points — and, by the way, actually took eight 2-point shots.

This season, he's been one of several big contributors for an Oakland team that will start the Horizon League tournament in the semifinals, Monday night, against a to-be-determined opponent (maybe Detroit?) at Joe Louis Arena.

Kay Felder gets all the hype, and for good reason, given he's a player-of-the-year candidate, will all those points and assists.

But several transfers, including Hooper, have done more than their fair share, too.

"He's meant a lot to this team," Felder said. "His work ethic is unbelievable, he's a leader on this team.

"He doesn't say much, but when he does, it's something you should listen to."

Max Hooper, really, prefers to let his shots do the talking — all 3-point shots, mind you. Then again, when you're shooting 44.5 percent from the 3-point line, you probably shouldn't be taking any other kind of shots.

Max Hooper said he hasn't made a conscience effort to shoot only 3s. He points out, yes, he can dunk.

But he knows his role. Kampe's stressed over and over, shoot the 3, and by doing so, Hooper has helped Oakland average 87.3 points a game, tops in all the land.

"If he's got a chance to shoot a 2 to win the game, he'll shoot it," said Kampe, adding he hopes the 3-point streak lives all season. "I think that's pretty cool, something that will go with him the rest of his life.

"Look at the publicity it's gotten, not just for him, but for everybody else.

"In this day and age, publicity is good."

There in spirit

The 3-point streak could forever make Max Hooper a trivia question, for a game he's loved since age 4 — when Max and his dad were on a ski trip in Utah, and found themselves watching a Jazz game on the TV. They Jazz were blowing somebody out, Max remembers, and he declared them, at age 4, the best team in the game.

Chip Hooper, from Chicago, told him about a bald guy wearing No. 23 for the Bulls, who might've been better.

Sure enough, the Bulls beat the Jazz in back-to-back NBA Finals, in 1997 and '98.

"My dad was right," Max said, laughing.

And, a basketball bond was born. It took the two from grade school to AAU to searching for high schools, and beyond, with Chip Hooper always the dad who bought the Gatorade, despite his busy schedule as a power broker in the music industry. They then took every college visit together, including multiple ones to Oakland.

Chip Hooper and Kampe struck up a friendship from the get-go, a rarity in recruiting — especially a recruiting loss.

"Sometimes you recruit a kind, he goes away and you never see or hear from them," Kampe said. "And sometimes you strike it up really good with somebody."

Kampe and Chip Hooper talk on the phone often, and Chip Hooper always has exuded a boisterous personality.

That's why Kampe was surprised to see Chip Hooper, in person, in seemingly such poor shape last Friday.

Kampe said he looked at Max Hooper's eyes, and believes Max Hooper was just as surprised.

The embrace was touching, as Max Hooper made his way through the fans to find his dad — the dad who's been with Max Hooper every step of the way in this basketball journey, from one school, to another school, to this final school, where Max Hooper finally has found a home away from home.

Max Hooper had found out only hours earlier, at midnight, that dad was going to make the trip.

"When I was sleeping," Max Hooper said. "He woke me up. I was just so excited. ... Then the whole day leading up to the game, I was super pumped."

While that's the only game Chip Hooper has seen at Oakland, he catches every game, on TV or the radio.

And while Max Hooper says it's tough being so far away — and being so "out of the loop" regarding dad's health — he's been able to keep his focus on the basketball court, because that, in fact, is helping out back home.

"Basketball has always been a sanctuary of sorts," Max Hooper said. "That gives him fuel and that feeds his sport.

"Him being able to see me play is positive, and boosts his mood."