Niyo: Oakland’s Hooper just keeps playing through the pain

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Max Hooper stretches for a loose ball during Oakland's loss on Monday night.

Detroit – Max Hooper was the first player on the court for pregame warmups Monday night.

He was the first to leave it after the game, too.

But this was the last thing anyone with Oakland’s basketball program wanted to see, or feel, when it was over, as an emotional weekend gave way to an empty reality late Monday night.

Actually, it was just past midnight when the clock ran out on Greg Kampe’s team, upended by Wright State, 59-55, in the semifinals of the Horizon League tournament at Joe Louis Arena. And for the Golden Grizzlies, the No. 2 seed in this revamped tourney, this was doubly depressing, as their dashed NCAA Tournament hopes on a de facto home floor were only part of the story Monday.

Hooper’s heartache was the other half of it, and a whole lot more important, as he’d crisscrossed the country in 24 hours following the death of his father, Chip, on Saturday after a four-year battle with brain cancer.

It’d been 10 days since Oakland last played a game, a 108-97 win over Detroit on Senior Night for the Grizzlies. And the lasting memory from that one – Hooper hugging his father, who’d been flown in from California on a private plane to see his son play one more time in person – was a keepsake, to be sure. The postgame scene of Max rushing up to find Chip, who was in an ambulance transport bed, unable to handle the pain of sitting up in a wheelchair, was as moving as it was genuine.

A week later, his father’s fight was over, though, and a grieving son was left to cope with the kind of conflicting emotions few will ever experience in life. He flew home to be with his family Sunday, with a return flight booked for the next morning so he could rejoin the team in time for Monday’s game.

"Who knows how you grieve?" Kampe said in a pregame interview with the university’s website. "I know that Chip and Max were joined at the hip and basketball was so important to him. I know Max and the family believes he needs to play because that's what Chip would have wanted. But how do you judge that?”

You don’t, of course. You just “do what you’ve got to do,” as Kampe put it, and trust it's the right thing.

'Play for Chip'

So that’s what they all did, the coach and the player and all his teammates, who flooded Hooper’s phone with messages of support, then vowed to “Play For Chip” – a promise that was scribbled on their sneakers as the took the court for practice Sunday and again Monday night.

Kampe has been a basketball coach for 38 years now, the last 32 as Oakland’s head coach, and he has dealt with just about every situation imaginable. But the death of a loved one “on the eve of the most important two days of the season,” well, even he admits he was at a loss as to how to deal with that.

“I’ve never been through anything like this,” said Kampe, the third-longest tenured coach in Division I basketball.

No one had, least of all Hooper, who’d chased his hoop dream from high school to prep school to three different colleges. Chip Hooper, a prominent and beloved recording agent in the music business, was diagnosed with cancer in 2011 when Max was a freshman at Harvard. But that only steeled his son’s resolve to make the most of his basketball career, moving on to St. John’s and then finally to Oakland, where he emerged as one of the nation’s best 3-point specialists the last two seasons.

Of the 234 shots Hooper took in games this season, not a single one was a 2-point attempt. His last one of those, in fact, came in February of last season against this same Wright State team. And yet Hooper still shot 45 percent from the field for Oakland, meaning only six players in the nation have made more 3-pointers than Hooper has as Kampe’s designated shooter.

And he was determined to make sure Monday night was no different, leading the Grizzlies out for warmups with a bounce in his step, quietly acknowledging the fan who held up a “Play For Chip” sign under the basket, and then huddling with his teammates as the crowd of 6,557 at Joe Louis Arena held a moment of silence in his father’s honor before the opening tip.

There was no emotional speech before the game, according to Kay Felder, the team’s dynamic point guard and the nation's fifth-leading scorer.

“He didn’t really say much,” Felder said. “But he didn’t have to say anything to us. We knew what he was going through.”

Hooper checked into the game for the first time with 15:07 to play in the first half and wasted little time in asserting himself. Only 18 seconds later, he curled off a double screen, took an inbounds pass from Felder, and drained a corner three in his first attempt of the night. The crowd erupted, well aware of the significance.

Lift from Hooper

But with the Grizzlies hibernating for much of the first half – the long layoff played a role, as did their opponents’ clock-draining possessions -- it was Hooper who provided a lift just before the break. He sidestepped a defender and then knocked down a shot from the opposite corner – right in front of the Wright State bench -- to cut a double-digit lead to 33-25.

He made it 3-for-3 a few minutes into the second half, hitting another contested three. And with Felder heating up – and the defense finally holding its own – the Joe Louis Arena crowd was on its feet when Hooper left his, diving for a loose ball and a steal as the Grizzlies reclaimed the lead.

But it’s a lead they couldn’t hold, as Felder struggled all night (5-for-19) and the nation’s highest-scoring team was held to a season-low point total. Afterward, they were left to lament all that went wrong in the final two minutes – a turnover, a defensive lapse, a missed free throw, and Felder’s final driving attempt that fell short off the rim. And the coach was left to try to sum it all up: the loss -- first Hooper's, and then his team's -- and what it meant.

“It was a tough, tough, tough last few days,” Kampe said. “And I can’t give Max enough credit for how he played tonight and what he did. I love the kid, man. The whole thing is, you just want to hug him. I feel terrible right now, and I’m sure all coaches do …

“But I probably feel terrible for a lot different reasons than they do. I feel bad for Max. I know how bad that he wanted to win, and get to the tournament for his dad and for his family.”

And while the NCAA hopes were shattered Monday, and probably the NIT, too, as Kampe noted given all the upsets elsewhere in college basketball, this team figures to get an invitation to play somewhere next week.

Kampe was asked about that following Monday’s loss, and he rattled off a few reasons why more games would be a benefit to his young team. But one stood out.

“Max wants to keep playing,” Kampe said.

And that’s all the reason any of them need.