The move was meant to be dynamic but quickly turned disastrous instead.
In Tyner's second game of the basketball season, 6-foot-4 senior wing Thomas Cooper thought he had an open lane to the basket and left the floor intending to rattle the rim with a dunk. But a Lausanne High defender collided with Cooper, sending him crashing to the court, the impact breaking his left fibula and dislocating his left ankle.
"I never saw him," Cooper said. "He came out of nowhere. I landed on my stomach but really didn't feel any pain until I rolled over and tried to get up."
A North Carolina A&T signee, Cooper had led the Rams' scoring in their first game and scored the first seven points against Lausanne. Cooper grew up in Chattanooga dreaming of winning a state championship. After moving in with his father in North Carolina three years ago, he returned here last summer to live with his mom and looked to be the final piece of a championship puzzle at Tyner.
On a team with 6-9 Connecticut signee Michael Bradley, as well as 6-6 college prospect Reggie Gilmore and point guard Travis Jones, who is one of the city's top overall athletes, Cooper's ability to drive the lane for an emphatic finish or pull up with deft outside touch made him the one his teammates looked to provide the big play.
Since the injury he could have been forgotten, a lanky kid in street clothes and a walking boot at the end of the bench.
"The low point was right around Christmas," Cooper said. "I had just had surgery and wasn't sure if I would be back. I couldn't go to school or practice, and I was pretty down. But I just decided I was still part of this team and they needed me. I came back to practice as soon as I could, and every game I'm there to encourage the guys."
With Cooper yelling support from the bench, rather than on the floor, the Rams picked up steam as the season progressed. They won the District 6-AA regular-season and tournament championships, then claimed the Region 3-AA title Thursday night with their third win over rival Howard this season.
"It would have been real easy for him to pout or ask, 'Why me?'" Tyner coach Gerald Harris said. "I mean the kid lost his senior season and it was going to be a special one. But he's been there at practice every day and at every game helping us coaches. He sees things from the bench and is able to relay that to his teammates in a way that they might not have listened to from us coaches.
"I probably think more about what might have been than him. He brought something I haven't had in my three years here -- a very explosive player who can create his own shot. He's pretty unbelievable to watch when he's healthy. He's got an old-school inside and outside game."
After surgery Cooper was told he would be out for eight weeks. His return date came and went last month, with doctors advising him to remain in a walking boot for four more weeks. He has an appointment Friday morning, hoping to be cleared to return to action for Tyner's Class AA sectional Monday, or a possible state tournament game in two weeks.
"Coach already told me that even if I get cleared they're going to be careful," Cooper said. "I know I've got a lot of basketball and life after Tyner, but I want to be a part of this so much. I hit 20 jumpers in a row the other day at practice, so I know my shot is still there. I could probably play just off adrenaline if they let me.
"It still hurts having to watch and not be able to help my team. But I've matured from this because I appreciate the game more now. I've shown everybody that I'm still here and still a part of this team, and that makes me feel good whether I get to play or not."
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 20 years, starting at the News-Free Press as a 19-year-old reporter. He has been with the Times Free Press since its inception and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation ...