Former Harlem Globetrotter and international pro Kashen Cooke details how he's helping to shape the county's up and coming hardwood standouts.
DUNN — As Kashen Cooke sharpened shooting strokes and perfected post positioning inside the Dunn Police Athletic & Activities League (PAL) gym last Wednesday, a set of school desks in the backdrop served as a reminder.
Just a year prior, the Wildcats’ floor was used for everything but basketball.
Whether it be a makeshift study hall for students needing Wi-Fi hotspots to complete virtual courses, or a food pantry to help local families survive the scars left from widespread unemployment, the community’s gym wasn’t able to provide recreation for the first time in years.
But as COVID-19 infections took a turn for the better this summer, conditions were deemed safe enough for children to resume their pre-pandemic recreational endeavors – making way for Cooke to improve young lives in the area he’s called home for over 20 years.
The former Harlem Globetrotter and international pro has spent the past two decades helping Harnett County youth realize how to use a game to improve their current situations, much like it did for him as an embattled youngster growing up in New York City’s rugged Queensbridge neighborhood.
“I love a challenge. I love when a kid has went through something, because I can relate to a lot of kids in that fashion,” Cooke said. “Each kid is different ... so that’s the wonderful thing about it. It’s like a present, you don’t know what you’re gonna get until you open it up.
I use basketball as a tool to open up that present.”
The gifts have come in the form of both boys and girls so far this summer as Cooke has enlisted the help of recent Dunn PAL newcomer Tara Young to create a joint basketball training program that’s free for local hoopers of all ages.
Young brings over 30 years of basketball experience to the table and Cooke says meeting her through a mutual friend a couple of months ago was the start of what they hope to be a lasting partnership.
“Mentally, basketball-wise, we connect. She’s like the female version of me,” Cooke said jokingly of Young.
“Coming from her, they (athletes) can receive (coaching) more ... I’ll be saying the same thing, but the tone comes out a little bit different.
They listen to me, but they hear her. When I saw that, we sat down and I said, ‘Hey, it would be a no-brainer for us to get together and work.”
Though Young has only been in the gym with the young talent since she joined the Dunn PAL staff in June, she’s wasted no time in making her message clear.
“There’s so many more opportunities out there for these kids through the game of basketball. And we’re just trying to get them exposed to those other venues,” Young said.
“The level of competitiveness that they’ll have to have to play at the next level, they’re gonna have to work towards.”
Leading full-court dribbling drills, directing half-courts and even taking time to crack jokes, Young maximizes every minute of the two-hour workout sessions that typically run seven days a week. She says her addition to PAL has been influential in bringing female prospects back to the program, a much-needed boost considering the group hasn’t organized a girls hoops team in nearly a decade.
“These girls really don’t have a lot of outlets. And then health-wise, no one is really teaching them how to take care of their bodies,” Young said, also noting how underdeveloped most of the female skillsets are in respect to their male counterparts.
“No one pushes the girls as hard as they push the boys ... they don’t understand that girls basketball is extremely competitive right now and it’s growing by leaps and bounds. These girls have to be both mentally prepared and physically prepared.”
Joining most of the sessions are two promising talents hoping to pace the new wave of Triton girls basketball.
Lady Hawks starting sophomore guard A’Shari Watlington was the second-leading scorer as a freshman last season, while averaging north of two steals. Cooke’s daughter, Unique Cooke, is a rising freshman looking to make an impact as a big in Triton’s guard-oriented lineup.
The boys have a bigger showing as of now, with athletes typically ranging from middle school to high school. Torrey Williams, a rising junior at Triton, is one of the elder attendees and uses the workouts to stay in shape for football season also.
Meanwhile, rising freshman Romello Pegues and Quashaun Williams are staying active this summer in hopes of making an immediate impact for the Hawks come winter. They make up a fraction of the talented Dunn Middle squad who went undefeated in 2019-20 en route to a conference championship. And Cooke’s son, Malachi Cooke, is among the middle standouts looking to gain inspiration and motivation from the older workout partners.
All in all, both Cooke and Young strive to establish a familiarity amongst the youth in the community and hope to use basketball as a vehicle to keep them engaged with the county while setting the mold for generations to come.
“That’s the plan – open up that pipeline, because there’s a lot of talent here,” Cooke said.
“They feel like they have to go Raleigh, Fayetteville or wherever to go get seen or play. Why? The talent is here.
“It’s just about changing the culture around here – changing the mindsets and understanding that we’re building something great, something very positive.”
Donnell Coley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 910-230-2040.