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For former BYU standout Nate Cooper, work on the hardwoods provided valuable life lessons

Nate Cooper, Mekeli Wesley and others on BYU’s 2001 team were the last Cougar squad to win a conference tournament title. Cooper shares his thoughts in a reflective interview.

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Former BYU standout Nate Cooper lives with his wife and family just outside Portland, Oregon, where he works for one of the world’s top artificial joint companies, Zimmer Biomet.

Dick Harmon, Deseret News

PROVO — BYU alum Nate Cooper may be best remembered for his hard foul on Ute legend Keith Van Horn in the Huntsman Center when he was a freshman.

There’s more to it. His life since has been one of hard work, dedication and production from lessons learned on the court that night. Today he’s a successful leader in medical technology marketing in the Northwest and in this day of COVID-19 sports, he is most grateful he got to play back in the day.

Cooper’s never backed down, even when he lost his mother to cancer during his junior season in 2002, a stretch in his life in which his mother suffered through and endured chemotherapy treatments.

The 6-foot-6 Cooper remains a grateful member of the last BYU basketball team to win a conference tournament championship some two decades ago in Las Vegas.

In a six-game series late in his senior year for Dave Rose, Cooper disrupted the top scorers for Wyoming (Marcus Bailey), New Mexico (Eric Chatfield), Air Force, San Diego State (Randy Holcomb), and UNLV (Jermaine Lewis). It prompted a scribe to call the coach’s deployment of Cooper “Dial-A-Coop.”  

He did the hard work, the mechanic-type stuff, the grime work in the ditch that so many players today avoid.

He wasn’t flashy, didn’t jump high or have blazing speed. He just stuck his nose in the fray and battled.

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Nate Cooper and his wife Amy pose with their children.

Photo courtesy Nate Cooper

“Nobody’s worked harder or wanted to succeed more than Nate. As a captain, nobody could ask more of a leader who had a very difficult role,” said Rose after that stretch.

These are all traits Cooper possesses in abundance today in his life just outside Portland, Oregon, across the Washington State line, where he works for one of the world’s top artificial joint companies, Zimmer Biomet. He specializes in tooth implant technology.

Among the life lessons learned in basketball at Timpview High and BYU, through that MWC tourney win and NCAA appearances is this: It is very hard to win.

“People have no idea how much hard work it takes to win a Division I basketball game because everyone is talented, most all are very good,” he explained. “It takes hours in the weight room, practice, watching film and spending a lot of time to get it done.”

Cooper played for MWC championships his junior and senior years as a Cougar, starting half the games during his 122-game career. He never missed a practice in four years.

He put that on his resume after college. He was pleasantly surprised that that fact, plus some newspaper clippings noting his work ethic, opened doors professionally big time.

Note to today’s kids, reputation counts.

Upon Cooper’s graduation, after he’d buried his mother who’d suffered a brain tumor during his junior year, coach Steve Cleveland stated: “In my 24 years of teaching and coaching, I have never been around a young man who had such a positive attitude and relentless work ethic.”

Cooper loved being on a team, loved his teammates, always praised them, credited them, and accepted whatever role asked of him to support them and their talents.

“I never missed practice because that’s what we had to do to build back the program. It was something I had to do and I was fortunate to stay healthy, unlike my teammate Michael Vranes, who had multiple injuries and had to quit the game.”

Cooper was disappointed when Roger Reid, the man who recruited him, was let go from BYU. He was encouraged, however, in what he found in Reid’s replacement, Steve Cleveland, after he finished his two-year mission. “I don’t think they gave Tony Ingle enough of a chance and Lynn Archibald passed away. But the guys Cleveland assembled all wanted to win and rebuild the program from a one-win season in 1996, guys like Mekeli Wesley, Terrell Lyday, Nate Knight and Trent Whiting. We took on the challenge to bring back the program to the NCAA Tournament and a league title.

“Wins are very hard. The margins are very small and there is little room for mistakes,” Cooper added.

He is proud that the BYU teams he played on competed and won against the best teams in Utah Utes history and he’ll never forget the visits to the packed Pit at the University of New Mexico. Those experiences have defined him and are embedded in his soul.

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BYU’s Nate Cooper battles for a rebound with Air Force’s Tom Bellairs at the Marriott Center in Provo Thursday, February 1, 2001.

Jason Olson, Deseret News

Cooper’s drive may have delivered his biggest achievement in life, marrying BYU multi-NCAA All-American cross-country runner Amy Bair. Amy ran for some of the most storied cross-country national championship teams (most lopsided title scores) in NCAA history while at BYU.

“She helped win three national championships,” Cooper said of his wife. “I’m lucky. I’m one of those guys that just got fortunate with who I married and what’s the appropriate way to put it ... she drives the train.”

Cooper’s wife has run in the Boston and New York marathons and summited Mount Hood. “She is just one of those people. She was Summa Cum Laude at BYU and people always wonder why she ended up marrying me, unfortunately.”

Folks ask Cooper what he’s most proud of as a college player and he always responds that helping to bring BYU back to the NCAA Tournament in the early 2000s was a goal reached that has given him tremendous satisfaction. “We built it, we did it. We got it back.”

And all these decades later, his team in 2001 remains the last Cougar squad to win a tournament title.

“I just hope the current players have a chance to feel what we feel someday by winning it,” Cooper said. “I can’t describe how great it feels; it is just great. I want them to know that in four years, a lot can happen to them on and off the court and at times you may want to quit or give up. But, man, it is gratifying when it’s done and you know you put in the work with your teammates and friends. There’s nothing like it.”

Trouble is, to win a WCC tournament these days, a top-five Gonzaga team is always lurking in the path.

To a competitor, that should only become more fuel.

Ask Cooper, the hard-foul guy on the legendary Van Horn.