Josh Brown and Hallice Cooke vividly recall the first time they knew about each other.
“We were in eighth grade,” Cooke said. “I was playing AAU for the Jersey City Boys Club and Josh was with the Shooting Stars. He was talking trash. He wore a headband and was more of a left-handed post player, like [former Knicks All-Star] Zach Randolph. He was talking trash the whole time.”
“I remember that if I could get him out of his game, we had a chance to win,” Brown said. “So I was trash talking to get him distracted.”
Little did they know that Brown and Cooke would eventually become close friends and teammates at St. Anthony.
Cooke was almost pre-destined to head to St. Anthony, although there was a point where the Union City resident was going to go to High Tech in North Bergen.
“My mother was worried about me getting a good education,” said Cooke, who is also a product of the St. Michael’s CYO program in Union City, where he was coached by former St. Anthony great Carlos Cueto, the current coach at Secaucus High. “I had been coming to St. Anthony open gyms since like fifth grade and watched all those great St. Anthony teams.”
Brown took a different path. A resident of Irvington, Brown first attended Morristown-Beard, a prestigious private school in Morris County. But he felt like a fish out of water at that school and looked to move on.
“I saw St. Anthony play one game and knew I wanted to be there,” Brown said. “I also knew I was joining Hallice.”
It was also the beginning of a close friendship and basketball kinship. The two didn’t get a chance to play much right away for the Friars. With people like Myles Mack (Rutgers) and two-time Hudson Reporter Player of the Year Kyle Anderson (UCLA) ahead of them, they had to pay their dues and wait their turn.
Both played prominent roles in the Friars’ undefeated state championship team a year ago. But with Anderson and Jerome Frink (Florida International) graduated, the two friends had to take over the leadership duties while trying to keep the program’s longest winning streak alive.
“I’ve been here for four years, so I knew I was capable of filling their roles,” Cooke said. “Myles, then Kyle, led when they were seniors. They set examples for younger players. I saw what it takes to put a team into position to be successful.”
“I think it all started at the end of the last game last year,” Brown said. “We knew we were going to have the biggest roles and it was up to us to embrace that role.”
Before the season, veteran Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley knew that there would be a transformation with the Friars, going from a team dominated by its bigger players back to where Hurley got his start, as a coach of a guard-oriented team. And if the Friars were going to be successful, it would be on the shoulders of Brown and Cooke.
“They’re 1 and 1A for everyone we’re going to play this season,” Hurley said. “They were never a major part of the fabric before, but now, they’re the focal point. There’s a natural chemistry involved with them. There are no egos involved. They knew that they were pushed in front to be the leaders and everyone else had to jump in line.”
Brown has been a steady force for the Friars all season, averaging 13 points and six assists per game, as well as being the team’s top defensive player.
“Josh is the kind of kid who could have played for any of our teams,” Hurley said. “We just would have to figure out a way to use him. We’re getting Hallice to do everything we need him to do. He really hadn’t figured out what he’s capable of doing.”
Cooke has come on as of late, scoring 22 in the Friars’ win over Long Island Lutheran to win the SNY Invitational Tournament last Saturday and adding 18 in a win over East Brunswick on Tuesday. Cooke was named the Most Valuable Player of the SNY Invitational.
More importantly, the dynamic backcourt has enabled the Friars to extend their school-record winning streak to an astounding 81 straight games.
For their efforts, Brown and Cooke have been selected as the Hudson Reporter Co-Athletes of the Week for the past week.
Brown, who lost his mother, Kimberly, when he was only a year old, says that his friendship with Cooke goes a long way on the court.
“I always know where he’s going to be,” Brown said. “We have that kind of connection that is strong and genuine. He doesn’t have to tell me when he’s open. I know it. It just clicks between us. I can even close my eyes and I’ll know where he is and get him the ball. On the defensive end, I always see Hallice beside me. We really feed off each other.”
“I just know if the ball is in Josh’s hands, that I’ll be getting the ball and being asked to take the big shots,” Cooke said. “We have great chemistry together. We know how to pick each other up and get ourselves through the tough times.”
The two also share something in common. They’ve never lost a game at St. Anthony.
“We don’t want to be the first one to lose,” Brown said. “We want to continue to put our best foot forward.”
“The streak comes across every now and then,” Cooke said. “It’s not that we think about it every day. But someone will say that the streak is on the line and then I know it’s time to perform.”
Hurley likes the camaraderie between his top two players.
“I think this is part of being around Kyle [Anderson], because he was the ultimate teammate,” Hurley said. “No question, everything this year was built around them and they’ve responded as seniors. Kyle influenced them, because he did that last year. I’m always comfortable playing through the backcourt. It’s so much easier to run an offense, because that’s where it starts, with the ball.”
While the two are close now, they will head in separate directions in the fall. Brown has signed a letter to attend Temple, while Cooke is headed to Oregon State to play for President Barack Obama’s brother-in-law Craig Robinson.
Brown committed early to Temple, then went back on the commitment to open the process again, only to eventually decide to stick to the original commitment.
“I always wanted to go to Temple, because my mother went there and I wanted to respect her memory,” Brown said. “But then I had people tell me that I committed too early and should open it up and see what’s out there. I went on a couple of visits and at the end of the day, Temple was the right choice.”
Cooke did his due diligence with his family and visited several schools.
“My parents did the research and they supported me,” Cooke said. “I took my time, narrowed it to five and then made my visit to Oregon State and loved it. It was tough when I thought of the distance, but now, I’m fine with it.”
So the friends will enjoy their time together at St. Anthony.
“When we’re both on, we’re tough to beat,” Brown said. “We might not have the big names that we had in the past, but you can see the fire we have. We’re on the same page.”
“It’s that time,” Cooke said. “You need to be playing your best going into February and March.”
Looks like the fabulous Friars’ terrific tandem is ready to lead the way. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.