By Greg Johnson
College basketball has lost one of its early innovators.
John Cooper, one of the first players to use the jump shot, died September 18 at the age of 98.
Cooper, who graduated from Missouri in 1934 with a degree in physics, lettered in three sports and was a conference champion in the quarter-mile run in addition to excelling in basketball. But during his sophomore year with the Tigers, Cooper averaged a then-remarkable 10.7 points a game, thanks to the “jump shot.”
“You have to remember this was a time when they would jump center after every basket,” said Shep Cooper, NCAA director of the committees on infractions and the nephew of John Cooper. “Today, that would be like averaging 25 points a game.”
In the 1930s, most of the field goal attempts came via the set shot.
“When he went to Missouri, the coaches said, ‘Son, at Missouri, we shoot with both feet on the floor and both hands on the ball,’ ” said Phil Henson, who later in life was mentored by Cooper in a postgraduate exercise science program at Indiana. “After he led the league in scoring, though, they let him continue to shoot his jump shot.”
Shep Cooper, whose father, Clay Cooper, was also a three-sport standout at Missouri and a longtime assistant football and basketball coach and administrator for the Tigers, said his uncle developed his jump shot at a young age.
“The only way he could get his shot off over the bigger kids in the neighborhood was to jump,” Shep Cooper said.
Cooper was born in rural Smith Mills, Ky., in 1912 and graduated high school in Hopkinsville in 1930. The Great Depression was settling in, and his father had lost his meat-packing company.
Cooper headed to Columbia, Missouri, where he lived with relatives while attending college. The rest of the family followed, and they opened up a boarding house near campus.
During his playing days, Cooper was known for camping in the lane. Eventually, one of his teammates would pass him the ball, and he would take a jump shot that resembled today’s “jump hook” version.
Cooper was so proficient that arch-rival Kansas coach Forrest “Phog” Allen, who was on the basketball rules committee at the time, spearheaded the three-second rule, making it illegal for offensive players to stay in the lane indefinitely.
Cooper interrupted his doctoral studies to join the Army Air Forces in 1940. After 40 months of service and achieving the rank of captain, Cooper was honorably discharged and returned to school to complete his doctorate in education.
In 1945, he and his family moved to California, where he taught kinesiology at Southern California until 1966. He also authored a number of research articles and text books in the field in collaboration with his USC colleagues. Cooper was offered a teaching position at Indiana, where he remained the rest of his professional career.
That is where Henson first came to know Cooper, who ran the exercise science master’s program in Bloomington.
“One time after I got to know Dr. Cooper, I asked, ‘How did I get in here?’ ” said Henson, who was originally an engineering major. “I knew my grade-point average wasn’t the best. He said, ‘I just thought a country boy from Missouri deserved a chance.’
“I’ve always remembered that, and even now when I’m in a situation where I admit master’s students I wonder if this person deserves a chance. That changed my whole life and essentially affected my whole career.”
Cooper was one of the nation’s leaders in the field of kinesiology, eventually serving as president of the 35,000-member American Association for Health, Physical Education and Recreation.
Known internationally as “the Father of Modern Biomechanics and Human Movement,” Cooper received the 1995 Luther Gulick Award, which is the highest honor given in the field.
After the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta where Henson was the competition director for track and field, he and Cooper began a study concerning the width of the starting blocks for sprint races.
Cooper, then in his 80s, and Henson found out that wider starting blocks led to better performance by the athletes. That led to a track and field equipment company (Gill, based in Champaign, Illinois) designing the “Pacer Block,” which is commonly used today at all levels in intercollegiate track and field.
Shep Cooper said his uncle had season tickets to Indiana men’s basketball and football games. The two men walked the campus together as recently as six years ago to attend an Indiana-Purdue football game, when the elder Cooper was 92.
“I remember him being a kind and gentle man,” Shep Cooper said. “When you got my uncle and dad (who died in 2007) together, they could tell some stories.”