By Pete Nakos
OhioBobcats.com Feature Writer
Destini Cooper was nervous. Her entire family had just made the trip down to Athens for her first game as an Ohio Bobcat. It was Nov. 10, 2013, in The Convo. Ohio was set to play against Xavier for a 2 p.m. tipoff, Cooper was a freshman forward.
Not only was it Destini's first game, it was coach Bob Boldon's too, his first after his hire the past March. That day marked the beginning of many firsts for the Ohio women's basketball program, but the one that many think back to is Destini's performance.On that day, she had 17 points and 12 rebounds, a double-double. She led the team in rebounding.
"She was diverse in the way that she scored," Boldon said. "She shot it, she drove it, she was a rebounding machine, she was as good as advertised that night."
After the game she was a superstar, as her father Sam Cooper put it, talking to friends and family, signing autographs.
"I was nervous mostly, but my dad always tells me it's just basketball," Destini said after the game. "I've been playing it since the fifth grade."
That night, Destini Cooper was on top of the world. Little did she know, that was only double-double of her career.
Destini Cooper was born on Nov. 1, 1995. Growing up in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, she was involved in sports from a young age, as she started to play soccer when she was in kindergarten.
The daughter of Yaisa Cooper and Samuel Cooper Sr., her parents were athletes, specifically her mother who was a standout basketball player in high school.
"Soccer was my thing," Destini said with a smile.
She made the switch to basketball and volleyball in fifth grade because in Reynoldsburg, that is when middle school starts.
"When she first started to play, I was coaching her," Yaisa said. "I wanted her to try basketball, and she ended up liking it more than volleyball, so she stuck with it."
Soon, a basketball hoop was put in the Cooper's driveway, where some nights the whole family, which includes her two younger brothers, would go out and plays boys v.s. girls.
As Destini entered middle school, she joined a basketball program named AYBT, which was run by Darnell Jenkins, father of Yamonie Jenkins. From the beginning with AYBT, she played with the older group of players, but that never stopped Destini from being one of the most physical players underneath the basket, battling for rebounds.
In high school, Destini led Reynoldsburg High School to four straight district titles, two regional cham pionships and two Ohio High School Athletic Association Final Four appearances.
At the end of her senior basketball season, her knee started to hurt, but she didn't think twice about it.
Soon, colleges came knocking on the door. Destini was about to make the jump to Division I college basketball.
The Recruitment Process
Originally, Yaisa wanted Destini to go far away to college, while Sam wanted Destini to stay close.
The letters started to pour in during Destini's junior year, mostly from Mid-American Conference schools along with West Virginia, Clemson and Michigan.
When Ohio reached out to Destini, Semeka Randall was the coach of the Bobcats.
"Me and Semeka were actually very close," Destini said. "She was the very first coach that really recruited me hard and she had been coming after me since the eighth grade. She showed a lot of love throughout the years."
Destini made visits Michigan and Clemson, but was eventually convinced Ohio was the place for her.
But when it was announced in March 2013 that Bob Boldon from Youngstown State would be taking over the program, doubt started to creep into the Cooper family.
Boldon's first recruiting visit at Ohio was to the Cooper household. He understood right away the importance Destini had on the incoming recruiting class.
"We wanted to meet him to make sure we had that same feeling," Yaisa said. "We were nervous, thinking was he going to change his mind wanting her, was his scheme different. We started researching what he did at Youngstown."
What Destini remembers is a very calm and collected man, somebody who she wanted to play for.
Destini Cooper was Bob Boldon's first recruit at Ohio.
"Honestly, when I first met him, I thought he was going to be soft," she said. "That completely turned around when he yelled at our first practice."
Destini entered her freshman year of college as a 17-year old, much younger than the rest of her peers and teammates. When she joined the team, she knew most of the players and coaches. Growing up, she had played basketball with Yamonie Jenkins and Quiera Lampkins, and she had played against Jasmine Weatherspoon.
Assistant coach Marwan Miller had tried to convince Destini to play for his AAU team during her freshman year of high school, too.
Her mother and father never doubted her success or that she would struggle adjusting to college, the best example of that was her double-double against Xavier.
As a freshman student-athlete, Destini had her ups and downs on the court, she came off the bench at home against Miami and had 13 points. She led the Bobcats in rebounding six times.
During her freshman year, she knew the team was young, but didn't think it would go downhill so fast. The toughest part for her and other members of the team was coming from winning programs and losing that first year.
Ohio finished 9-21 in 2013-14.
"I was just proud to watch her when she was doing so good," Weatherspoon said. "She was running the floor and getting great layups that year."
Towards the end of that freshman year, her knees started to hurt again, just like at the end of her senior year. This time with an athletic training staff around her, she wanted to figure out what was going on.
That offseason, Destini got surgery on her right knee, as doctors went in and shaved the bone so it wouldn't rub against the tissue. The doctors told her she had Osteoarthritis, which her mother and grandmother both had, a hereditary disease.
She would have to sit out her sophomore year, which she planned on using a medical redshirt.
"It was unexpected," Destini said. "I think the reason it happened to me so young was because of all the wear and tear I put on my knees so young."
The Struggle of Watching
In the first game of her sophomore season, Destini played two minutes against Murray State.
For the rest of sophomore year Destini watched due to another surgery in the middle of the year, thinking she would be able to help her team the next season. Her mindset was set that the surgery would help her as a player, not playing was never an option for her at that time.
When Ohio was making its run through MAC, which resulted in a regular season title, a conference title and eventually an NCAA Tournament berth, Destini didn't play in any of those games, which was hard to swallow for her.
"I tried to be the happy in her life," Weatherspoon said. "Obviously, it's a big thing to not play basketball for a year after playing for 10. It was a sad thing to think about, I was trying to help her see the good in that situation."
Watching all of those festivities was hard for Destini to watch, she thought she wasn't apart of that, her mother said. There would be times when she would ask her family not to come down because she felt like she wasn't contributing.
"It was tough, I saw her put in the work and the time," Miller said. "I saw her work to get to this level, but I also saw her struggle with her pain in the knees."
The summer after the NCAA Tournament, the women's basketball team made a trip to Canada for exhibition games. Destini was hoping to make a comeback after the two surgeries and a summer of rehab.
In Canada she played well, showing why she was such a great presence underneath the hoop during her freshman year. But it was after games where the pain in her knees caught up with her. After games, she would be in so much pain it was hard to walk.
"I said to myself if I could get through Canada I could play," Destini said. "I barely made it through. After every game it hurt to walk around the city. That's when I realized if it wasn't worth it to walk around with that pain."
One day after class in the fall of her junior year, Boldon approached Destini after class one day and the two took a walk around campus. They walked all the way around for hours, talking about life, bask etball and her injury,
At that time Destini was wrestling with the idea that she was letting down her team still. Most importantly, she wasn't sure if she should try to play through injury or call it quits--what would her role be if she wasn't on the team?
"The difficult thing about college athletics is the grind it has on your body," Boldon said. "Her body was having a hard time just keeping up with the grind.
"There comes a time when you have to think about other things. We talk with our team that we have four years to prepare them for the next 40 years of their life and we try to have a positive impression on them. We want them to have 40 successful years with their degree, with some real life experiences. This, as important as it seems in the moment, isn't as important as playing around with your kids."
So, after that walk and talks with her parents and teammates, decided to hang up her playing sneakers, but she didn't walk away from the game of basketball.
Instead, she took on the role of undergraduate assistant coach and manager. Boldon continued to let her attend Ohio on scholarship.
She helps her teammates out as much as she can, from watching film with Weatherspoon, her roommate, or talking about a play at practice with Lampkins. At the end of the day, she is just as valuable to the program as any other member.
"She's always been a leader and she's always been great at it," Lampkins said. "Just the fact that she doesn't want to say much, but she has been out there. It sounds better coming from her."
Destini Cooper is now a senior studying psychology. She is a member of the Ohio women's basketball team. Her mother says she plans to continue her education and attend graduate school. Her coaches think she would make a great basketball coach. Either way, all think she has what it takes to be successful in life.
Her knees don't hurt as much, she can still sneak in a few shots when she's feeling up to it.
At times, her and Weatherspoon will joke about the what-ifs, would Ohio ever be given the grief about its poor rebounding if those two were underneath the basket. If opponents had to fear their shots being blocked by two physical presences in the paint.
On Saturday, the Bobcats will honor six graduating seniors: Quiera Lampkins, Yamonie Jenkins, Jasmine Weatherspoon, Hannah Boesinger, Tmisht Stinson and Destini Cooper.
Her family and friends, the same ones who attended her double-double performance against Xavier, will be in attendance. And while she won't be nervous like she was for that game, it will be the first time in almost two years her name will be said throughout the rafters of The Convo.
As she emerges from the tunnel with her mother and father, Bob Boldon will give her a quick smile; a smile that will bring back all the memories-- adjusting to college, the surgeries, watching the NCAA Tournament, the struggles in Canada and telling her teammates her playing days were over.
But all of that won't matter because Destini will be right back where she belongs. Standing at center court in The Convo.
"It's been a ride," her father, Sam, said while fighting back tears. "She used this sport to do something that's more important--to get an education. I can't even put it in words. Destini made me a better man."