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Mike Lopresti | | March 8, 2016

Oakland basketball: Max Hooper plays through loss of father in Horizon League semifinal

  Oakland's Max Hooper played in the Horizon League semifinal two days after his father died.

DETROIT – He popped up on the college basketball radar screen as the player who shot 3-pointers, and nothing but. All 234 of Max Hooper’s field goal attempts for Oakland this season have been from behind the arc, and this graduate student with a singular purpose turned into a national story.

But he had an extra purpose Monday night at the Horizon League tournament. He was not just there to play and put up 3-pointers as always, but to honor the father he had just lost two days before, by doing what mourning players often do. They return to their team, they return to their game.

”There was no decision to make,” he said late Monday night via email. “My mom, sister, friends, all knew I would be playing tonight. The entire season I have known exactly what my dad wants from me, and that is to kill it on the court.”

He took five 3-pointers and made the first three, but Oakland lost to Wright State in the semifinals 59-55. No Horizon League title to come. No automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. And what a ray of light for Max Hooper that could have been.

”I want to just hug him,” coach Greg Kampe said. “I feel terrible right now. I guess all coaches do (when they lose). I probably feel terrible for a lot different reason than they do. I feel bad for Max. I know how badly he wanted to win and get to the tournament for his dad, and his family.

“It was a tough, tough, tough last few days.”

Chip Hooper died Saturday in California of complications from brain cancer after a long fight. He had been able to get back to see his son play a final time on senior day, but it had taken a great effort to travel east for the game. And now, his son was making the same trip.

Hooper was up at 4:45 a.m. in California on Monday to catch the flight east with his mother, Laura. They landed in Detroit seven hours before the game. He played on not much rest. “Once I hit the court, none of that mattered,” he said. “The emotion fueled me the entire game.”

He led the other Golden Grizzlies onto the floor for warm-ups. Times like this, teammates, and basketball, can mean a lot.

“My teammates have been incredibly supportive of me in this difficult time, and I thank them for their dedication to me,” he said. “Basketball is a sanctuary of sorts to me. When I am on the court I am able to lose myself in the game and just go out there and do what I do with very little thinking involved. It’s liberating in that sense.”

Said Oakland star guard Key Felder, “He didn’t really say much to us, but we knew what he was going through. He didn’t have to.”

Laura was there in a courtside section when her son entered the game early in the first half. She saw him hit his first 3-pointer, then another, then another. It had to be an incredibly important night for her. If only the final score could have been different.

“It wears on you to see these kind of things happen,” Kampe said. “You’re trying to teach life lessons to kids. That’s really what my job is.”

But some lessons are more painful than others. And also harder to teach, especially for a coach trying to help a heartbroken player mourn while he tries to get a team ready for the games it has been waiting for for so long.

“I’ve never been through it on the eve of the most important – for us – two days of the year,” Kampe said. “The whole season for us is this weekend and it happens on the eve of the season? I went about it the way I thought was the best thing to do. It’s all about the student-athlete first. I tried to handle it through the student-athlete’s eyes, and for him. And hopefully I did the right things and hopefully we did the right things as a team.

“We didn’t win the basketball game, so whoever judges that may judge us poorly. But I will go to sleep tonight, I’ll go to sleep at seven in the morning or whenever I fall to sleep, feeling that we handled this the right way.”

Meanwhile, sometime overnight, the son who had just lost both his father and a chance for an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament tried to describe how the day had been.

“Lots of different emotions,” Hooper said in an email. “Mainly those of gratitude that I was lucky enough to have an amazing dad, and that I was fortunate enough to play for Coach Kampe the past two years after being in situations that did not work out favorably for me individually.”

He had played to the very end. His dad would have liked that.

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