Story by KL ChouinardTwitter: @KLChouinard
Cooper Henderson is 8 years old, and he is infatuated with basketball.
Sometimes being obsessed with basketball means Cooper stands in front of the TV and calls out NBA players' names while doing his own personal play-by-play broadcast for the game. Sometimes it means he plays his younger brother, Brody, in NBA2K18. Cooper plays with the Golden State Warriors and Brody uses the Hawks to ensure that he has Kent Bazemore on his team.
But video games are for the rainy days. On sunny days, being hooked on basketball means games of one-on-one against Brody in the backyard -- tough, competitive, older brother/younger brother contests played on a concrete court walled off with old electric pole timbers. Cooper's go-to move is a jump shot.
"They play 'make it, take it', and they are serious," Cooper's mother, Amy, said. "They go hard."
The boys' uncle taught them how to play the game, but for the past couple of years Cooper has added to his skill set while participating in Jr. Hawks Camps. At the end of a camp last summer, Cooper's team won a tournament consisting of the campers from age 7 to 9.
"He absolutely loved it," Amy said. "He liked the competition teams. He loved the coaches. All the staff members were just very friendly, and it was a close family."
This month, Cooper and Brody attended a Jr. Hawks Camp on the practice court in Philips Arena on the Sunday morning before the Hawks/Suns game. After a couple of hours of well-organized, upbeat skill development, the campers, ranging in age from seven to 16, were broken up into 12 groups consisting of three or four campers each. The first group to make 10 free-throw length jump shots would win the shooting contest and get chance to dig into the prize box. Cooper was raring to go because the kid just loves to compete.
Cooper and two teammates lined up to get ready. After missing his first attempt, he quickly rebounded the ball for a teammate and recalibrated his shot. His team didn't end up winning, but Cooper swished five of his team's eight shots. As impressive as the feat was for an 8-year-old shooting on 10-foot rims, it was even more so astounding because Cooper was born without a left hand.
"Truth be told, he's one of the best shooters and best players out there," Vice President of Basketball Development Jon Babul said. "We celebrate inclusion, and we celebrate triumph among challenges, and he's a walking example of that."
Not every camper has to be as dedicated to the game as Cooper, whose first word as a baby was 'ball'. Members of the camp staff emphasize enjoyment of the game and a positive coaching experience geared around fun for kids of multiple ages and skill levels.
"We're exposing youth to healthy habits and exercise," Babul said. "There are so many benefits to the game of basketball outside of just shooting, passing, dribbling and defense. What we emphasize is the life skills: teamwork, communication, how to be coached and how to be a good teammate."
As part of the camp, Cooper and Brody got tickets to the Hawks game against the Suns. With mom Amy, they watched as the Hawks pulled off a late-game comeback on a dramatic three-point shot by Taurean Prince. The Hawks won because, just like Cooper, Prince is a pretty good jump shooter.