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What a mountain Ed Cooley climbed at Providence College — making it to the Big Dance seven times — but as the fabled coach moves on, let’s remember his greatest victory.
His own — a tale showing that all is possible.
To grasp it, you have to go back to the late 1970s, where a boy named Eddie was 10-ish and growing up in the kind of poverty that can crush young souls.
We like to tell stories of overcoming in this country, often a bit dramatized. Not Ed Cooley’s.
His South Providence household had nine children; his mom was there, but not his dad. There was state assistance, yet that’s seldom enough.
At times, there was no heat, and so little money for milk or meat that cereal was eaten with water, sandwiches made with sugar.
“It was hard for me growing up in South Providence,” Cooley once said. “I was an outcast. I never had good clothes. I never had any money. I was kind of 'bummy.'“
This year, PC paid him almost $4 million, standard for a top D-I coach, but do we ever leave behind the experiences of childhood? That’s where Cooley's humbleness comes from. As you watch him support his players in venues like Madison Square Garden, he no doubt thinks back to what made the biggest difference.
Someone believing in you.
Even as a young teen, Ed knew he needed to be believed in, so he sought it out. He had a friend named Eddie Searight who lived a few blocks away in an intact family that modeled striving despite hardship.
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Ed Cooley began to visit often, and by ninth grade he was living there. It was by no means a well-off household. The father, Ed Searight Sr., had three jobs to support his four children, and now a fifth.
It’s a reminder that the most important thing in a home isn’t money but values.
But it’s not enough to have good models; you need to push yourself. Young Ed Cooley did.
He already had some of that in him, relentlessly practicing basketball from an early age, often at the South Side Boys Club. In what sounds like a poverty cliché, he and his buddies really did cut out the bottom of a milk crate and nail it to a street post as their hoop.
Eddie was the neighborhood kid always doing teen jobs, raking leaves, shoveling snow, working at the community center. Later, as a student at Central High, he became a part-time janitor there. You know one reason why? He got the keys to the gym so he could practice after hours.
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By then, Eddie was living again with his mom, who had an apartment near Central. He will tell you his early life was complicated, and he still loved his parents deeply.
His basketball work ethic paid off. Eddie, who had grown to 6-foot-4, became the star of his Central High School team, winning two state titles.
The Searights steered Eddie to classes that would help him get to college, but he struggled. His academics weren’t good enough. So in 1988, he applied to prep schools for a transitional year.
They all rejected him.
In a story that tells you much about Ed Cooley, he decided to drive to New Hampshire, north of Concord, to the New Hampton School, walking in without an appointment.
“I said ‘Please let me in. I have nowhere else to go,’” Cooley recalls. “ ‘I want to go to college, I want to become something in life, I’ll do whatever I can to make it here.’”
Impressed, they took him.
But when the school year began, Eddie found an alien place. He was one of seven Black students among 325.
“It was like walking into a blizzard,” Cooley said, “and the blizzard was a white world.”
There can be a high dropout rate among African-American kids like Ed Cooley in such schools, and at first, he thought of leaving.
But he understood the value of persevering.
So he did.
He got a scholarship to play at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, in time building a career in coaching, first at UMass-Dartmouth and eventually URI, Boston College, Fairfield University and, in 2011, PC, where he rose to the ranks of the nation’s best.
One bit of proof: After six years of mediocre performance by NBA legend Patrick Ewing as coach, Georgetown wanted Cooley instead. Badly.
And got him.
Which is the headline this week.
But really, that's just part of the bigger story of what a young kid named Eddie, born into poverty in Providence, has overcome.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Ed Cooley grew up in South Providence, overcoming poverty