South Carolina women’s basketball junior guard Te’a Cooper — and her pet guinea pig, Buddha — first came onto many people’s radars when she was 16 years old, appearing on MTV’s long-running reality show “True Life” on Dec. 9, 2014.
In an episode that followed three student-athletes through their recruitment, Cooper’s father, Omar, pushed his daughter to take her college choice more seriously, forcing her to make tough decisions on her own while also training her on the court.
“I really wanted to do (the show), because I’m all for that kind of stuff. I was on board, my family was on board,” Cooper told The State. “I didn’t realize how many times you had to keep doing stuff. So for certain scenes, I had to keep walking through doors like five times to get the perfect angle or the shot that they wanted. ... It was weird, but it was fun. It was really fun. The crew was really cool. They make you feel comfortable.”
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The episode, still available online, includes a cameo from Georgia senior forward Caliya Robinson, then a teammate of Cooper’s at McEachern High School, scenes with Cooper darting between belt barriers during workouts in the gym, and ultimately a happy ending as Cooper takes control over her decision like her father wants and picks Tennessee — over South Carolina.
A lot can change in four years, and Cooper’s journey to Columbia, playing for Dawn Staley instead of against her, has been as much about self-discovery as it has been about basketball.
Cooper’s talent on the court has been obvious for years — she helped lead McEachern to three state titles in four years and was named a McDonald’s All-American and the state co-Player of the Year with current Louisville star Asia Durr in her senior season.
“Explosive lead guard attacks off the bounce, finishes plays vs. contact; interior passer with court awareness; scorer’s mentality,” ESPN’s recruiting coordinator Dan Olson wrote of Cooper back in her high school days.
Cooper’s high school coach, Phyllis Arthur, remembers her as a relentless worker too — she would practice with her high school teammates for two hours, then spend two more every day in the gym, working with her father. On the weekends, if there wasn’t a game, Cooper was still on the court perfecting her craft. That work and talent combined to make Cooper a closer, the player who could take control and finish off games, including one particular moment that still stands out to Arthur.
“Te’a’s senior year ... she picked up a fourth foul with three or four minutes left to go in a game,” Arthur said. “And I went, ‘Oh my god,’ I sent a sub out there to take her out. She wouldn’t leave the game, she stayed in. The sub said, ‘No, coach said to come and get you, you got four fouls.’ She said, ‘I’m not going anywhere.’
“So I had to make a decision at that time, right then, if I was going to leave her out there. She stayed in and played the entire game, and we won the game. If she had not been in there, we probably wouldn’t have won the game.”
When she arrived at Tennessee, Cooper’s talent and drive turned into results almost immediately, as she averaged 8.6 points and 2.1 assists per game en route to earning SEC All-Freshman honors. The Lady Vols fell in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament, and were set to return all but one of their rotation players the next season. Another deep tourney run and a potential Final Four seemed within reach.
Those hopes crumbled as Cooper tore her ACL in the summer, knocking her out for the season. She couldn’t even have surgery to repair the injury for three months because of blood clots. And without her, Tennessee regressed, falling in the second round of the NCAA tourney.
During that time, Cooper, experiencing the first major setback of her basketball career, was required to go to counseling by Tennessee’s athletic department.
“It’s just the perception that comes with counseling, that you’re crazy, so I didn’t think I needed that, I didn’t think I was crazy,” Cooper said. “I just had an injury, I was gonna come back, it’s fine.
“But I also wanted to get a different perspective from someone else that wasn’t in any of my situations that I was going through, just to have a neutral response was something I wanted. I really took advantage of counseling. It took me a minute — at first I was just not talking to her and trying to figure out why she wanted to be a counselor, but after a while, I got comfortable with her, and we just started talking about stuff, and it ended up being nothing about basketball or school. It would sometimes be about aliens, or whatever she thought or whatever I had a random thought about.”
Instead of growing on the court, relationships and empathy were the areas where Cooper felt she developed in during that year off from basketball.
“With my injury, I learned about relationships, because I was able to see that the way you talk to people, or the way you say things, it kinda can get rubbed off the wrong way, if you don’t have the relationship,” Cooper said. “So I wanted to build relationships with my teammates so that if we were in a situation where I had to say something to get her to snap out of something, or she had to say it to me, I wanted there to be an understanding of where it was coming from, that it was coming from the heart and not just at me or a personal attack.”
But despite that growth and desire for better relationships, the next summer still brought uncertainty and frustration, as Cooper announced her transfer to South Carolina in early June, with reports of internal discord from her time in Knoxville following her. Under NCAA transfer rules, she would have to sit out the 2017-18 season, putting her time away from competitive basketball at two years.
Then, Staley announced at SEC media days in October 2017 that the program would seek a waiver from the NCAA to make Cooper immediately eligible to play. The timeline for that waiver was later delayed until after the fall semester, and dragged on after that from December into January with no resolution.
During that time, Staley praised Cooper for her focus and dedication in practice, staying mentally engaged even when she wasn’t sure she’d be able to play at all.
“She’s in great midseason, end-of-the-season form, just her physicality, her presence out here,” Staley said at the time. “Her commitment to basketball is tested during this time, but she’s not giving into it.”
Finally, the announcement was made on Jan. 25 — there would be no waiver. Cooper would spend the rest of the year sidelined. Staley later said that the waiver was denied in part because Tennessee objected to it.
“I kinda expected (to be rejected),” Cooper said. “I hoped for it, but I kinda knew that it wasn’t going to happen.”
And while the decision was obviously disappointing, Cooper fell back on the lessons she learned from her time injured to keep perspective on it all.
“I spent a lot of time on getting mentally strong and finding positives in most situations, or really any situations that I could, no matter how negative it is,” Cooper said. “So while I had hoped to play, the second time I had to sit out, the hope was there, but I was also prepared for the worst.”
The main positive Cooper found from the experience was being able to connect with Staley in a way most players and coaches don’t: — Because she wasn’t preparing to play games anytime soon, Cooper felt that she gained a different perspective.
“It’s different when you’re playing, because she expects something out of you, and I wasn’t playing, so I was able to see what she expected out of the positions that I was going to have to do,” Cooper said. “So I was kinda able to get a step ahead of where I wanted to be for the next year. I got to understand from a coach’s point of view and not being coached.”
The downside, of course, was that no amount of practice could substitute for game experience. When Cooper finally did take the court for South Carolina’s exhibition with Lander on Nov. 2, she was physically ready to go, not rusty like a player recovering from an injury. But she did struggle to adjust to the flow of play.
“Te’a’s going to be a really good player,” Staley said after the game. “Here’s her trick: She’s gotta be able to play with people. She works on her game, she’s in the gym a lot, but if you’re not in the gym a lot with two and three other people, you’re just in the gym a lot on your own, you gotta figure out how you stay impactful with other people on the floor.”
When Cooper stepped on the court for South Carolina’s season opener against Alabama State on Sunday, it had been 957 days since her last competitive NCAA game. She poured in 17 points, three assists, three steals and three rebounds, looking every bit like the run-and-gun scorer Gamecock fans had been waiting and hoping for for months now.
While she didn’t feel any nerves before the team’s preseason exhibition, Cooper said the emotions of playing her first real game got to her for a brief moment.
“I was a little nervous at the beginning, but my teammates made me feel better, they calmed me down, and everything went well afterwards,” Cooper said.
It had also been 1,431 days since that episode of “True Life” aired. Cooper still hasn’t seen it.
“I knew what I said. My mom recorded it, and I don’t think I ever went back and watched it. I finally need to watch it,” she said.