COLUMBIA -- Their flight touched down in Reno, Nev., that day in the summer of 2007, and Malik Cooke and his father, Sam, grabbed the couple of bags Malik had brought from their home in Charlotte. Sam helped his son move in at the University of Nevada and headed back east, leaving Malik to make his way in this unfamiliar city at the foot of the Sierra Nevadas.
"I was on my own at that point," Cooke said. "I just saw it as, really, an opportunity to pretty much go find myself and go off and become a man."
In the four and a half years since, he experienced more than enough to make him grow as a basketball player and a person -- rewarding victories, his father's health scare, a transfer to South Carolina and a senior season with disappointing results. His college basketball journey, which he never thought would unfold like this, is coming to an end, and before tonight's home game against Mississippi State, he will be the lone USC player honored on Senior Night.
"I hope I don't have any regrets," he said, when he thought about how he might reflect, years from now, on his often-trying times at USC.
His career began with back-to-back 20-win seasons and Western Athletic Conference regular season championships at Nevada, though the Wolfpack didn't make the NCAA tournament either year. Cooke, a 6-5 forward, started every game as a sophomore in 2008-09. He enjoyed Reno, even though it is nothing like Charlotte. He made friends. He wasn't homesick in the least.
Before Cooke headed out west, his dad was ill, but stable. Sam, who played college ball at West Virginia State, had sarcoidosis, a lung disorder that killed the comedian Bernie Mac. When Sam's condition worsened, Cooke talked to his dad about perhaps transferring to a school closer to home. Cooke and his dad are tight and speak on the phone daily, but Sam didn't try to sway the decision.
"He just told me to do what was going to make me happy," Cooke said. "That's what I really thought about, and I thought about it a while."
He chose to transfer to USC. While sitting out the 2009-10 season because of NCAA transfer rules, he drove home every weekend to see his dad. Sam's health steadily improved, to the point now that the sarcoidosis' progress "has pretty much stopped," Cooke said.
On the court, Cooke proved himself to be a solid Southeastern Conference player, starting 17 of 30 games last season and ranking fourth on the team with 9.4 points per game. This season, he has started every game and leads the Gamecocks at 12.4 points per game.
But he hasn't been able to enjoy nearly the level of success as he did at Nevada. Since the beginning of last season, USC is 24-34 and 7-23 in SEC games.
"Amidst some difficult circumstances and a lot of adversity, he's been incredibly steady for us," said USC coach Darrin Horn.
Cooke graduated in December with a sociology degree. After the season, he wants to "exhaust all possibilities" for playing professionally, he said. He thinks he might like to coach one day.
But for tonight, he will celebrate the unlikely path of his college career. He will walk onto the court to be honored before the game, flanked by the people who got him here: his mother, sister, grandmother, two uncles and, of course, his dad.