For the last seven years, the start of my high school basketball season has not been marked by a tipoff. My season has started when I’d walk into Daemen College for the Pastor-Cooper basketball showcase, and when I made my way to the corner of the gym.
That’s where David Cooper would greet me with his huge smile, a warm welcome and usually a wisecrack. He’d call me “Mickey Spillane.” Spillane wrote crime novels. I write sports stories. It didn’t matter. It was still funny, especially when he delivered it with a certain gleam in his eye.
This year, I made the same walk, to the same corner. There I exchanged a hug with John Scott, who has helped run the tournament for more than a decade. Scott had been by David’s side, helping David as he continued his family’s legacy in maintaining one of the best traditions in Western New York high school sports.
In August, David died suddenly of a heart attack at age 43.
“There was no question in my mind, or in the family’s mind, that the tournament was going to go on,” Scott said this week. “The day after David passed, I stopped at his house, and all the family was there. Paul [Santora, a brother-in-law to David], turned to me, and not even after 15 minutes, he said, “It looks like you’re in charge.”
“A lot of credit this year goes to Paul and David’s sisters, too [Stacey Santora and Laura Wexler]. They were so determined that this thing was going to go, and to become bigger and better. – David’s mother, Illene – she was really the one that says this has to go on. I give her a lot of credit. It was very difficult. She needed to get through losing her son. But she was bound and determined.”
Before Niagara Falls had its Cataract Classic, before St. Mary’s put on its Monsignor Martin-ECIC Challenge, there was the Pastor-Cooper.
Western New Yorkers first knew of the Pastor-Cooper as the Pepsi Queen City Tournament, which was started in 1986 by David’s grandfather, Pepsi executive Al Pastor, and run by his father, Jerry Cooper (Al Pastor’s son-in-law). The event was named in honor of Pastor following his passing in 1988; it became the Al and Rose Pastor Tournament after David’s grandmother passed away in 2005.
By that point, David helped Scott and his father run the tournament, and when Jerry Cooper died in 2008, David took over for his father full-time in what would then be known as the Pastor-Cooper.
It was that family tree, that lineage, that David was so proud of. He talked about it every year. He had his own family, as well as his nieces and nephews, help present awards at the tournament along with Scott, the closest of friends to the Cooper family.
This year, several members of the Cooper family spent the tournament in the same corner where David and John had run things. David’s children, including son Ryan, who was an “honorary chairman” of this year’s event, again helped hand out awards.
This year they also were part of a fun halfcourt shot contest at halftime in which participants won free pizzas to main tournament sponsor Santora’s Pizza Pub & Grill, which was the main “family business” David was a part of.
“In a way, David was still sitting there with all of us,” said his wife, Robyn Cooper. “I could just picture him in the corner, sitting and watching the games, talking with people and trying to decide who would be the Players of the Game. He loved running it. When I walked in there, I just felt him there.
“He just loved the tournament. He did it out of honor. And we hope it continues for generations to come.”
David took incredible pride in putting on a great event, trying to secure top teams a year in advance so the matchups would be good ones. He would sit in the corner and talk about how there was a “good crowd.” You’ll hear that at many high school events, and understandably so, because admission helps sustain athletic programs or events.
But at the Pastor-Cooper, there has never been any admission. The whole point carried on through the years has been to offer a place to see some good high school basketball.
David kept the event going although sponsorship was tough (in addition to Santora’s, those who supported the event this year included the Buffalo Police Athletic League, ADPRO Sports and UNYTS).
“Both Jerry and David took a lot of pride in the look on people’s faces, when they were told it was free,” said Scott. “They loved that it became a place for old coaches and old timers to reminisce and kibbitz. You see those faces and see them every year, and see them coming back.”
What resulted from David’s hard work was not only continuing his family’s legacy, but the establishment of a veritable annual reunion for the local high school basketball community.
Once you step into Daemen’s gym for the Pastor-Cooper, it officially becomes basketball season.
And the event isn’t just the start of games, but a gathering of familiar faces: private, public, city, suburbs, girls, boys, coaches, players, officials, fans. On any night, there were the featured faces of the players and teams — and the officials — on the court, but there were many more looking on from the stands, sometimes former coaches, sometimes former players who were now in college.
This year, before each of the nine games of the three-day Pastor-Cooper, David’s memory was honored with a moment of silence. That was preceded by Scott paying tribute to his friend. This is a sampling of his words:
“Under director David Cooper, this tournament became, arguably, the finest in Western New York. David was the soul of this tournament. His smile, his effort, his endless energy, brought this tournament through times of change, so that you the fan, could enjoy true basketball, so you the players could have fun playing it, and so the coaches, and the referees, could have fun watching you play.
“There were three principles that were involved: Fair play and sportsmanship, fun for all, and a fair price. And ‘Coop’ maintained that throughout his tenure. “We will miss him, but in honor of his memory, this showcase will continue to grow, and will continue to be, one of the finest in Western New York.”
The games would then officially start when David’s son, Ryan Cooper (who was named an honorary tournament director), or others of his siblings or cousins, would hand the game ball to the officials.
The action on the court this year was perhaps the best I’ve seen in my time covering the showcase.
On the first night, St. Joe’s and Kenmore West played one of the most entertaining games I’ve ever seen at the Pastor-Cooper, going to two overtimes before St. Joe’s prevailed in front of fired-up student sections from the neighboring schools. On Wednesday, Depew and Amherst went overtime as well.
At one point after an overtime game, Scott said something that, when I heard it, I just heard David’s voice, and saw his wisecracking smile.
Knowing full well that there is never an admission at the Pastor-Cooper, Scott said a line that sure sounded like David, and was something that I’d probably heard him say before.
“We sure gave them their money’s worth.”