C.J. Hooker thought it was an April Fools’ Day joke. It wasn’t.
After learning of the retirement of legendary college basketball coach Roy Williams, Hooker — a former Kodiak resident and first Alaskan to play men’s hoops at the University of North Carolina — watched media outlets break the news. The announcement sunk in when Hooker viewed his former coach’s press conference.
“It was 100% a shock that he did it,” said Hooker on Tuesday, five days after Williams retired. “For us to find out the morning of April Fools’ Day, I honestly didn’t believe it for about three to four hours.”
Hooker went from playing hoops on The Rock to being coached by a hall of famer with 903 wins and three national championships. After his dad retired from the Coast Guard, his family relocated from Kodiak to Palmer. He played three years for the Moose, earning the Northern Lights Conference most valuable player award the year Kodiak went undefeated and beat East in the 4A state championship game.
Arizona, Princeton and the University of Alaska Anchorage all recruited Hooker. However, he bled Carolina blue. His parents won high school state basketball championships in North Carolina. He grew up with Michael Jordan posters covering his bedroom walls. He visualized dunking like Vince Carter. When the family left Carolina, he continued to root for the Heels. All that led Hooker to Chapel Hill.
A spot on the UNC roster was not guaranteed. Hooker — a 6-foot-2, 188-pound guard, tried out for the junior varsity with 80 other hopefuls, all with the same dream and skill. Only nine players were selected. He was one of them. Hooker played two seasons on junior varsity.
“It was pretty intense. The process of walking on the varsity, you have to play JV first. Then, hopefully, get invited to try out for varsity,” Hooker said.
Carolina coach Matt Doherty was let go after Hooker’s sophomore season. Williams, who had coached Kansas for 15 years, was hired. That led Hooker to consider trying out for wide receiver for the school’s football team. He didn’t and was one of 40 players invited to try out for varsity. Assistant coach Jerod Haase — now the coach at Stanford — ran trouts and told the players that they would keep zero to two people. They kept one. Hooker won the lottery and was asked to practice with the varsity for two weeks.
That led to Hooker’s best memory of Williams. The two were sitting on the bench together during a scrimmage that was opened to the public.
“He said, ‘If I put you on this team, will you rob a bank?’ In the moment, I’m playing in front of all these people. I’m wearing a Carolina jersey, and I’m talking to coach Williams. My mind is all over the place. I had no idea where he was going with this. I thought it was a very odd question, but I said, ‘No sir. Of course not.’ He said, ‘Congratulation, sir. You are on North Carolina’s basketball team,’” Hooker said.
Hooker didn’t have a career like Jordan, but he did experience the joy of winning the 2005 National Championship — the first of three titles Williams won at UNC. He played five minutes in the tournament, including one minute in the Final Four. When North Carolina edged Illinois, 75-70, in the final, Hooker became the second player from Alaska to win a championship ring. Juneau’s Carlos Boozer was on Duke’s 2001 championship team. Bartlett’s Mario Chalmers joined the list when Kansas won in 2008.
Hooker is grateful for Williams giving a player from Alaska a chance.
“Coach Williams is one of the most genuine honest people that you will ever meet,” Hooker said. “He never let a moment go by where he wouldn’t teach us something. If it wasn’t basketball, it was about being a gentleman, how to respect people and to appreciate all the little things. Those are the types of things that stay with you.”
Hooker scored 22 career points. and gained a lifetime of memories to pass down to his two boys — ages 3 and 8 — and future grandkids.
“It is very hard to put into words. You hear the stories about Carolina. You know who has come through and coached there. To actually experience it. You walk through the tunnel. You are in the Dean Smith Center. You are in there when it is empty and looking up at the jerseys. You are taking pictures,” Hooker said. “Then, the next thing you know, you are playing in front of 20,000 people and starting senior night against Duke.”
And it all started in Kodiak, from Little Dribblers to the high school’s C squad team. He spent countless hours in the gym, playing and watching his dad in the city league. Hooker cherished his time on The Rock and still thinks of himself as a Kodiak Bear, despite being named an all-state player as a Palmer Moose.
He cooked a plan to transfer back to Kodiak High his senior year, but that plan never hatched. Instead of being on Kodiak’s championship team, he played against them — losing three times, including in the Northern Lights Conference tournament championship game.
After Palmer was eliminated from the state tournament, Hooker stuck around and watched his friends and former teammates shock East in one of the greatest moments in state basketball history.
“I went down on the floor afterward to congratulate the guys,” Hooker said.
After all these years, Hooker — a project management analysis for Iqvia Pharma Inc. — has remained involved in basketball. He is in his third year of being an assistant girls basketball coach at Cary High School in Cary, North Carolina. One of his players, Teonni Key, is one of the nation’s top players and a University of North Carolina commit.
Hooker hopes to return for the first time since 2006 to Alaska this summer for his 20-year high school reunion. He might even venture to Kodiak.
“I enjoyed my time in Kodiak. I talk to the people all the time that I grew up with there,” Hooker said. “I love the place and definitely want to take my kids there to see one day.”