Home Sports Cooper Flagg and the small New England town that raised basketball’s brightest young star

Cooper Flagg and the small New England town that raised basketball’s brightest young star

Cooper Flagg and the small New England town that raised basketball’s brightest young star

NEWPORT, Maine — In the calm moments — the few there are — snow slithers sideways across the northbound lanes of I-95. It’s almost graceful how the flurries snake right to left, passengers on every random gust of wind. Almost. But then the gusts become punches, pummeling and whipping the sides of this poor gray Nissan Altima. Windshield wipers are working overtime, and it takes every bit of front-wheel drive to stay aligned with the two thin tire tracks in the far right lane. And straight ahead, you see … nothing. The gray horizon swallows everything, even the tops of the soaring pines that frame the highway.

It’s like being inside a fiercely shaken snow globe.

Suddenly, amidst the whiteout, a standard green roadside sign appears: Exit 157. This whole trek — 100 miles north of Portland, past multiple “Moose Warning” signs — is to visit this tiny intersection. “Blink,” said longtime resident Josh Grant, “and you’ll miss it.”

Skate up the overpass to a stop sign; to the right is the local taxidermist, and not much else — so veer left, and welcome to Newport. Population: about 3,000. The main thoroughfare is called Moosehead Trail, but there’s no cutesy downtown with boutique shops or mom-and-pop restaurants.

There are two gas stations, a few fast-food joints — Burger King, McDonald’s, Subway, Dunkin’ — a pharmacy, an ice cream shop, and two marijuana dispensaries. Around the corner there’s a Walmart, and in the parking lot, a log cabin that serves as the community’s chamber of commerce.

A few roads over, on a snowy street the plows haven’t reached, 10 houses down on the left, there’s a brown two-story, with the remnants of a basketball hoop on the left side of a curving driveway.

This is where Cooper Flagg, the best high school basketball player in America, was raised. Cooper’s enrolling at Duke next season, before likely becoming the No. 1 pick in the 2025 NBA Draft. At 17, the 6-foot-9 forward already has been named a McDonald’s All-American, the MVP of the annual NBA Players Association top-100 camp, and an all-star at the 2022 FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup, which he helped the United States win.

A native Mainer hasn’t been drafted in 40 years, not since the New Jersey Nets selected Jeff Turner in 1984. Yet somehow, this town — “a place for people going other places,” as resident Earl Anderson calls it — has bred one of basketball’s brightest rising stars.

Maine has only one Division I program — the University of Maine — and the Black Bears men’s team has never made the NCAA Tournament. The state rarely exports talent to other programs.

“Just because we don’t produce the big D1 athletes as much as those other states do, people don’t think basketball is as big (here),” said Ralph Flagg, Cooper’s dad. “But it really is.”

Maine has no professional sports franchises, so local TV channels stream every round of the annual state high school tournaments, and the regional and championship games are played in the state’s largest arenas, in Bangor, Augusta and Portland. People flock from as far north as Madawaska — one of America’s “Four Corners,” which sits on the Canadian border — to watch players compete to bring the coveted Gold Ball home to their community. “When it comes to tournament time, the last person leaving the town turns the lights out,” said Ralph, repeating an old Maine expression.

“High school basketball is generations deep in the fabric of all these communities,” Anderson said. “It binds them together.”

Most small Maine towns aren’t large enough to support a school themselves. (Newport, for example, is one of eight communities that feeds into Nokomis Regional High School.) It’s a few thousand people here, another couple hundred there, all coming together to support that generation of players. Anderson, who coached Cooper his freshman year, led Nokomis to its only girls state championship in 2001, a point of pride for both coach and community.

Cooper’s parents both played at Nokomis. Ralph later played for Eastern Maine Community College. And mom Kelly remains one of the top talents Nokomis ever produced; she played on the only University of Maine team to win an NCAA Tournament game, a 1999 upset over Stanford.

After college, Ralph was playing in a men’s league at the local community center — a converted 1940s armory, just a few minutes walk from the house Cooper grew up in — alongside Kelly’s dad (who also played at Nokomis). “That was kind of where we met,” Ralph said. “On a basketball court.”

They settled, like their parents before them, in Newport, raising their three boys: Hunter, the oldest, and later twins Cooper and Ace. The boys were raised with a basketball in their hands, traveling the state to watch games. Kelly — who coached the Nokomis varsity girls team — has photos of them asleep in various high school rafters. At home, the boys spent hours in the driveway (when the weather allowed it) playing pickup, with their parents or friends or just one another.

“And then even sometimes in the winter,” Cooper said, “we would shovel out a square in the snow and play with gloves on.”

By Hunter’s freshman year, Nokomis was playing in a nearby summer league, but struggled finding enough players. So Cooper and Ace joined in — as sixth-graders, against high schoolers. “(Cooper) was still the best player on either team,” Ralph said.

About the same time, Kelly got a call from a former college peer: Andy Bedard, a basketball icon in Maine. Bedard led Mountain Valley High to a state title in 1994, before playing at Boston College and Maine. Bedard was coaching his son, Kaden, and had heard about Cooper. He invited the family to attend a practice, and they were immediately impressed.

“They were surprised how I didn’t have a whole lot of time and patience for, like, kiddie gloves,” Bedard said. “The drills and the coaching and the urgency and the speed, you’d have thought you were at a high school practice, if you had your eyes closed and you didn’t see the kids out there — but meanwhile, they’re like fourth-graders.”

Eventually, Bedard and Kelly formed their own AAU program, where they could pour every dollar they raised back into their kids. They let the boys decide on a name: Maine United.

The team drew players from all over the state. Bedard was based in New Gloucester, for instance, about 20 minutes north of Portland. So Maine United didn’t have one consistent practice gym; it used a church in Portland, or a gym at Division III Bates College in Lewiston, or anywhere it could train.

Once the middle school bell rang, two or three days a week, the Flaggs trekked down I-95. They’d pack snacks, or order a pizza pickup on the way, to cut their commute. “Probably like an hour and 45 minutes,” Bedard said. “Hour and a half, maybe, if Kelly was driving 100.” They usually drove the family’s blue Chrysler minivan. They’d lay the middle row of seats down so the boys could sprawl out, then play old Boston Celtics tapes on the van’s mini DVD player.

“The ‘85-86 Celtics championship Finals disc,” Cooper said. “We watched all those so many times. Then we had Magic versus Bird. Just all those other old Celtics films.” Those tapes were Cooper’s basketball education. Larry Bird was his professor and remains his favorite player. And the way those teams played — sharing the ball, prioritizing defense — always stuck with Cooper. “Watching them every single day maybe brainwashed him into the fact that, well, that’s how you play,” Bedard said.

Maine United won quickly regionally, but soon wanted a broader barometer. They found one at a seventh-grade grassroots tournament in Washington, D.C. “I’m seeing all these big guys in the layup line, and it’s our age group,” Bedard said, “but certainly they all looked a hell of a lot older. Some of them had tattoos.” Five minutes into the game, Maine United led 24-2. “And Cooper, he’s smashing everything,” Bedard said.

Cooper’s performance that weekend put him on the national radar. “I remember my grandson texted me, ‘Do you know Cooper Flagg?’” Anderson said. “Because he had read somewhere that he was, like, the seventh-ranked seventh-grader, eighth-grader in the country.” By their eighth-grade year, prep schools from around the country started calling, asking them to transfer.

But Cooper and Ace refused. They’d grown up with the same group of friends, always cheering on Nokomis, waiting for their opportunity to play for the Warriors. “We always talked about when (Hunter and his friends) were seniors, when we were freshmen, what the team was going to look like and how we were going to win a Gold Ball together,” Cooper said. “Once we got there, we were like, let’s make it happen.”

Cooper averaged 20.5 points, 10 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 3.7 steals, and 3.7 blocks per game that season — becoming the first freshman in state history to be named Maine Gatorade Player of the Year — and Nokomis won its first state title. A photo of Hunter, Cooper, and Ace holding the Gold Ball remains the screensaver on Ralph’s phone. On the ride home to Newport, Ralph and Kelly and other parents of kids who grew up together packed into the Flagg’s Chevy Suburban, singing “We Are the Champions” as loud as they could.

As the bus carrying the team pulled off exit 157, fans lined the sides of Moosehead Trail in a miles-long parade that stretched to Nokomis. All eight townships that feed into the school sent their fire trucks and police cars to escort the team bus, and locals near Nokomis set off fireworks.

“As time has gone on, I’ve grown to appreciate it more and more,” Cooper said. “Because as the times get more hectic, and everything’s getting more crazy, I get to appreciate the simplicity of that year. I was able to still kind of just be a kid, and have fun with my friends.”

Tickets to watch Cooper Flagg’s team play in Portland, Maine, sold out within 24 hours. (John Jones / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Midway through Cooper and Ace’s freshman season, the Flaggs accepted the inevitable: The twins would have to leave home to reach their full basketball potential.

“It’s a decision you have to make at some point,” Cooper said, “if you really want to take yourself to the next level.”

Ralph and Kelly vetted schools nationwide but struggled to find the right fit. Montverde (Fla.) Academy had recruited the twins as eighth-graders, but the family was reluctant to let them move so far. Then Montverde invited the Flaggs to watch them in-person at a nearby tournament. The school’s reputation — it has produced seven first-round NBA picks since 2020 — preceded it, but the twins finally saw Montverde’s style, which prioritized the same team-first principles of the old Celtics teams they grew up studying. Leaving the gym, Cooper and Ace agreed: “This is where we want to go.”

It wasn’t an easy transition. At 15 years old, the boys were away from their support system for the first time. They couldn’t go fishing on Sebasticook Lake, or camping and bird hunting on old paper company land in northern Maine. They did their laundry for the first time. It helped some that Bedard moved to Florida — his son also transferred to Montverde — and the twins spent most weekends at his house. Ralph and Kelly flew to all the twins’ home games, and others on the East Coast, but not being around them daily took its toll. “It’s hard to have conversations with them over the phone and really get a true feel of how they’re feeling,” Ralph said.

So Ralph and Kelly did what they had to: They sold their house in Newport and moved to Florida full-time. They closed on their Newport home in November.

“It was a hard decision because we’re so close to the rest of our community, but at the same time, this is where we needed to be: with our kids,” Ralph said. “Moving down here was probably the best decision we’ve made. Just to be here with them, and not lose those last couple of years that we do have with them.”

The twins haven’t been back to Newport since last summer. When Cooper visited a Nokomis basketball camp, the kids reacted “like it was LeBron James,” said Grant, the school’s current coach. Cooper still streams Nokomis’ games and texts his old teammates after big wins. Newport will always be home, even if he no longer has a home there.

Which is what makes the first Friday night in January so special. Portland’s Cross Insurance Arena is packed.

Or, it will be.

Temperatures are almost down to single digits — there’s a “storm” coming this weekend, Mainer speak for a blizzard — but you’d never know it from the line of folks stretching down Free Street, waiting to get inside. To get a glimpse — possibly, probably, their last one — of Cooper Flagg in his home state. Most are wearing gear from one of three teams: Nokomis, Montverde or Duke.

When it was announced that Cooper and Ace’s Montverde team would be playing here — as part of “The Maine Event,” a speciality showcase put on by the same MADE Hoops group that first hosted Maine United in the seventh grade — tickets sold out within 24 hours. Ralph and Kelly joke they’re “like the governors” this weekend. The family’s entire 42-seat midcourt section is full, and there’s at least that many people hovering around it at all times. To say hello, to reminisce. To be a part of this moment, one the state has never had before.

“We’ve never had a true, native Mainer have this type of attention and this potential,” Bedard said. “And it’s not even like he’s a good player; we’ve got a chance to have one of the best ones ever.”

Cooper doesn’t emerge until midway through the first game, featuring his old Nokomis buddies. He’s barely visible in a tunnel under the stands, but he can’t stay hidden long. One lucky kid sees him first and asks for an autograph. That turns into 10, 20, almost 50, within minutes.

He gets to watch the game for maybe three minutes before security shuffles him back to the locker room.

“At one point, you were those kids,” Cooper said. “So where (the attention) can be annoying and where it can be overwhelming, I think about the fact that I used to dream to be that person, and I worked towards being that person. So I can’t be, like, annoyed with what comes with it.”

When he committed to Duke in October, through a commemorative SLAM Magazine cover, T-shirts were made of the cover — and proceeds from those sales went to the Lewiston-Auburn Area Response fund, which supports that community following October’s mass shooting, when 18 people were killed and another 13 were injured. Those In Flagg We Trust shirts dotting the crowd? A portion of those proceeds go to the Ronald McDonald House of Portland, which took care of Kelly and Ralph when all three boys were born prematurely. After wearing No. 32 his entire life, Cooper wants to wear No. 2 at Duke in honor of his former Maine United teammate, Donovan Kurt, who died of brain cancer in November 2022.

“It’s just important, wherever you are, to always stay grounded and be able to just give back to what helped you get to where you are,” Cooper said. “To show support back to all the people that are supporting me from the start.”

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Brendan Marks / The Athletic; John Jones, Juan Ocampo, Lance King / Getty Images)

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