LAS VEGAS -- The "M-V-P!" chant starts as the referee hands Jack Cooley the ball. Cooley tells himself to focus completely on making the first free throw, then maybe will let himself crack a smile before the second one. He appears calm. The ball drops through the net.
"He's big-time," future Hall of Famer Vince Carter says on the NBA TV broadcast. Cooley counts Carter as a good friend after being teammates this past season. Carter continued, "You don't understand. Jack Cooley is a star, man. He's a star."
At the Thomas & Mack Center, home of NBA Summer League, this is undeniably true. As the chant reverberates, the ref gives him the ball again. Cooley coughs into his hand, so he can crack that smile discreetly. He releases the second shot, holds his follow-through and the crowd cheers for its hero.
"I'll take 'things that only happen at Summer League' for 500, Alex," commentator Casey Stern says to Carter.
Cooley gets the ball on the left block on the Phoenix Suns' next offensive possession and scores with a quick post move. This puts the Suns up 71-51 with less than a minute to play in a contest that, to put it in Vegas terms, is not exactly a high-stakes affair. The arena erupts.
"It's the Jack Cooley show," Stern says.
After the final buzzer, Cooley high-fives his Phoenix teammates and Carter. He applauds the fans and they cheer him again. This now counts as his favorite Summer League memory, right there with the second game he ever played in Las Vegas, in which he scored 20 points and hit two 3s for the Memphis Grizzlies in 2013. He has been back every July since.
"Vegas doesn't have an NBA team, but I've been playing here for six years so I'm basically the resident Vegas NBA player," Cooley says.
On Friday, Cooley will play his 32nd Summer League game in Las Vegas, tying the all-time record held by Dionte Christmas. He has also played a combined 10 Summer League games in Orlando and Salt Lake City. In the NBA, he has appeared in 23 games, split between the Utah Jazz in 2014-15 and the 2017-18 Sacramento Kings, who gave him a two-way contract. And yet, Cooley is more than happy to be here. He considers Phoenix the best opportunity he's had in a while.
"People always say that I'm the king of Summer League," Cooley says. "Some say it nice and some say it satirically. And I go, 'Well, if you had a chance to get your dream job that you've wanted since you were a little kid, and to increase the chances of doing it, all you needed to do was go play the sport you love and get a free trip to Vegas, would you do it?'"
The same fans who chant M-V-P for Cooley routinely approach him in Vegas. He gets a kick out of it. No one, however, enjoys his Summer League celebrity status more than those who are closest to him.
"My family, they love it," Cooley says. "They go nuts with it. My dad's here, smiling his face off every game. My girlfriend, she was here, she was absolutely loving it. She's so funny, too, because there will be people who walk up and are like, 'Can I take a picture?' and she'll be like, 'Sure! He can take a picture. Get on in there. Go take a picture with him.'"
The fanfare started, he says, in 2017 with the Chicago Bulls, but last year was the first time he heard a smattering of M-V-P chants. Cooley says he can't fully comprehend why fans connect with him, but he thinks it has something to do with his style of play. People tweet at him saying that they see other players taking bad shots and trying to be flashy, while Cooley brings energy, physicality and unselfishness.
The first time he played on a Summer League team, it was with the Houston Rockets in Orlando in 2013. Stuck battling for minutes with Terrence Jones and Greg Smith -- players the Rockets had invested in -- the experience was an awakening. He knew he had to define himself with his hustle.
"I would personally describe myself as the best rebounder on the court, regardless of what level we're playing at, and the guy who is going to play the hardest," Cooley says. "I'm going to set the best screens, I'm going to play the hardest and I'm going to be the best rebounder."
Cooley is unapologetic about the fact that he annoys players with his intensity. It is not unusual for an opponent to tell Cooley to chill out. Once, he shot back, "I don't have a job right now, I'm not going to relax." In the NBA, big men sometimes ask each other if they are going to go after the rebound when someone is shooting free throws. Cooley tells them he is always going in. This is a man who pulled down an all-time record 29 rebounds in a single G League game.
On that broadcast on Monday, Carter called Cooley "easy to fall in love with as a player," adding that he enjoys watching him but hates getting hit by him. His popularity is not limited to Summer League -- Kings fans chanted his name at the Golden 1 Center in March.
"They're just hard-working people who aren't necessarily the flashiest but they work really hard and they love basketball," Cooley says. "They can just connect with someone who is there just to love the game, and there's no other reason I'm there. So I'll forever love Sacramento fans. And I'm starting to forever love Phoenix fans. I mean, one guy made a shirt for me already. It's sick. I got two of them. I'm pretty excited about that."
After his final Summer League game with the Suns, Cooley will get Dippin' Dots from the Thomas & Mack concourse -- it's a tradition. Otherwise, he doesn't touch arena food. Like any regular visitor to Vegas, he has his favorite spots: Trevi at Caesar's Palace for Italian, the steakhouse STK at the Cosmopolitan and a Cajun restaurant called Lola's, which he tells me was featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. He is also always looking for places to eat breakfast and a pregame meal "and not spend $300," he says.
Cooley has represented seven different teams in Summer League competition. Each time, he forms new relationships. This is the one time of year where almost everyone in the NBA community is in the same place, so the amount of names he needs to remember is pages long.
He insists, though, that this isn't hard for him, and every part of Summer League has gotten easier with experience. Six years ago, Cooley's head was spinning trying to keep track of basic plays. The Suns are now running "the most advanced Summer League offense I've even come close to," he says, and it's all second nature.
"I know how it works," Cooley says. "I know how to handle the rest. I know how to handle excited young guys who are going out there and flailing around, trying to do too much."
If Cooley knows all there is to know about Summer League, is there anything more that Summer League attendees -- NBA executives in particular -- can learn about him? Cooley says he has worked on getting faster and being able to guard 4s "and sometimes even 3s," trying to adapt to a league that is becoming less friendly to big men.
Still, Cooley says, "every team does know what I do." Cooley continues venturing to Vegas because he does not want to be out of sight, out of mind. People in the Phoenix organization can reaffirm what he is known for by telling friends around the league how he went out of his way to help No. 1 pick DeAndre Ayton with fundamentals. It is also worth noting that the Suns promised him and his agent that they have real interest.
"I won't do Summer League unless there's a legitimate opportunity," he says.
There have been offers to join NBA teams in a management capacity, but Cooley plans to keep going "until the wheels fall off, honestly," he says. He has made good money overseas and respects players who get comfortable internationally and let go of their NBA aspirations, but he is not ready to do that, either. He knows that players like Ayton are the main attractions in Vegas, but if you wind up watching Cooley play, he is impossible to ignore.
Cooley makes it clear that the fan support means a lot to him. He also stresses that this is a business trip. While more established players can relax at home or watch these games courtside, his priority remains the same as it's been for six summers running: do the dirty work, earn some attention and show he belongs at the highest level.
"I know right now I'm damn sure good enough to play in the NBA," Cooley says. "So I'm going to keep fighting that fight."