Cole’s journey to becoming the guy

North Carolina Central University's Patrick Cole.
North Carolina Central University's Patrick Cole. The Herald-Sun

Pat Cole was never the man. One might find that hard to believe considering all he accomplished during his senior season at North Carolina Central.

Cole was named the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Player of the Year, the MEAC tournament Most Outstanding Player and the BOXTOROW National Player of the Year. Tuesday afternoon, Cole learned he was named to the AP All-American honorable mention list. Also on that list was Jerome Frink of LIU-Brooklyn.

Frink, Cole said, was the man.

Cole and Frink, both natives of New Jersey played on the same AAU team, the duo just two of many future Division I players on the roster. Cole and Frink played alongside Eli Carter, who ended his college career at Boston College. Lucky Jones was also on Cole’s AAU team. He played at Robert Morris when they knocked off defending champion Kentucky in the first round of the NIT in 2013. Hallice Cooke played basketball at Iowa State, and was also on that same AAU team, just a sample of the talent Cole played with during his prep days. Never the man or the go-to guy.

“On that team there was never that one guy,” Cole said. “Just a bunch of good players who went out there and showcased their talents.”

Cole, as it turned out, was just as good as any of them, his college career proves that. The problem was it took Cole a while to find the perfect fit. He bounced from school to school; from Coppin State to Siena and finally to North Carolina Central - where he was able to finally put it all together. Fresh out of high school he signed with Coppin State and had a decent freshman season, good enough to make him believe he could compete at a higher level after being voted to the MEAC All-Rookie team. That led him to upstate New York, where he sat out a year and never saw the court at Siena, realizing that team was returning so many players and he didn’t see where he would fit in the plans the next season.

Finally, he landed in Durham, where the team was loaded with talent, but short on leadership. After a rocky junior year where he admittedly bumped heads with head coach LeVelle Moton, everything fell into place for Cole in his final season, on and off the court. Cole didn’t immediately buy into what Moton was trying to do for the program and didn’t know how to lead. Looking back he realizes if he would have bought in, last season would not have been as bad.

“The transition was pretty tough, just learning how to be a leader,” Cole said. “Coach Moton always talked about me having that killer instinct and knowing how to lead guys, not just by going out and getting a triple-double (which he did on November 18 vs. Jackson State), but leading verbally and emotionally. That’s pretty much how it translated to my senior year.”

During his junior year, Cole said the team spent the season all trying to establish a role that was new to everyone, and it never happened. The 2016-17 season was different. Everyone knew their role and stuck to it. Nobody played a bigger part than Cole, who led the Eagles in scoring (19.3 ppg) and was tops in the MEAC in assist per game.

He was voted preseason second-team All-MEAC, but early in league play it was obvious he was not only a first-team guy, but hands down the best player in the conference. A 6-5 guard/forward who can play four positions, Cole models his game after Magic Johnson, his favorite player. Cole, like Johnson, was a big ball handler, who was at his best when he got others involved. Three times this season he recorded 10 or more assists in a game. He will be the first to tell you that he isn’t athletic. He can’t jump out the gym like teammate Pablo Rivas, or run the floor with the grace of Eagles’ big man De’Vin Dickerson. But when Cole needs to get to a spot on the court, he does so with no issues at all.

“I’m not an athlete, I wish I was,” Cole said. “Basketball is not always about being athletic. Most of the time it’s about who is the smartest. I think that’s what I was blessed with, my ability to think the game and not just always run and jump.”

Cole, like his idol and the former Lakers great, can see things on the floor the average eye can’t. He makes spectacular passes look routine, creating his very own Durham version of ‘Showtime’ on the fast break.

After the first year at Coppin, and having to sit before finally getting on the floor for N.C. Central, Cole didn’t find his groove again until this season. He had a couple of good games early and credited that to a productive preseason. That got him ready, mentally and physically for a breakout senior campaign, ending with the team goal the Eagles set out to accomplish. Cole says he didn’t have any individual goals. He only wanted championships. He got two of those - the MEAC regular-season and tournament banners will soon hang in McDougald-McLendon Arena. The player of the year and honorable mention AP All-America nods were just icing on the cake, and maybe one day will get Cole’s jersey hung up in McDougald-McLendon. A professional career is on the horizon, more than likely overseas, even though, like all basketball players, he wants his shot at the NBA. Cole has already signed with an agent and he’s ready to play no matter where the chips may fall. His journey brought him from Newark, New Jersey to Coppin State to New York and finally in Durham, where he feels like he’s in the right place.

“Blessed, honestly,” Cole said. “I really believe that I am blessed. I understand now what pushing through things, and what the struggle is and what praying through the struggle and believing that there is a God out there … that helped what’s going on now. These blessing that I am receiving and I’m looking back now like ‘wow’ it all goes hand and hand.”

Jonas Pope IV: 919-419-7001, @JEPopeIV