NEWPORT — Cooper Flagg’s time as a Maine high school basketball player has finished. The fervor around him in his home state, though, is just getting started.
There’s not much happening around Nokomis Regional High School this time of year. The school, tucked away in an oft-forgotten corner of Newport, has been out of session for more than a month. As the sun begins to set, the area is rather quiet once the youth baseball and softball games on the fields next to the school have concluded.
Yet over the past year Flagg has found ways of bringing a new level of sound and energy to just about any setting throughout the state. He did it again Wednesday night at Nokomis, where he was at the center of a fire department escort as more than 100 people gathered in celebration of his gold medal victory in the recent FIBA U17 World Cup in Spain.
It was a loud scene as fire trucks from Newport and the surrounding towns from which Nokomis draws its students arrived at the high school along with a cavalcade of cars filled with supportive fans. In the middle was Flagg, who waved to the crowd as he stuck his 6-foot-8 frame out of the sunroof of a large Chevy TrailBlazer.
The sounds of sirens and horns blaring, though certainly deserved, were an interesting entrance for the reserved Flagg, who has never been one to toot his own horn or get caught up in the hype. Even if Flagg doesn’t speak much about himself, folks all throughout Maine haven’t stopped talking about him — and no matter where he goes, the pomp and excitement follow.
The World Cup was a much different stage for Flagg than the one on which he thrived this past school year. Even as a freshman, Flagg often looked out of place on local high school basketball courts; the combination of his size, skill, athleticism and overall smoothness to his game weren’t things opposing Maine high school basketball teams were equipped to handle. This competition, though? It was one of the very few times — perhaps even the only time — Flagg’s mere presence alone didn’t stack the deck in his favor.
Flagg didn’t just prove he belonged on that stage; he owned it. Averaging 9.3 points and 10 rebounds, he was chosen to the All-Star Five as one of the top players in the global tournament. Among his impressive efforts were an 18-point, 11-rebound game in the quarterfinals against Serbia and a 17-rebound, eight-steal performance in the championship game victory over Spain.
The national team, which was selected by a USA basketball committee, featured high school student-athletes who will graduate in 2023, 2024 and 2025.
In Maine, there was no question that the building was going to be packed when Flagg came to play. That was true whether he was playing in a local gym or in front of 5,500 fans at the Augusta Civic Center. This time, though, the championship game crowd of 7,000 wasn’t there to see him; it was full of Spanish fans hoping to see their home team knock off Team USA and claim the gold.
It was an atmosphere, Flagg said, that was unlike anything he’s seen before in his life. He’s become used to playing in front of large audiences, this one went beyond a boisterous atmosphere into downright hostility. Instead of being overcome by the moment, Flagg — a 15-year-old not even old enough to drive a car — fed off of the antagonism of the home crowd.
“After the game, even parents and all of the fans were just booing and flipping us off and just yelling at us,” said Flagg, who helped key a second-half run that spurred Team USA to the 79-67 championship game win. “Personally, for me, that just made it better.”
Some of Flagg’s best moments came on the defensive end, particularly against Spain as his three blocks of Spain’s Izan Almansa Pérez on a single possession put the nail in the coffin of that gold medal game win. His spot on the all-tournament team came even as five of his American teammates eclipsed him in points per game.
Still, Flagg managed to produce some of the same highlight-reel dunks that sent fans into raptures as a freshman this past winter. In one instance, he had slams on back-to-back possessions against Slovenia, a sequence after which his mother, Kelly, said she instantly got dozens of text messages from friends watching back home. The former University of Maine starter wouldn’t respond to any of them until after the game, though; she was, understandably, invested in the moment.
Everyone seems to be these days. Even with Flagg set to leave Maine for Montverde Academy in Florida in a few weeks, the eyes of the state only seem to be growing, not shrinking. It would be fair, perhaps, to assess whether it’s too much being placed on a 15-year-old’s shoulders.
Flagg, though, doesn’t seem to care. As he learned as a freshman, the big stage is something from which he can’t shy away. Those stages might be away from home now, but scenes like the ones Wednesday at Nokomis, in which fans displayed signs and banners reading “Cooper Airlines,” wore T-shirts with his name and, in the instance of one fan, wore a stitched authentic jersey with his number, suggest that his story back home has barely begun.
“I just take it day by day, and I don’t really think about all of that (outside noise),” Flagg said. “I’m thankful for everyone that’s here. I know I’ll always have great support.”