TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – James Cook has defied the assumptions about student athletes by not only being a leader on the court, but in the classroom as well.

Cook holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Virginia Tech, so he is no stranger to a rigorous academic schedule. However, the second-year mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidate has not only acquired a more demanding role as a student at the University of Alabama, but he’s also a member of the men’s wheelchair basketball team. Adjusting to the expectations of a National Championship team was not easy, Cook said.

“I’d been playing recreationally for about two years,” he said. “But it is really night and day. Playing there once a week, and then to playing every day at 7 a.m. or 6:30 a.m., and practicing with a team who’s really good and invested. It wasn’t easy, but I’ve been playing sports my whole life so it wasn’t terribly hard to pick up.”

When Cook decided he wanted to go to graduate school, he began considering Virginia Tech and several other institutions. He eventually visited the University of Alabama, where he was quickly impressed with the athletics and academic benefits.

“I saw some of the really awesome automotive engineering stuff that they had and the program was really good,” Cook said. “Then also, being able to play wheelchair basketball, which I had picked up a few years earlier, was the perfect combination.”

Cook’s doctoral programs allow him to take less time in class meetings and more time doing independent studies and research. That flexibility frees up more time in the morning but requires him to spend many nights in the engineering lab.

“I can kind of make my own schedule,” he said. “I can pick when I have free time and when I don’t, but I still have to commit a significant amount of time … 40 or 40-plus hours a lot of weeks in the lab doing research. So it evens itself out, I suppose.”

With the long nights, early mornings, and sacrifices Cook has to make to maintain excellence both academically and athletically, he considers the lessons learned from sports to be invaluable.

“[Sports] taught me work ethic,” Cook said. “Hard work pays off, especially in a game like basketball where the more you shoot the ball the better you become at shooting the ball; it’s a direct correlation. So the more time you put in outside of practice, the more you come to the gym, the better off you’ll be.”

Cook, alongside his teammates will take to the court on Friday, Feb. 26 in Foster Auditorium for a double-header style tournament. The men will tip off at 8 p.m. following the women at 6 p.m. Cook is thrilled for the chance to play in front of a big crowd and hopes that the fans will come out to experience something like they never have before.

“It’s a cool sport and I don’t think it’s like anything,” Cook said. “It’s not slow or boring or anything like you think it would be. It’s hard hitting, there’s a lot of contact. It’s fast paced. It’s a totally new sport, so it’s cool.”

Written By Jessica Russell