Cooper Flagg drives to the basket for a dunk during Montverde Academy’s game against Gonzaga College High School on Friday night in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald

PORTLAND — The place mattered. 

Cooper Flagg could’ve played anywhere in this state, be it here at Cross Insurance Arena, a tiny high school gym or a local town park with an old, worn-out hoop. It doesn’t matter, because wherever Flagg goes, Mainers follow. 

This arena, though, was a bridge from what Flagg was as a Nokomis Regional High School star in 2022 to what he is now: ESPN’s top-ranked high school player in the country and a Duke University commitment. 

It was here that, on March 5, 2022, he played his last game for Nokomis, which won its first Gold Ball with a 43-27 victory over Falmouth.

“I think the first day we walked in for practice (here), I kind of got all the flashbacks,” Flagg, now a senior at prep powerhouse Montverde Academy in Florida, said after his team claimed a 92-51 victory over Gonzaga College High School of Washington, D.C., at Cross Arena. “Just thinking about all the memories and all the good times we had.”

Flagg is back in Maine for the two-day “Maine Event,” which pitted Montverde against Gonzaga on Friday and then CATS Academy of Braintree, Massachusetts, on Saturday at the Portland Expo. He dazzled in Friday night’s opener, registering 23 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and nine blocks in the 93-51 blowout win.


The game Friday drew a packed house of 6,720 fans inside the Cross Arena. The game Saturday at the Expo also sold out.

Just as he packed gyms and arenas throughout the state to the rafters two years ago, he filled every seat Friday. Even now that he’s playing 1,000 miles away, the hype is just as big — bigger, actually, as a more complete Flagg is heading to Duke as the No. 1 pick in the Class of 2024.

That hype has grown along with Flagg’s game. He was always an elite defensive prospect, but since leaving Nokomis, his offensive game has continued to get better. An improved jump shot has added to his arsenal of threats, and continued development with the ball in his hands, his coach believed, could soon have him among the best players on the planet.

Cooper Flagg takes a shot during Montverde’s game against Gonzaga College High School on Friday night in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald

“He’s gotten a lot more comfortable,” said Montverde head coach Kevin Boyle. “As good as he is, I still think he’s got to get his handle tighter and shoot it more consistently to be an elite NBA player, and I think that’ll happen because he’s going to work. He’s at a good pace for that to happen.”

It takes a special type of talent for a coach to identify a player who just turned 17 as one of the future best players in the world. As someone who’s coached countless future NBA players, though, Boyle knows what it takes to reach that level, and while he pumped the brakes on the hype a little bit by pointing out a few top draft picks who haven’t panned out, he knows what Flagg’s potential is.

Someone who was not about to hold off the hype train was Gonzaga College High head coach Steve Turner. He’d seen Flagg before as an assistant coach for the Team USA squad that won gold at the 2022 FIBA U17 World Cup, and on Friday night, he watched a more polished, mature Flagg pummel his nationally ranked team.


Turner called Flagg “the reason I have a gold medal” because of his defensive play during that tournament. As a primary defender, he said, Flagg is unmatched as a shot-blocker in the modern game. Now that he’s furthered his game on the offensive end? Well, Turner wasn’t about to mince his words.

“I made the statement, and I’m not afraid to say it out loud: He’s the best white American basketball player since Larry Bird, and if anybody thinks any different, they’re crazy,” Turner said. “He leaves it all on the floor, and he plays for his team, and he doesn’t care what it takes to win and is going to do whatever he has to do.”

The floor on which Flagg left it all this time was the same one where many of those in attendance Friday last saw him. Since then, he’s been doing it on a national (and even international) stage, a stage that’s only going to grow as Flagg goes from Montverde to Duke to — if his coach is to be believed — NBA stardom.

Although Flagg has many, many nights on this court, this night truly did belong to him. He wasn’t the only one to block shots or throw down spectacular dunks in warmups, but the others who did failed to elicit the roars. When the refs called him for a carry, you could have probably heard the booing outside on Congress Street.

Flagg’s coaches and teammates knew how much it meant to him and his brother, Ace, as well. Boyle joked that the official who called the carry should be reprimanded for spoiling the homecoming. Liam McNeeley, also a five-star recruit, sat there enthusiastically in the post-game presser, happy to let the Flaggs have the moment as he fielded only one or two of the questions.

The game, after all, began with McNeeley winning the tip off from Derik Queen and finding Flagg cutting toward the basket to give Montverde a 2-0 lead in a matter of 8 seconds. It was a play, Boyle said, that the Eagles run in certain situations — and while he didn’t say it was run specifically to meet the moment, the matchup felt right.


“That’s a play we use sometimes if we think we’re going to win the tap just to send him ahead,” Boyle said. “It probably works every five games when somebody sleeps on it or doesn’t scout it.”

Appropriate, then, that this is one of the times it did work. Flagg sending the crowd wild just seconds into his return to the very floor he left with a Gold Ball two years ago felt just — as if nothing had changed.

Much, of course, has changed for an evolved player who’s no longer the one terrorizing players two or three years his senior on courts throughout the state. This night, though, suggested a bond between Maine and Flagg that’s stronger, even two years and 1,000 miles apart.

“It means everything to come back and see everybody and see all the support in real time,” Flagg said. “It’s just a great feeling, and you always have to appreciate it.”

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