PORTLAND — As much as anyone in Cross Insurance Arena on Friday, Steve Turner knew what Cooper Flagg meant.

The head boys basketball coach at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., had just seen his team thoroughly picked apart by Flagg’s Montverde Academy Eagles. In a 92-51 loss, Gonzaga had almost been a sacrificial lamb of sorts, the team that 6,720 people in this building had paid to see as background fodder while their home-state idol brought them to their feet.

Leave it to Turner, though, to succinctly capture why this night and Montverde’s two-day stint in Portland was the spectacle it was when asked. It was a simple explanation, but it’s becoming the kind that’s needed to construe who Flagg is and what his presence means.

“Guys, come on,” Turner told the media gathered for a post-game press conference. “It’s Cooper; this place sold out in 12 hours.”

It’s the truth. There’s no need to go overboard explaining the significance of Flagg, whose mere name brought as many people who can fit Maine’s largest arena from all corners of the state. “Come on” is about the only reaction we need now, even as what are likely to be only the first few chapters in the 17-year-old’s story are being written.

Just think about the countless qualifiers we’ve used for Flagg, ones that range from the most basic to the most remarkable. Some, such as Newport native and ex-Nokomis player, are mundane, nothing more than basic descriptions of where he comes from. Others, such as state champion and Gatorade Maine Player of the Year, are impressive. Yet those things have been done before, and in those regards, Flagg’s name is just another in a long list.


Cooper Flagg signs autographs after the game against CATS Academy Boston on Saturday at the Portland Expo. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

What drove the thousands of fans who flocked Friday to Cross Arena and Saturday to the Portland Expo to see Montverde play CATS Academy of Massachusetts was that Flagg is something more. He’s the No. 1 recruit in the entire country, something that’s unthinkable to many in this state, and he’s going to play for Duke, one of the great bluebloods in college basketball, before likely becoming a successful player in the NBA.

In New York City or Philadelphia or another worldwide hotbed of basketball talent, that in and of itself would be unremarkable. Just as Maine high school basketball will always produce state champions and award-winning players, there will always be, by default, a nationally top-ranked player who’s bound to play at the highest level of basketball. Time is a cycle, one that produces these inevitabilities.

Putting those pieces together, though, has made what Flagg has done in Maine different. He’s not just a Newport native and ex-Nokomis player; he’s a superstar and state champion; he’s not just a superstar and state champion, he’s the top-ranked player of any high school senior anywhere in America right now. The qualifiers just grow and grow as his game and his profile elevate.

They don’t stop, though. There was something else Turner said, something that jumped out at everyone in that press room tucked away beneath the seats at Cross Arena. Turner coached Flagg to a gold medal as part of Team USA’s 2022 FIBA U17 World Cup squad, said Flagg wasn’t just a future star; he called Flagg, to quote his exact words, “the best white American basketball player since Larry Bird.”

Think for just a second about what that means. Bird, one of the greatest to ever play the game, retired 32 years ago. Since then, the players fitting Turner’s qualifier would include John Stockton and Chris Mullin, two NBA Hall-of-Famers; it would include Gordon Hayward and Kevin Love, two current players with NBA All-Star appearances to their names; it would include Chet Holmgren, who might just be the current NBA Rookie of the Year. That’s how good Turner thinks Flagg is going to become.

Cooper Flagg sinks a 3-pointer against CATS Academy Boston. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

That statement from Turner hit me Friday night, as did something else that took place at Cross Arena. Sitting next to me was Brendan Marks, a reporter covering Duke and North Carolina basketball for The Athletic. The next day, No. 8 UNC was scheduled to play a major Atlantic Coast Conference game against Clemson while No. 14 Duke was set to play Notre Dame. Instead of covering one of those two games the following day, he would be traveling to the Expo to watch Flagg’s Montverde team play its second game of the weekend. 


That’s how big Flagg has become. I sat with a reporter who had bypassed covering two major Division I games to come watch the Newport prodigy play a prep game in Portland. Then, a coach who’s spent years with USA Basketball and leads a nationally ranked high school team compared him — whatever the context — to a top-10 basketball player of all-time. All of this happened within about a two-hour span, and it took me a couple days to truly digest it.

Still, there was something more. As the game was ending, I received a message from a friend who hardly follows a lick of sports at any level asking me where I was and what I was doing. After saying nothing more than that Cooper Flagg’s team was playing in Portland, I got a response back that said it all: “I bet it’s packed.”

It sure was, and from those big on the basketball scene to those with almost no passion for or only a casual interest in the sport, there’s becoming little need to explain why.

Because if you still don’t know? Well, I’ll let Turner say it best.

Come on.

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