BELLEVILLE — Belleville West's Jesheon Cooper has never attempted to dunk a basketball.
And, it's not like dunking would be totally out of the question for the 6-foot-5 senior center.
"I can touch the rim, but I've never actually tried to dunk,'' Cooper said. "It's like a self thing. I'm like, 'If it doesn't go in, it might kill my self-esteem knowing that it didn't go in.'
"I really plan on trying (to dunk) before I leave here. I have to.''
Cooper said the conditions have to be right for that first dunk attempt.
"I'll probably try during a Saturday practice when there are only a few people in the gym just in case, and then if it goes good, I'll do it in a game,'' Cooper said. "You can't stop me if it goes good.''
Cooper provides an intimidating presence in the lane for the Maroons, who are 10-4 overall and 3-2 in the Southwestern Conference. She leads the metro-east in blocked shots with an average of three per game.
"She allows our guards to pressure the basketball,'' West coach Clayton Fisher said. "She's a nice eraser to have back there as far as blocking shots. She has nice timing on her blocks. She's good at blocking shots. It's not just because she is 6-5. She blocks a lot of shots and alters a lot, too.''
Cooper also averages a team-leading seven rebounds per game.
Cooper has become more productive on the offensive end this season. She's averaging 11.6 points per game, third-highest on the Maroons behind Shay Fluker's 17 points per game and Imani Berry's 13.5 points per game.
"If you watch our practice, you'll hear me anytime we have the ball say, 'The first look has to be to Jesheon,''' Fisher said. "If we can get her a 1-footer ... we're not going to get better than that. We're trying to get all of our girls that when they catch the ball the first thing they do is look inside. Just give her a quick look and see if she is open.''
Fisher said Cooper is capable of hitting a 15-foot jumper, though the Maroons prefer her to stay closer to the basket.
Cooper has worked hard on developing her offensive skills.
"Last year, I didn't really try to score,'' Cooper said. "I'd pass a shot up and pass it to one of my teammates. This year, I'm getting more comfortable shooting. I'm also trying to get on the offensive boards more.''
Height runs in Cooper's family. Her biological father, Dwayne Hawthorne, stands 6-foot-9. Her mom, Lisa, stands 6-foot.
Her first cousin is former NBA player Darius Miles, who is 6-foot-9.
Even Cooper's stepfather, Ron Henry, is 6-foot-8.
Yet, it wasn't until Cooper reached the fourth grade that genetics started to kick in.
"At first basketball wasn't something that I was interested in,'' Cooper said. "I was like average height, and then about the fourth grade I had a growth spurt and got taller (5-foot-7).
"I was like, 'Hey, what about basketball?'''
Lisa Cooper said her daughter was more interested in fashion than athletics.
"She is still at heart that girlie girl who would rather be modeling than playing basketball,'' Lisa Cooper said.
Cooper credits Ricky Berry, the father of her best friend and former Maroons star Jasmine Berry (Imani Berry's father as well), for developing her love for basketball.
Ricky Berry coached Jesheon Cooper at Westhaven Grade School and on the Southwest Illinois Jets AAU team.
"My best friend's dad, he really changed my mind about basketball,'' Jesheon Cooper said. "He helped me through everything.''
Lisa Cooper said her daughter spent a lot of time playing basketball at the Berry family home.
"The more she hung out, the more she enjoyed playing,'' Lisa Cooper said.
By the time Cooper reached Belleville West, she was 6-foot-3.
She started her freshman year on the freshman team before moving up to the junior varsity in the second half of the season. She moved up to varsity during the second half of her sophomore season.
Cooper started every game as a junior for the Maroons. She averaged 8.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and two blocked shots per game.
Fisher has been blessed to have a couple of exceptionally tall post players come through his program in recent years.
Kaitlyn Hill, a 6-foot-4 center, graduated from Belleville West in 2009. Hill closed out her four-year basketball career at Austin Peay last year.
"We want to do the same thing for Jesheon,'' Fisher said. "That's what it is all about, getting these kids opportunities. And, basketball will give Jesheon opportunities in the future.''
Fisher said Cooper's best basketball is definitely ahead of her.
"I tell everybody that,'' Fisher said. "I know you hear that all the time that somebody has a diamond in the rough here, but without a doubt, her best basketball is ahead of her if she wants to work at it. And, she does. She wants to play college basketball.''
Cooper is being recruited by several junior colleges. She said she would prefer to go to a smaller school rather than a bigger school, and she knows she still has a lot of room for improvement.
"First, I need to get stronger, spend more time in the weight room,'' said Cooper, who wants to major in journalism as a way of capitalizing of her love of writing about sports or fashion."And, I need to learn more things offensively and defensively.''
"Post moves, back to the basket skills,'' Fisher said of what Cooper needs to work on.
Cooper's height elicits a lot of stares and a lot of the same questions when she's out in public.
"Everybody is like, 'You're so tall. How tall are you? Do you play basketball? Do you play volleyball?''' Jesheon Cooper said. "It's not like rude or anything. My brother, my sister and my cousins are all tall and they always got teased about their height, but it was never that way with me. Everybody enjoyed it.''
Being tall also makes finding clotches that fit more difficult, as Lisa Cooper can attest.
"In the summertime, we are fine,'' Lisa Cooper said. "In the wintertime, I have to order everything online. I almost have to go to Canada to find things for her. They must have a lot of tall girls up there.''
Being tall brings heightened expectations, and it's something that Cooper has learned to deal with.
"People are like, 'You should be dunking. You should be doing this. You should be doing that,''' Jesheon Cooper said. "They expect you to be that good when you are taller.''
Contact reporter Steve Korte at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2522.