PRESCOTT VALLEY, Ariz. – “This is my calling. It’s not even a passion, it’s a calling.”
Northern Arizona Suns Head Coach Cody Toppert has always been surrounded by basketball. You could say it’s in his DNA.
Cody was born in 1983, almost eight years after both his parents finished playing basketball for the University of New Mexico. Bob Toppert, Cody’s father, helped boost a Lobos program sitting in mediocrity into a 43-13 (.786) team over his first two years from 1972-74. The Lobos even made a Sweet 16 run in 1974, finding themselves in the West region that was eventually won by Bill Walton’s UCLA Bruins. Cody’s mother Linda Toppert, formerly Linda Hattox, earned one of the first scholarships given out by the Lobos and played from 1974-76, averaging 7.8 points in 17 games her final year.
That was just the beginning of the Toppert family legacy, especially in Albuquerque.
Cody was born and raised in Albuquerque and went on to earn prep glory. He was named New Mexico’s Player of the Year his senior season and had been named a USA Today All-American twice, not to mention winning countless local honors. According to MaxPreps, he is second on the all-time scoring leaderboard at Albuquerque Academy.
Cody went to the Adidas ABCD Camp for the top 200 high school players in the country and shined. Excelling at tests in high school, he had many Ivy League colleges recruiting. He ultimately chose to follow Steve Donahue to the University of Cornell, who as an assistant at the University of Pennsylvania had recruited him (Donahue has since returned to Penn as head coach).
At Cornell, Cody averaged 11.4 points in 108 career games, finishing his time there eighth in scoring in school history (1,232 points) and first in three-point field goal makes with 237 (Randy Wittman has since surpassed that mark).
Cody joined the NBA Development League, now the NBA G League, after college and quickly saw success, winning the championship with the Albuquerque Thunderbirds in 2006. He would go on to play overseas over the next six years in countries that included New Zealand, Portugal, Germany, Italy and Spain.
Finishing his playing career in 2012, Cody had an idea of what life had to offer next.
“It wasn’t really until towards the end of my career that it was super obvious that I wanted to be a coach and this is what I needed to do, this is my calling. It’s not even a passion, it’s a calling,” Cody said. “I firmly believe this is what I’m supposed to do and I believe that I can be, will be and am even a far better coach than I was a player. To be honest with you, I enjoy coaching more than anything, in terms of the game.”
Cody’s first gig after playing was with Elev8 Sports Institute, “an IMG kind of academy model in terms of really focusing on development of the athlete and helping athletes go on to play at the college level and then also training professional athletes,” according to Cody. He added that at his time there, 25 athletes he worked with went on to Division I schools, including 8-to-10 guys who participated in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
He left Elev8 to advance his coaching career, signing on with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers as an assistant coach under Matt Brase in 2015. Fresh on the job, Cody ran into a familiar face – his brother.
Chad Toppert carried on the family tradition of giving it all into basketball. Like Cody, he also was a top-notch player at Albuquerque Academy. However, Chad chose to follow his parents’ footsteps and play for the Lobos of New Mexico. He would make the second most career three-point field goals in school history and the fifth most in Mountain West Conference history with 266 makes over 127 games. After a year playing for the Thunderbirds in the G League in 2009-10, Chad went overseas to continue his professional career. He found his way back in the G League six years later playing for the Reno Bighorns, the same year Cody began coaching with the Vipers.
The two first met in Rio Grande Valley in December of 2015, where Chad scored nine points to help boost his Bighorns to a 143-118 win. The Bighorns went on to sweep the Vipers 4-0 that season, with Chad dropping 18 points in the final meeting. That was the final year Chad played professionally in the States.
“He’s now retired but if I’m not mistaken, me and him, we’re second in NCAA history for combined three-pointers made between siblings,” Cody said. “We’re only behind, if I’m not mistaken, like Steph and Seth Curry. So we could both shoot it and knocked down a lot of threes. He had a lot of success in his career and our whole family has been all about basketball.”
A family that’s been all about basketball would eventually shift focus to a new sport, at least when Cody met his wife.
Brittany Toppert, formerly Brittany Cooper, was the 2001 Gatorade New Mexico High School Player of the Year in soccer. She was also the 2001 NSCAA Adidas New Mexico High School Player of the Year, an All-American in 2001, and the New Mexico State Player of the Year in 1999 and 2001, to name a few of her other honors. She holds New Mexico high school state career records in goals (163) and assists (82).
A student at Eldorado High School, about five miles south of Albuquerque Academy, the best players in their sport in the state hadn’t met until the biggest night of some high school students’ lives.
“We went on a blind date to senior prom,” Cody said. “We didn’t go to the same school, but we went on a blind date to senior prom, and I guess they say the rest is history.”
Brittany attended Arizona State University and became a soccer star in Tempe. She finished her collegiate career fourth on ASU’s all-time career goals list with 30. She played professionally after that, seeing time in the National Women’s Soccer League and overseas.
“She’s world-class, far better at her sport than I ever was at mine,” Cody said. “She’s my rock, my inspiration, she’s everything.”
Besides making a difference on the field, Brittany can be credited with where Cody is now on the court.
“While I say, ‘Hey, this is my calling,’ she’s really the one that identified it and called it out and has pushed me to do everything I can, to be the best I can at this,” Cody said. “She truly believes that this is what I’m meant to do.”
When asked if he has a role model or someone he looks for influence coaching wise, Cody recalled a great list of former leaders. He mentioned his high school coach Mike Brown, who was inducted into the New Mexico High School Coaches Association’s Hall of Honor thanks to a 442-218 record as a coach to go with six state championships. He mentioned his college coach Donahue, who he called “one of the most respected basketball minds, specifically offensively, that there is.” Cody also credited Michael Cooper, Scott Wedman, Nenad Vučinić and John Patrick for using some aspect of their coaching style.
He takes his experiences all the way back to when he was 12 years old, when his parents were teaching him the Triangle offense, calling it “fruit basket” to appeal more to the younger generation.
“To me, it’s a sum of experiences, it’s not just one individual or one person,” Cody said. “I mean, obviously I do my best to learn from the school of the Popovichs and the Steve Kerrs and any of those great coaches out there and learn how they lead. I love reading books on them, whether it’s Tony Dungy books on transformational leadership, I mean things like that. It’s really the whole, it’s not just one individual who’s had the most impact on me. However, the sum of those experiences has been very special.”
The sum of experiences has not only carried Cody to become head coach of the NAZ Suns, but also an assistant coach for the Haitian National Team. In the middle of putting the program together to participate in the Caribbean Cup this summer, the team has lofty goals, hoping to qualify for the Olympics soon.
“We’re going to try to change a country through sport, a country that’s been decimated by earthquakes and hurricanes. A country that’s also been taken advantage by donations — fraudulent donations,” Cody said. “The infrastructure there is just as it was during the catastrophe of the earthquake. A lot of people donated a lot of money to a lot of organizations and the money didn’t get to the right people. So what we want to do is we want to uplift the spirit of the country and we want to bring attention to the country, we want to bring attention to the fact that the infrastructure hasn’t seen improvement. It’s definitely bigger than basketball but it’s a fun project.”
As much time as Cody puts in to helping uplift the spirit of Haiti, he also works with the Phoenix Suns helping their draft process, using his same approach as it comes to coaching Northern Arizona.
“The ultimate thing is that I care about each and every one of these players and I care beyond them winning games and all that type of stuff,” Cody said. “To me it’s about are they achieving their potential as basketball players and are they achieving their potential as people? Whatever your potential is, it is what it is. Are you going to get there? Are you going to meet it? Are you going to exceed it, or are you going to fall short? The one thing I can’t live with is not doing everything in my power to make sure that none of these guys fall short of their potential.”
Five players were called up to the NBA under Cody’s watch this season for the Northern Arizona Suns, his first at the helm. It was a season that began for him in Rio Grande Valley, where he expected to spend another year as an assistant. Getting an interview and landing the head job for NAZ, he was thrust into a situation where he didn’t get training camp to prepare for the year. One would assume next season will be different for Cody and the Northern Arizona Suns based off preparation alone. Or will it?
“We’re not going to judge ourselves on the wins and losses, what we’re going to do is judge ourselves on what we’re doing daily to improve,” Cody said. “It’s not about wins and losses, it’s about developing these guys, it’s about putting out a product that the community can be proud of, it’s about having the community understand that these guys are also a part of that community. If we do that, then we’re going to be headed in the right direction.”