"COOP," NOW ASSISTANT COACH OF THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS, SHARES HOW HIS HOOP DREAM CAME TRUE.
By Gilbert Rivera
Photos By Sam Hernandez
ALL QUIET in the Great Western Forum.
The squeaking of rubber soles vanished for the moment. Charles Barkley's prattle went too. As did Kevin Johnson's crossover dribble. And Dan Majerle's long-range bombs from almost halfcourt, The Phoenix Suns, preparing for a 7:30p.m. engagement with the Los Angeles Lakers, entered the court for their afternoon shoot-around. An hour and some 1,500 free throws later, they exited stage left to the visitors' locker rooms. Two equipment managers followed suit, grabbing basketballs and tucking them away in a rack off the stadium floor.
A gangly 38-year-old, peering down from 20 rows up, waited until the last of the exuberant group had left. "They're gone," Michael Cooper whispered, engulfed in the shadows of the Forum's dimly lit upper colonnade level. Carrying a duffle bag, Cooper leisurely made his way down the stadium steps, passing "celebrity row" where Jack Nicholson sits on occasion ogling the Laker Girls. He sidestepped the press tables, dropped his bag on one of them, and trekked over to the ball rack. The former Laker swingman grabbed a ball, dribbled onto the court, and stood behind the NBA's recently moved-in three-point line.
Cooper reared back into his patented set shot form, the one that the NBA and basketball fans had been accustomed to for more than a decade, and fired a rainbow.
"This is just a jump shot," said Cooper, pointing at the arch 22-feet away from the basket. "This is how it was done back in the old days." A 6-foot-7 picture of confidence, he stepped back a foot and nine-inches to where the old three-point line had been and launched another twirling blur.
"COOP" STOOD ALONE this day, center stage in one of the greatest basketball theaters the NBA has ever produced. He was, back in the purple and gold glory days of the 1980s, an integral part of Showtime, a tradition of basketball excellence that produced five NBA titles and eight appearances in the finals in one decade.
Today, as a former player retired after the 1990 season and assistant coach under head coach Del Harris, Cooper brings his part of Showtime to the 1995 Lakers. But the road to Showtime was not a smooth one.
Cooper was born on April 15, 1956, in Pasadena. When his parents divorced five years later, his mother raised him and an uncle encouraged the boy to play sports. But basketball wasn't how Cooper started off his athletic career. I was multi-sports," said Cooper, "My uncle played in the Negro Baseball League and kept trying to get me to play baseball. But l couldn't see myself standing at the plate holding up a piece of wood and having somebody throw a rock at me." So Cooper gave football a shot, playing in a local Pop Warner league. But his gridiron days were short-lived; Cooper played in only one game. "When I was a kid, I loved to jump. One time, I remember jumping up in the air, catching the football, and a guy took my legs out from underneath. I ended up on my head. So I said 'No, that's a little dangerous.' I wanted to do something safe, so I played basketball."
Never dreaming that his basketball career would net him five concussions, two broken noses, a knee injury, a bruised sternum, and the "worst ankle injury you could ever have," Cooper tried out for Pasadena High School's junior varsity basketball team but was cut. He tried the next year. Again he was cut. Encouraged by his family, Cooper came back to tryouts as a 5-foot- I I junior. This time he made the junior varsity team and the Bulldog varsity squad his senior year.
COOPER LEARNED the "fundamentals of basketball" playing under varsity coach George Terzian, now head coach of the PCC men's basketball program. "Michael was starting to emerge in his senior year," said Terzian. "You could see him improving in every game. He was the best defensive player that I had ever seen. "Michael was a unique individual because he was so coachable and very humble. He was the guy who passed the ball, played great defense, and wouldn't force shots. He did everything and was just a team player. He wanted the team to be good." And they were good. Led by the now 6-foot-4 forward and along with standouts Michael Grey and Morris Davis, PHS went on to play for the Pacific League championship against El Rancho High School in 1973. The game was televised on NBC, launching Cooper and PHS into the national spotlight,
"We were real nervous about the game," said Cooper. "The gym was super packed, and to play on TV was a big thrill for all of us."
IN THE BEGINNING A young Michael Cooper poses during his high school days. 'It has been said that when God measures an athlete, he puts a tape around his heart rather than his body. The size of his body only indicates physical dimensions, while the size of his heart determines the amount of courage he possesses for the heat of the battle."
"No Slack," Coop Corp., Inc.
That game also marked the first time that the world got a glimpse of Cooper's trademark: the knee-high socks. Why? "My grandmother had cataracts," said Cooper. "That game was the first time she was going to watch me play basketball, so she said, 'Michael, you're going to have to do something to distinguish yourself from the others.' So I pulled my socks up real high, so she could see me."
Cooper pulled his game up real high as well. He grabbed nine rebounds and scored 25 points, easily leading the Bulldogs to the league tide, 84-67.
"Playing under Terzian was a great experience," said Cooper. "I was from a single parent family. He kind of took on that male role model for me. Not only did he ask you to excel on the basketball court, but to excel as a person off the court as well. He made you more than just a ball player."
BUT DESPITE COOPER's brilliant varsity numbers (he led the team in rebounding and field goal percentage), he was not accomplished enough to attract scholarship offers from major colleges. So Cooper, along with teammates Taylor and Davis, went on to play at PCC. "My mother didn't have the money for me to choose what school I wanted to go to," said Cooper. "But I knew I was going to PCC anyway. I was a homebody and I wanted to stay in Pasadena."
The highly regarded local prospect joined the Lancer program in 1974, under head coach Joseph Barnes. "By far, Michael was the best player I have ever coached." said Barnes, who retired from coaching in 1979. "Michael had all the tools and the potential to be successful. We had some good ones before like George Trapp who played for the Detroit Pistons. But Michael combined talent and heart, and that's something you can't measure."
"Michael had all the tools and the potential to be successful. We had some good ones, but michael combined talent and heart, and that's something you can't measure."
Playing in the difficult Metropolitan Conference as a 6-foot-5 forward/guard improved Cooper's already remarkable skills. In a conference away game against LA Valley College, he dominated with 26 points to raise his league-leading scoring average to 21.5. The Lancers grabbed sole possession of first place in their conference weeks after the match, and the young freshman began to make a name for himself.
BUT KEEPING THAT REPUTATION would get to Cooper's head. He began to miss classes and, as his basketball game continued to soar, Cooper's academics took a dive. "I was the big man on campus. People started to point at me and say 'Hey, there's Michael Cooper.' So I was becoming more recognized and I had a tendency to let my academics slip a little bit. My biggest thing was not going to class, and I was falling into that comfort zone where I had other people take care of it."
During that season, before an important conference game, Cooper's skyrocketing basketball career came to a grinding halt. He was in the locker room suiting up for the big game when Barnes walked in. Cooper, in his 1987 autobiography "No Slack," recalls the moment vividly. "Mike, did you go to English class today?" Barnes asked. "Yeah coach, I was there," he replied. "No, you didn't go to class," said Barnes. "Weren't you supposed to take a test today?"
Before he could respond, Barnes continued. "I just talked to your professor. He's giving you an 'F." But Cooper took the news calmly. He asked the coach to fix it. "I'm not going to fix it," Barnes replied. "You'll have to work this out all by yourself. No use getting suited up. You're academically ineligible to play." And then the walls came tumbling down on Cooper's basketball world."That was the biggest letdown of my life," Cooper said. "It was the first time I had heard the term 'academically ineligible.' At the moment, I realized a lot of my future was going out the window. "My mother's one wish was that I graduate from college. I come from a big family, and they've always had to quit school to work and help out the family. My mother and one of my aunts were the only ones who graduated from college. And I knew the only way I could do that was by continuing to play basketball."
The freshman, unable to play in the Lancers' remaining games of the season, watched his team slide from first to fourth place in their conference. At that point, Cooper was determined to make it up to his family and his coach. As a therapeutic recreation major, he made up his courses and got his grades back up. "It was hard, because I didn't know how bad I had become. But I got myself back together and the next year had a tremendous year academically."
"It was a bad incident that turned out to be a good one," said Barnes. "Once a kid becomes ineligible, they always say they're going to participate with the team, but for the most part they don't come around because they are embarrassed."
But Cooper came to practice, even though his ineligible status prevented him from suiting up. He sat on the bench in street clothes during the Lancers' final games. "Coach Barnes always told me to use basketball and not to let it use me," Cooper said in his autobiography. "It was a painful and embarrassing lesson, but one that has made me a better person."
Cooper came back the next year eligible to play, a bigger, wiser, and more mature player. The student-athlete surpassed his outstanding freshman year as a sophomore, averaging a career-best 20.2 points and leading the 17-11 record. His amazing dunks, spectacular blocks, and last-second heroics got the respect of the league as well as his coach.
WHEN No. 20 DUNKED the ball, it was epic.
"There was a game at LA City College one night," recalled Barnes. "We were big rivals, and the gym was packed. We were really blowing them out, and I was ready to take Michael out of the game. But it was kind of like he had this sixth sense that he was going to be taken out. So when he was coming down the court with these two guys backpedaling on defense, a lane opened up. It looked like he took off from the free-throw line and he dunked the ball with such viciousness and spontaneity that everybody in the gym just got up off their seats.
"After the game, these two players from the other team were walking past our team bus. I overheard them say, 'That No. 20 from Pasadena, we think he should be in the NBA draft."
Cooper finished his stellar basketball career at PCC with 1,070 points, which currently ranks sixth on the all-time list. "I wanted to be the best person I could possibly be. Putting together what I learned at PHS and what I learned at PCC was like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. But that puzzle wasn't complete until the next phase in my life."
THAT NEXT PHASE took Cooper to the University of New Mexico in 1976, where he majored in communications and earned All-American honors as a senior. After two years, Cooper was selected in the third round (60th overall) by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1978 NBA draft.
"When I played with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the others, it threw me back to the PHS and PCC days where you would play with your friends," he said. The Pasadena native was a member of five World Championship teams with the Lakers. He ranks among the club's all-time leaders in a number of statistical categories, including first in three-point field goals with 378.
He won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award in 1987.
Cooper became an assistant coach with the Lakers in 1994 and runs a summer camp for children in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Pasadena. More than a 100 "Coop Campers" show up every year. "I don't miss playing anymore," said Cooper. "I really enjoy coaching now, and hopefully I can become a head coach someday, although I still have a lot to learn about coaching."
You can't blame him. After all, Showtime wasn't built in a day.
Los Angeles Lakers
Defensive Player of the Year:
Michael Cooper (LA LAKERS)
All-Defensive First Team:
Finals Series Results
LA Lakers 126 Boston 113 (1-0 LAL)
LA Lakers 141 Boston 122 (2-0 LAL)
Boston 109 LA Lakers 103 (2-1 LAL)
LA Lakers 107 Boston 106 (3-1 LAL)
Boston 123 LA Lakers 108 (3-2 LAL)
LA Lakers 106 Boston 93 (4-2 LAL)