Reprinted from SHOWTIME: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright Jeff Pearlman, 2014.
Michael Cooper remembers the first time he was ever asked to guard Larry Bird one-on-one for a prolonged stretch. The date was January 18, 1981, and the Lakers traveled to the Boston Garden to face the hated Celtics. At the time, Cooper was feeling awfully good about himself. With Magic Johnson sidelined with an injury, he was a fixture in the starting lineup, right alongside stars like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes and Norm Nixon. Cooper stood as a key cog on basketball's best team and, he says, "I was as cocky and confident as I'd ever been."
To Cooper, Larry Bird was still merely larry bird (lowercase intended) -- an overrated Great White Hype who captured a nation's imagination more for his pigmentation than his playing ability. Cooper had seen it all before. Doug Collins. Mike Dunleavy. Tom McMillen. Mike O'Koren. White guys came, white guys went. Larry Bird? Who the hell was scared of Lar--
"I'm getting ready to wear your f----- ass out."
The words were uttered softly. Almost in a whisper. Had the white boy just spoken in such a manner to Michael Cooper? Had he really said such a thing? Barely two minutes had passed in the opening quarter and Bird was already slinging yang.
"Bring it, mother------," replied Cooper, hardly a linguistic wallflower. "Bring it."
Larry Bird brought it. Celtics guard Nate Archibald dribbled the ball down the court. Cooper followed Bird toward the top of the key -- "Larry's standing there talking to me, talking to me. Nonstop talking" -- then shadowed him as he walked down the lane and circled around a Robert Parish pick. "About to wear your ass out," Bird said. "Wear ... it ... out ... " Bird pushed off Cooper. Cooper pushed off Bird. "Bring it," the Laker said. "C'mon, f----- ... "
Bird jumped back, caught a pass from Johnson. "I'm still here, m-----------," Cooper said, grabbing a handful of Bird's green-and-white jersey. "I'm still here." Abdul-Jabbar, guarding Parish, stepped off his man to help. Bird jumped to shoot, and Cooper lunged toward him -- certain he was about to block the shot.
Then, quick as a dragonfly, Bird somehow brought the ball down and wrapped it around to a wide-open Parish. "I still have no idea how he got the ball to him," said Cooper, "because my hands are up in the air, Kareem is coming out -- and the only way he could have gotten it to him was to lob it over the top. But he didn't lob it over the top. I'm still confused." Cooper spun, just in time to see Parish slam the basketball through the hoop.
He looked back toward Bird, who smirked. "Wearing your ass out, m-----------," he said. "Wearing it out. ... "
Those words stuck with Michael Cooper. That moment stuck with Michael Cooper. Throughout his first eight-plus NBA seasons, he had been assigned to guard players of all shapes, sizes and builds. One night he might find himself standing before Utah's Rickey Green, the league's fastest point guard. The next night, it could be Denver center Dan Issel. Or Milwaukee small forward Junior Bridgeman. Or Knicks shooting guard Michael Ray Richardson. "He was worthy of Defensive Player of the Year every year," said Greg Ballard, the Golden State forward. "He was long, fast, stronger than you'd think. Coop was made for defense."
Although the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird connection was forever discussed and hyped, it was Cooper who felt tied to the Celtics star. He obsessed over Bird's moves, over his thinking, over his patterns and tendencies. If a Celtic game was televised, Cooper watched, his eyes glued to number 33. He looked toward nights against Boston as one would a wedding. It was Michael Cooper's moment.
"Covering Larry -- that meant everything to me," he said. "People said he was overrated ... f---, no. If anything, he was underrated. What made him so good was you didn't just have to worry about his scoring. You had to worry about this guy's defense, his passing, his ability to save balls from going out of bounds, his ability to set picks and get people open. Larry could beat you in many ways. And he was the hardest player for me to play against, because you had to guard against all those things. Most players are one- or two-dimensional. Larry was ten-dimensional."
When people praised Cooper's defensive ability, what went unspoken was that, beyond foot speed and quickness and intelligence, he was driven by the power of paranoia.
Michael Cooper was the NBA's most paranoid player.
Paranoia can lead to unjustified suspicion; to constant worries; to fear that someone bigger, stronger, better will inevitably come along and ruin a good thing. For Cooper, however, paranoia made him who he was. From the very day he joined the Lakers, Cooper was looking over his shoulder. "He was the biggest character they had, because he was totally paranoid, totally insecure and always thinking he was about to be traded," said Steve Springer, the longtime beat writer. "We were in the Midwest once on a road trip, and Coop really screwed up his ankle. Riley told him to sit out a couple of games and heal.
"Well, Coop comes up to me during a game and sits down. He's in street clothes. And he says, 'You've been good to me, so I just want to let you know I'm out of here.' "
Springer was shocked. He was usually on top of things but had heard nothing of a trade. "Coop," he said, "what are you talking about?"
"It's done -- I'm gone," he replied. "I'm not f------ stupid. You don't think I know they want to get rid of me? It's already done. There's a deal. Well, f--- them. F--- the Lakers. I will come back and kick their f------ asses. I'm sick of this s---. They've been waiting to get rid of me for a long time. F--- them."
When the game ended, Springer approached Cooper in the locker room and kindly said, "Coop, are you sure you want me to print that?"
The Laker laughed. "Nah," he said. "You know I'm ... " Cooper turned to Jack Curran, the trainer, who was walking past. "Jack," he said, "what's the word I'm looking for?"
"You're paranoid," Curran snarled. "F------ paranoid."
Magic Johnson -- not even remotely paranoid -- occasionally played defense as if he were missing a leg. Abdul-Jabbar -- not even remotely paranoid -- didn't seem to mind if someone like Golden State's Joe Barry Carroll lit him up for 25 points and 10 rebounds (as he did in a December 4 Warriors win). Cooper, however, played every possession as if his career depended on it.
When someone scored a basket over him, he didn't merely get upset. No, he took it personally, and wondered whether the next stop in action would result in his inevitable benching. "I never relaxed," Cooper said. "Never. Not once. My agent once told me I was always the first name other teams brought up in trades. Well, that scared the hell out of me. I wanted to be a Laker, and only a Laker." Whenever he would run into Jerry West, Cooper made certain to irritate him.
Cooper: Jerry, just checking if I'm being traded.
West: Shut the f--- up. We're not trading you.
Cooper: But I heard ... West: Shut the f--- up.
Cooper: Are you su— West: OK, we're trading you.
Cooper: F---. Forget I even asked.
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