Michael Cooper and the rest of the incomparable Los Angeles Lakers are in Denver for the third game in their best-of-five NBA playoff series against the Nuggets. Bouncing in place on a concrete walkway, the Lakers wait in the wings for showtime to commence at McNichols Sports Arena. The Lakers, up by two, seem ready to close this act in style. Cooper is artfully balancing on one size-12½ sneaker. He bends forward. With his right hand he holds his right foot aloft behind his back. His right leg, circling in the air, seems as supple as spaghetti al dente. If he liked, he could rest his chin on his knee from this position. But that wouldn't be warming up. That would be showing off.
Not that he is above showing off. But right now he's just plain Michael Cooper. A nice guy. It is not yet time for him to snatch off his warmups and become...Cooperman! A 6'7", 177-pound, 31-year-old, nine-year veteran, Cooper isn't a starter and, ideally for the Lakers, never will be.
But he doesn't mind, because he knows coach Pat Riley will call on him late in the first quarter and sometimes earlier, if things aren't going well. When Riley beckons early in this game against the Nuggets, Cooper, the team's defensive stopper, attaches himself to Denver's best offensive player, forward Alex English. Early in the second quarter, the Nuggets lead 42-40. Cooper arches in two floating three-point set shots and the Lakers are off on a 29-14 run. Then, with 20 seconds left in the half and the Lakers on defense, referee Hue Hollins calls L.A. for an illegal zone defense. He singles out Cooper. Zap! Bam! Zowie! Cooper explodes into Cooperman. Now it's time to show off. No more Mr. Nice Guy. "Where?" he demands, pointing down at his foot, which hasn't violated anything. "Where?"
Hollins was half right. The Lakers' Mychal Thompson was illegally deployed. Hollins mistakenly called Cooper for the violation. One of the very few to notice this is Cooper's wife, Wanda. "Good call," she thinks to herself. "On the wrong guy." Cooper is not so understanding. The idea that he, Michael Cooper, would commit an illegal act on defense—and get caught—makes his blood boil. The call stands, of course.
May 10, 1987
Denver's 6'7" forward, Bill Hanzlik, attempts a jump shot after the next inbounds play. Cooperman elevates, sweeps one spindly arm through the air and redirects Hanzlik's shot into the stands. Careful not to look at Hollins, Cooperman snarls, "Now call a bleeping foul on that!"
After trailing by two, the Lakers out-score the Nuggets 100-61, win 140-103 and eliminate the Nuggets. Cooper scores 14 points. In 22 minutes he grabs four boards, makes a steal, passes out four assists and strangles Denver's offensive traffic. He has shown up everywhere but in the box score. Aside from Magic Johnson, Cooper was the most influential player in the game. Magic starts showtime, but Cooperman ends it.
This is not news to the Lakers. "In an era of specialization, Mike does many things," says six-time NBA MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. "He's a true swingman, a backup point guard, a three-point shooter. And yes, a true stopper. He challenges everybody."
"Coop has the heart of a lion," says soon-to-be first-time NBA MVP Johnson. "He doesn't care who you are. Big man, little man. Mike says, what you'll have to do is whip him all night, until the lights go out, because he won't back up. So we won't back up. He'll holler 'C'mon, let's go.' And we have to follow him. He's our inspirational player.' "
"He's one of the most versatile players ever to play in the league," says Laker coach Pat Riley. "A perfect player. His role is to supply. Supply what? Everything, I'd say."
"He's probably the best athlete in the NBA," says Laker radio broadcaster Keith Erickson. "He does things other basketball players wouldn't dream of doing." Indeed, Cooper may not always fill up the box score, but he does wonders for the imagination. He has inspired a full lexicon of Cooperisms. There is the Coop-a-Loop, coined for the alley-oop pass from Johnson, looking toward Catalina, which Cooper slams in backward, forward, or ways others might only be able to imagine. Then there is the Cooper Hoop, play-by-play man Chick Hearn's description of the three-point set shot Cooper has become so adept at hitting over the years. He made four of five in the final game against Denver, giving him 48 for his playoff career, a total equalled only by Larry Bird. Then there is the Cooper Scoop, a Cooper steal or blocked shot—especially a block that turns an opponent's apparent fast break layup into another showtime showstopper. When an opposing guard breaks away, with Cooper hot on his heels, Hearn has been known to say, "Coop will block this." You can just imagine Chick puffing on his fingernails and polishing them on his lapel as Cooper, sure enough, makes him a prophet.
So much for Cooperman. There's also plain-as-rain Coop, the guy who has never played in an All-Star Game or been Defensive Player of the Year, the one who never really expected to stick so long. The one who plays every game as if it's his last. The one who doesn't care about anything out there but championship rings. "The fact that Cooper will guard anybody and back down from nobody startled me when I was a rookie," says Byron Scott, who starts at guard alongside Johnson. "In the playoffs he guarded Larry. I had never seen anybody guard Larry like that. Coop was talking to him. He would't let him breathe. At first I thought he was crazy. I mean, this was Larry Bird). Then one night in Milwaukee a few years ago, Coop squared off against Bob Lanier. That's when I knew he was tough...and definitely crazy."
"Mike and James Donaldson [like Lanier, a gentleman of some size] don't get along too well, either," says Johnson.
"I guess it's like the Holy Spirit coming out in church," says Cooper of his alter ego's actions. "Afterwards, I don't know what I've said. I don't know what might have come out of my mouth. It's just that competitive fire. It helps strengthen me, so I don't have those cracks, so people can't get inside my armor. I'm trying to win. The winning is why I play. So when I'm on the wing against a Jordan or a Bird, and they have the ball and nothing is between them and the basket but me, well, that's the moment I live for."
Here is a player who guards Larry Bird like no one else, whose idea of Nirvana is defending one-on-one against Bird or Michael Jordan. In the open court, no less. "Sheesh," sighs Scott.
"I'll bet the guys think I'm crazy," says Cooper, offering up his brilliant smile. "I'll bet they do, don't they? Well, hey, for a little while...."
If Michael Cooper is crazy, we should all be so lucky. Coop lives the quiet life, in a beautiful home on a hill overlooking central L.A., with Wanda—whom he met while both attended the University of New Mexico a decade ago—and their children, Michael, 6, and Simone, almost 4. He commutes 4.9 miles to the Forum in a white '72 Super Beetle. Last Christmas, Wanda gave him the keys to a new BMW—and a 48-month payment book. Cooper, who can put the squeeze on a nickel as tightly as he can on Darrell Griffith, has a contract paying him an estimated $700,000 for the next four years. He still drives the VW to work.
In their den, photos of Cooper as Cooperman flying around the backboards adorn the walls, but only temporarily. Eventually they will be moved to the adobe house on five acres that the Coopers just bought by the Rio Grande, near Albuquerque. "Our other home," says Cooper, who was born and raised in Pasadena. Albuquerque is Wanda's family home. She was one of nine children of retired Air Force chief master sergeant and civil engineer William Juzang and his wife, Mary, a teacher for 20 years and now a real estate broker. (And guess who arranged the deal for the acreage near the Rio Grande?)
When people think of the Lakers and showtime, they rarely think of Cooper. Even plain-as-rain Cooper sometimes has trouble thinking of himself in this way. The most prominent of all the photos on the Coopers' den wall is a 1980 study of four faces on the Laker bench—Norm Nixon, Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson and Jamaal Wilkes. Now those were Lakers. Cooper isn't in this picture. But from that NBA championship team only three remain—Abdul-Jabbar, Magic and plain old Coop.
"It would be nice if you won Defensive Player of the Year or Sixth Man of the Year sometimes," says Wanda to Michael. "I guess people don't appreciate things like ball denial and help. So everybody seems to take you for granted." "None of that stuff matters," Cooper insists. "That's why the ring is the best award of all."
Cooper is successful because he has taken the best from people who helped him along the way. Now, he's just giving it back—by visiting a home for troubled children or an Indian reservation, or with any of the other public service he performs, at the behest of the Lakers or his own conscience. "I'm obligated, personally and religiously, to do those things," says Cooper. Once, in 1980, Darryl Dawkins knocked him on his head, and he spent the next day in a hospital undergoing a brain scan. He had promised to appear at a charity Softball game that day. After his release, Coop called the organizers of the event, apologizing profusely because he had failed to show. He didn't know it had rained the day he was under observation and the event had been canceled.
He gives in other ways, as well. "Mike Jr. comes in the house sometimes complaining that Daddy won't let him win at basketball, won't even let him score," says Wanda.
"That's because he's been eating Nerf ball all day," says a smiling Coop Sr. Don't knock it. Coop got where he is today by learning the hard way. His father, Marshall, and mother, Jean, divorced when he and his brother Mickey were very young. The two boys were partially raised by their grandmother, Ardessie Butler, while Jean worked two shifts a day as a registered nurse. She still works. "Everybody gave me something different," says Coop. "My mother and grandmother gave me love. Then they gave me to my uncles." Cooper's uncles, Tom and John Butler, steered him to athletics. "They had me try baseball. I didn't like hitting, standing there and letting somebody throw a rock at my head." He moved on to football. "Wide receiver," he says. "I loved the gracefulness. But my uncles told me to look at my body, that I'd never stand the pounding. So I chose basketball, where you can be graceful and still be relatively safe. Little did I know that in the NBA...."
Coop also dabbled in track and field. Using the western-roll technique, he jumped 6'1" at Pasadena High and tried the hurdles until he bumped into one. Now, 15 years later, Los Angeles Track Club coach Chuck DeBus has talked him into trying his luck in the high jump again. "He may have Olympic-caliber ability," says DeBus, who coaches world record-holding triple jumper Willie Banks, among others. "We've talked about it over the phone. I'm convinced he could jump a foot over his head, say 2.30 [7'6½"], on his sheer athletic ability and a flop technique. We agreed we'd get together after the season."
"In that case," says Wanda, "DeBus had better hope the Lakers win it all. When they don't, Michael is impossible to live with."
"In bed for days," agrees Coop.
"Absolutely inconsolable," Wanda adds. Except once. Sweet little Simone was born hours after the final playoff game in 1983, when the 76ers swept Coop and the Lakers four straight for the NBA title. "I had to send the ball boy into the dressing room to tell him to come out, that it was time to go," says Wanda, who had gone into the advanced stages of labor during the fourth quarter. It didn't take Cooper long to put disappointment behind him.
Wanda Cooper is not raising any one-dimensional little Coopers. Says Wanda, "My children play soccer, ride horseback competitively, take piano, and they swim like fish. Bring Mr. Campanis by anytime."
While brother and father go at it in the backyard, Simone dances a little siren's dance, and her mother sighs, "All that money for tuition, and now all she wants to do is be a Laker Girl."
Family life has brought out the best in Cooper. "I think having a family would help a lot of guys in pro sports," he says. When outside commitments threaten his time at home, Wanda puts her foot down. "Yeah, somebody's got to tell these people no sometimes," she says. "I'm the family heavy. I have to be. Read my lips. No."
"The buffer," says Coop.
It's nearly time for Cooper to warm up once again for another showtime. "It's fun being a Laker," he says. "To be placed in such great company. I am so thankful. I can't picture myself wearing any other uniform."
"But even the best have been traded," interjects Wanda. "Look at Kareem. Look at Moses. It's fun being affiliated with the Lakers. They make the wives feel like part of the family, too. But if the time ever came, hey, I'm military all the way. Let's go."
You get the feeling one of these people rubbed off on the other and that it doesn't matter which is which. They're in this together. So when Coop loops, hoops, scoops, then points into the Forum crowd, at a pretty face at courtside, you'll know whom he is pointing to...and why.