Lakers I Miss: Michael Cooper

Darius Soriano —  September 15, 2008

Growing up and watching the Lakers, Magic Johnson was my favorite player.  His artistry and creativity generated at least one play a game that just amazed me.  And every time the Captain, Kareem, swung left and shot right and drained that beautiful sky hook my eyes would light up.  And when the team was out on the fast break, nothing thrilled me more than to see Big Game James filling the lane and soaring to the basket with his legs spread eagle for one of his patented one handed jams.  But there was one player that I always wanted to come into the game.  One player that, when he came in, I just knew something good was going to happen.  One player that I rooted for on both ends of the floor, knowing that he was going to make a difference.  And to this day, when I play pick up ball on the blacktop, the local gym, or in my mens league, I wear my tube socks pulled up to my knees in a tribute to that one player:  Michael Cooper.

Every time he would go to the scorers table to check in, COOOOOOOOOOP!!!! was the chant.  And on every perfectly executed alley-oop (as Chick would classicly call it, the Coop-a-loop), on every blocked shot (where he set up the offensive player and baited him into trying that lay up that got thrown back), on every nail-in-the-coffin 3 pointer he buried in the clutch, and on every strip of the ball on even the most perfectly executed crossover dribble, I (along with everyone else in the Fabulous Forum) chanted.  We cheered on the skinny guy with the whispy mustache and the legs that started at his armpits, #21, Michael Cooper.

Michael Cooper was the 60th pick of the 1978 NBA Draft out of the University of New Mexico.  He would join a Lakers team that had won 45 games the prior season and been to the playoffs.  A team that had established players with recognizable names like Jabbar, Wilkes, Dantley, and Nixon.  And even though he was a First Team All-Conference performer his senior season in the WAC, he joined a competitive Lakers team and his rookie season in the NBA would be an afterthought.  He would play in only 3 games and basically be a bystander to a 47 win season and a Conference Semifinals playoff exit.  But the next season, that would change.  In his second season, he would be a major contributor to the team.  He would be a key player off the bench with an established role as a defensive player and help the team to the NBA Championship where he would watch his backcourt mate put on one of the best performances in NBA history in the clinching Game 6 against the Philadelphia 76ers. 

By his third season, he would further cement himself as one the NBA’s premier defenders by making his first of 8 straight  (first or second) All-Defensive teams.  His reign as one of the leagues best shut down defenders was highlighted by his Defensive Player of the Year award in the 1986-87 season, an incredible feat considering that he was primarily used as a sixth man off of the bench.  And not only was he recognized by the media and opposing coaches, Coop was respected by every opponent that he guarded.  Maybe the best compliment that a defender could receive while playing in that era is one that was issued by Larry Bird.  When asked who was the toughest defender that he faced in his career, Larry Legend would simply say:

“Michael Cooper was the best defender.”

But Coop wasn’t about awards or recognition or any statistics.  His career averages in almost every statistical category (except for the 1.2 steals per game) are average at best.  Coop was about winning.  And the proof of that commitment was in the many hats he wore and how he tailored his game to help the team.  Play back up Point Guard?  Sure.  It didn’t matter that he came into the league as a combo Guard/Forward out of college.  Defend the other teams best offensive wing player?  No problem.  The fact that he was his college teams best offensive player didn’t deter him from becoming a stopper on the other end.  Develop a reliable outside shot to provide spacing for Kareem and Worthy’s low post games?  Can do.  He didn’t care that his primary strengths were running the floor and slashing to the basket or that he was less than a 30% three point shooter for the first 5 years of his career.  Cooper would do anything it took to improve his game and help the team win.  And his 5 championship rings are a testament to that mindset of just getting the job done and helping his team.

I miss Coop for all these reasons and more.  His steadiness.  His leadership.  His willingness to get dunked on, not hang his head, and come right back working even harder on the next possesion to get that key stop.  That perseverence that all champions have.  This past June, when we saw a parade of Celtics wing players driving to the basket, I really missed him, that’s for sure.  Like I said earlier, there were a plethora of players that were more famous and had more illustrious careers, whose highlights you’ll find all over YouTube, and whose jerseys hang in the rafters of the Staples Center.  But there’s one Laker that I truly miss:  Michael Cooper.

-Darius

Darius Soriano

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31 responses to Lakers I Miss: Michael Cooper

  1. thanks Darius, those were great years for sure.
    I’ve said in past posts that I think Trevor Ariza could do well to study old game films of Coop. I see so many possible simularities, his quickness, lateral quickness for defensive purposes, his “coop-a-loop” slashing to the hole, put backs on the boards, and he shows at times he could become a serious 3 point threat.
    if Trevor could become our Coop, … ‘nuf said, I guess.
    as you said, we sure could’ve used a “coop-like” defender in last years finals.

  2. Every championship team needs those “glue” guys…

  3. Good post – he was definitely a favorite.

    Personally, though, Jamaal Wilkes was my favorite. Though that was at least partly due to the fact that I was just becoming a real basketball fan, and was living in L.A., during the Walton-Wilkes years at UCLA. He was another one who did whatever it took. Scoring 37 points in that 1980 Finals game when Kareem was out and Magic played center, for instance.

  4. great post! brings back memories and nostalgia. i miss byron scott. and his jump kicking shots.

  5. Coop (not Magic) was always my favorite player back then. Magic was great and all, and Kareem, etc. But my “favorite”? — Coop.

    Who else could create such excitement with DEFENSE ? He came in the game and instantly created a defensive intensity that had a martial arts-like precision — a mano-a-mano tension sprang forth with his taut, livewire legs.

    As a player, I wasn’t big or enormously talented, but I could hit an open shot . . . . and I could play damned determined ‘D’ — Cooper was an inspiration.

    When he got the Coop-a-loops or (later) the 3 pointers, that was just a great bonus, the filling in of gaps for a more complete player.

    But he was M.Ali on defense . . . I just loved watching him deconstruct a player . . . on guys he was guarding, you could see the engine sputter, and then break down and wheels come off.

  6. Great post Darius!

    A little off topic, but it is stadium Blog Day at Jones on the NBA:

    http://jonesonthenba.com/2008/09/nba-stadiums-blog-day-running-thread.html

    Gatinho’s post on the Forum is already on that list.

  7. Coop was a badass. For those of you too young to have seen him game in, game out, year after year, you missed a player. He was a Laker to the bone, too.

  8. Man, I miss Coop, too. When XMan was choking lil’ Wes Matthews, it was Coop that came flying in for the blindside tackle.

  9. I have vague images of MCoop’s legs and arms
    splayed out underneath Daryl Dawkins,
    then he’d spring back up and jump back in
    on the transition.

    He reminded me of the X-Man Nightcrawler–
    even with the fangy upper teeth ( kinda ).

    BAMF– Coop on the rebound–
    BAMF– Coop to the basket for the Coop-a-Loop dunk.

    Looking at that photo, does it seem like BBallers
    have evolved from the leggy skywalkers of yesteryear
    to a bit more proportional limbs-wise,
    ( long shorts notwithstanding )
    in less than a generation?

    Interesting.

    – 5 -

  10. Man I’m one of those young’uns born too late to have seen the Showtime Lakers :-( I can only see highlights and hear of them in lore.

    Is there any way (other than ESPN Classic) to get full Lakers games from the 80s? Like on a DVD? I would love it if someone could find some DVDs or something, I’m dying to watch a full game of the Showtime Lakers.

  11. #11 – The “Complete History” DVD is pretty great – not cheap, but packed with vintage Lakers highlights, and, best of all, full games from each of the championship seasons.

    Coop is great in game 1 of the 1982 finals vs. Philly, which is on that DVD set. What’s most interesting about that game is that the Lakers do not shoot a single three-pointer over 48 minutes. In fact, Philadelphia only starts shooting 3’s at the very end of the game to try to make up a deficit – the CBS announcers comment on this as a desperation tactic. Amazing how the game has changed.

  12. Snoopy2006,

    I too am too young to have enjoyed Showtime. I would recommend the NBA Dynasty Series of the Los Angeles Lakers: The Complete History. They have some of the greatest games in Lakers playoff history on there from every era.

  13. #12: The three pointer really didn’t become a factor until the nineties. Even guys like Danny Ainge didn’t really shoot threes that often. It was seen more as a desperation shot or shot you only shoot when you are completely wide open.

  14. #14 – In fact, during the 1981-82 regular season, the Lakers as a team made a TOTAL of 13 (thirteen!) 3-pointers in 82 games – or one fewer than Kobe Bryant’s single-game record. Magic led the club with 6, and the team shot 14% from beyond the arc.

    They did, however, shoot 52% on the season as a team, and scored over 114 points a game.

    High-percentage basketball!

  15. Coop-a-loop is what I remember.

  16. we need coop and kurt rambis on our team.
    we just don’t have enough enforcers on this team.
    kobe, vujacic maybe.turiaf was.

  17. JONES and jodial,
    You know, the NBA didn’t make the 3pt. line a permanent rule until the 1980-81 season, and didn’t adjust the illegal defense rule (to the vervion of the rule we had seen before the latest change that allowed zones) until the season after that. So, technically, it makes sense that players didn’t really shoot the 3 in the NBA in the early 80’s. Plus, it was far: 22ft in the corner and 23’9″ at the top of the key and the elbow of the arc. That’s a deep shot, especially considering that guys weren’t used to shooting it.

  18. I have to add that Norm Nixon’s 20-foot fallaways were things of beauty as well….

  19. jodial, Daniel – thanks a lot, I’ll definitely check those DVDs out.

  20. I always loved Coop. I wasn’t ever the shooter he became, but I was hell on D. He was definitely an inspiration for me. Plus he kinda looked like my dad.

  21. http://blogs.hoopshype.com/blogs/sierra/2008/09/16/another-big-for-the-lakers/
    jelani mcCoy? … is this just another summer invite?
    or do you think he still has some ball in him?
    another bruin, right? farmar, ariza…
    I do remember him in ’02, but not much since.

  22. McCoy is just camp fodder. He is no longer a young guy with upside (he’s 31 this season). But he played with the D-Fenders, so he’s a good guy to bring to camp because he already knows the offense. Good not to spend camp teaching the offense to guys not going to be on the team.

  23. Jelani McCoy is god awful. I put him in the same category as Laker greats Samaki Walker and Sean Rooks.

  24. Great post Darius. Coop was definitely one of my favorite Lakers. It would always pain me to see someone else wear #21. Back in the day, I would beg my parents to put me in Coop’s basketball camp in Pasadena and once I got there, it was probably one of the highlights of my life (esp. at that age). The thing I took away from the camp (other than an improved jumpshot) was an absolute appreciation of defense. He would teach about footwork, hand position/defensive stances, and using both hands to defend the player. Good times.

  25. Lobos best offensive player was smooth shooting forward named Marvin Johnson. Saw him put up 50 points with only a few misses one night. That team went to Vegas and ended the Reb’s four year home court win streak. Coop et al were rated number 4 at one point. (17-0). Lost in NCAA when coach sat starters with a few minutes left in game. Point shaving. Some wild haired skinny white kid with goggles for Fullerton couldn’t miss and the rest is history.

  26. Just a great post. Coop was mint. Those dagger 3’s would be lights out. Good times.

  27. New post up talking about a few things. Including the East.

  28. Much respect to coop?

  29. LakerFanDownUnder September 19, 2008 at 6:57 am

    Little known fact – in 1990 (the year he retired) Coop flew out to Western Australia to give a full-week lesson in defence to the Perth Wildcats (a pales-in-comparison Aussie version of the NBA) not long before they went into the NBL Finals. The Wildcats’ defence went nova and they won their first ever championship (they also went back-to-back the next season).

    Coop rocked.

  30. I didn’t know that I had a twin brother named Darius! I am 35 years old and an old-school Laker fan. Michael Cooper is, by far, my favorite player behind Earvin. To this day, I pull up the socks as well. Additionally, I named my dog Cooper as a tribute.

    I have to share this story…When I was 15, I was fortunate enough to attend a two Lakers games on an East Coast trip and had passes to the locker room (post game). Of course, I went to every player and at least got an autograph. A few guys weren’t in the best mood (considering LA had just been upset by the Cavaliers). Still, some players were exceptional and offered to pose for a photograph with me (James Worth was extremely nice). I approached Michael’s locker and politely asked for an autograph. Not only did he give me an autograph and pose for a picture, but he actually talked to me as well. I mean, he really talked to me. He asked about my life, my basketball team, my school, etc. He seemed genuinely interested. It’s a tribute to him that he was able to relate to a 15-year old kid so well. He was, by far, the most amicable and friendly player on the entire team. Three days later, I attended the next road game (Washington) and was able to go into the locker room. Not long after I entered, someone tapped me on my shoulder. I turned around and Michael Cooper addressed me by my first name and asked how I was doing. After a 10-minute conversation three days earlier, he still remembered my name and was just as nice as before. Since that day, I have been the biggest COOOOOO fan ever!

    GREAT post Darius!