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.