Restarting the Clock: Episode 13: Michael Cooper

By Veronica An

Andy talks with Lakers legend Micahel Cooper about the Showtime Lakers, his transition to being a championship-winning WNBA and G-League coach, and his insight on the game of basketball. Cooper is the only person to win titles in the NBA, WNBA and G-League. Cooper was drafted by the Lakers in 1978 and quickly became a defensive all-star.

Cooper won five championships as a player and shared the four key aspects to a championship team: being on time, respecting teammates, being polite, and communicating with each other.

“Being nice to people comes from my grandmother, my upbringing, it is always something I live. When I got with the Lakers, one core thing that Pat Riley always talked about is always be complimentary to your teammates. The word that he always used was ‘constructive criticism.’ You can gripe, you can criticize one another but always make it a constructive thing. It’s important that you say it and say it the right way,” Cooper said.

Cooper describes the long line of coaches that helped build the Showtime Era Lakers of the 80s and how he formed his identity as a defensive player on the team.

“When I first got with the Lakers, Jerry West was coach. Then when Dr. Buss bought the team, he wanted to bring in a championship coach. They brought in Coach McKinney, who was a disciple or an assistant coach with Jack Ramsay up in Portland, he had won the championship, and the things that they had done up there; keeping their business in-house, forming identities on the team, Coach McKinney brought to the Lakers. The first thing he did with me Is he sat me down, he said, ‘Cool. I got enough scores on this team. I need somebody to play defense.’” 

Cooper was named to the NBA All Defensive Team eight times, including five First Teams and won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award in 1987. During his time with the Lakers, he was part of one of the greatest rivalries in league history. 

“I think it was a turning point of the NBA. I think it all started with two players: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Once you bring Magic and Bird into the equation, you’ve got what is truly considered the greatest rivalry that sports have ever created. It was truly awesome to see it,” Cooper said. “Every year we went in, it was always about what do we need to do to beat the Boston Celtics team. Now the other teams or wherever else came out we would deal with them. But our goal was to think about Boston and how we were going to beat them.”

Cooper recounts the incredible disappointment of the “Memorial Day Massacre” during Game 1 of the 1985 Finals and how it motivated the team. After three days, the Lakers came back with a vengeance for Game 2 and won the championship in 1985. They went on to win back-to-back titles in 1987 and 1988.

“It was hot in Boston, we really didn’t want to be there, there was a lot going on…but it really brought us together. We had some good practices between those games and it really solidified us as a team. It turned Pat Riley into another coach, it took him to another level, and really propelled us to do something that Wilkes, Jerry, and Elgin has never done before, to beat Boston.”

After he retired from the playing, Cooper transitioned into coaching. He recalls talking with Magic and Bryon Scott about post-basketball plans. Magic followed through and became an owner of the Lakers while Scott and Cooper made careers in coaching.

“Pat Riley was really the one who planted the seed. I think about the coaching techniques that Riley bestowed upon us: hard work, attention to detail, the word ‘team.’ Everybody knows how to coach but the spin on coaching is can you get people to do what you need them to do? For me, my biggest hurdle to get over was how to get my voice clear enough for players to understand how to win a championship. ” 

Cooper led the Los Angeles Sparks to back-to-back WNBA championships in 2001 and 2002. He applauds the recent CBA with the league and players which increased salaries. This pay increase will allow players to take time off instead of going overseas during the WNBA off-season. 

“I didn’t look at them as ladies, I treated them like basketball players and I think they respected that,” Cooper said. “These women will get the opportunity to get some time off, it will take the league to the next level. Now you’re really gonna see that talent that these women have.”

Cooper and Andy wrap up the podcast with some memories of Kobe Bryant, who was also an advocate for women’s basketball. Cooper first met Kobe during the Mamba’s pre-draft workout with Jerry West. 

“It was probably one of the hardest workouts I’ve ever had. Kobe was consistently able to get to the sweet spot no matter where Jerry told him it was. He could get the shot off when he wanted. The thing that was amazing to me was how strong he was, he had the wiry strength. He was able to find the angles, that is a finite art that a lot of people don’t have,” Cooper said. “I think Kobe understood that at an early age, he was a master of the game. That allowed him to be two, three, four steps ahead of everyone else. He knew what he wanted – you combine that athleticism, that determination, with the basketball IQ and you get Kobe Bryant.”

Catch Cooper’s podcast Showtime with Coop Podcast

Listen to the full Legends Of Sport podcast here. Watch the video of the podcast on the @legendsofsport YouTube channel.

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