Cooper, Michael 1956–
Michael Cooper 1956–
Basketball player and coach
“I love the sounds of basketball,” Michael Cooper told a Los Angeles Times reporter as he sat out a game in a locker room after a technical-foul ejection, confident that his superbly trained Los Angeles Sparks team could function without him. “I even love being off the court, in a locker room, when a game is underway and hearing the crowd react—I can almost see what’s happening.” The love of basketball shown in that statement manifested itself in Cooper’s lifelong dedication to the game—as a key player on the legendary Los Angeles Lakers squad of the 1980s; as a scout, as an assistant coach; and then as head coach of the Los Angeles Sparks of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA).
Michael Jerome Cooper was born on April 15, 1956, and grew up in Pasadena, California, outside Los Angeles. His parents divorced when he was a child; as his mother Jean struggled to survive working double shifts as a nurse, Cooper was left in the hands of his grandmother, Ardessie Butler. “Everybody gave me something different,” Cooper told Sports Illustrated. “My mother and grandmother gave me love. Then they gave me to my uncles.”
It was Cooper’s uncles who spotted and encouraged his athletic talent. Small in comparison with most basketball players, Cooper tried other sports first as a student at Pasadena High School. His uncles pushed him toward baseball, but, as he explained to Sports Illustrated, “I didn’t like hitting, standing there and letting somebody throw a rock at my head.” He moved on to the position of wide receiver in football, but his uncles disparaged that idea, arguing that Cooper’s slender six-foot-six-inch frame would not long withstand football’s constant physical abuse.
Cooper did excel at track and field at Pasadena High; he was especially adept as a high-jumper, and even during his years in pro basketball a Los Angeles track coach tried to tempt him back to the high jump, arguing that he might have Olympic-level abilities. Finally Cooper settled on basketball. He was, then, not a basketball prodigy but an athlete of tremendous all-around ability who took up basketball as a career. His college career began not in a high-flying Division I basketball program, but at Pasadena City College. Later he transferred to the University of New Mexico, from which he graduated in 1978. There he met his wife Wanda; the couple has three children.
Born April 15, 1956, in Pasadena, CA; parents: Marshall and Jean; partly raised by grandmother: Ardessie Butler; married: Wanda; three children: Michael Jr., Simone, Miles. Education: Attended Pasadena City College; University of New Mexico, B.A., 1978.
Career: Professional basketball player and coach. Played for Los Angeles Lakers, NBA, 1979-90; played on five championship teams; played professional basketball in Italy, 1990-91; special assistant to the general manager, Los Angeles Lakers, 1991-94; assistant coach, Los Angeles Lakers, 1994-97; assistant coach, Los Angeles Sparks, WNBA, 1998-99; head coach, Los Angeles Sparks, 1999-.
Awards: Selected nine times to All-Defensive First Team in NBA; NBA Defensive Player of the Year, 1987.
Address: Office —Head Coach, Los Angeles Sparks, 3900 W. Manchester Blvd., The Forum, Inglewood, CA 90301.
Signed to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979, Cooper soon displayed his all-around abilities. “In an era of specialization, Mike does many things,” legendary Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar told Sports Illustrated. “He’s a true swing man, a backup point guard, a three-point shooter. And yes, a true stopper. He challenges everybody.” Cooper was indeed known for his stubborn defensive skills. In 1987 he won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award, and he was selected for the league’s All-Defensive first or second teams for eight seasons in a row—an especially noteworthy accomplishment in view of the fact that Cooper was often not part of the Lakers’ set of five players who started the game. NBA offensive great Larry Bird once called Cooper the best defensive player he had ever faced.
In fact, Cooper was once named by Sporting News to a list of basketball’s all-time greatest reserve players or “sixth men.” “He could do everything well,” the magazine noted, and it was that versatility that made him so important to the Lakers as they notched five NBA championships (out of eight appearances in the finals) during his playing career. No slouch on offense, he inspired a set of nicknames for his various distinctive shotmaking capabilities: the “Coop-a-Loop,” “Cooper Hoop,” and “Cooper Scoop.” Cooper led the Lakers in three-point shots five times, and once scored six three-pointers in a championship game—a feat matched by only two other NBA players.
After wrapping up his NBA career in 1990, Cooper played briefly in an Italian pro basketball league. In 1991 he returned to the Lakers as a special assistant to the team’s general manager, Jerry West. He served in that front-office post for three years. In March of 1994 Cooper was named assistant coach for the Lakers, working for a short time under his old teammate Earvin “Magic” Johnson and then under Del Harris. Cooper first worked as a head coach during one 1994 game when a prior engagement called Johnson away, and he also got a taste of women’s basketball when he coached a team that participated in the annual “Say No” women’s tournament.
Cooper’s defensive skills showed through in the Lakers’ performance in the mid-1990s, as the team placed near the top of the league in steals and blocked shots and in the 1995-1996 season limited its opponents to a franchise record low of 98.5 points per game. With accomplishments like these under his belt, Cooper began to hunger for a chance to show what he could do at a team’s helm. The formation of the new WNBA at the end of the 1990s gave him his chance.
Serving briefly as an assistant coach, Cooper was named head coach of the Los Angeles Sparks WNBA franchise on October 14, 1999. His penchant for hard work began to show immediate results with the Sparks, as the team consistently outlasted its opponents in tough contests. “We are the best conditioned team in the league, we’ve shown that,” Cooper boasted to the Los Angeles Times, and his contention was backed by the Sparks’ eight wins out of nine games decided by six or fewer points in the 2000 season. The Sparks narrowly missed winning the WNBA 2000 league championship, losing to the Houston Comets in the championship finals.
Cooper’s success with the Sparks was recognized when he was named the WNBA’s Coach of the Year in 2000. Redoubling his efforts for the 2001 season, Cooper scored the success that had eluded him the previous year; the Sparks won the WNBA championship over the Charlotte Sting. Over Cooper’s two seasons at the helm, the Sparks’ record was an impressive 56 wins and eight losses. A well-rounded figure who devotes time to several charitable causes, Cooper was often mentioned as a possible addition to the NBA’s slender roster of African-American head coaches. In the summer of 2001, however, he indicated a desire to remain with the Sparks and was in the process of negotiating a new contract with the team.
Jet, September 11, 2000, p. 48.
Los Angeles Times, August 2, 2000, p. D8; August 8, 2000, p. D3; August 23, 2000, p. D3; September 6, 2001, p. D1.
The Sporting News, April 10, 1995, p. 20.
Sports Illustrated, May 11, 1987, p. 50.
Los Angeles Sparks, http://www.wnba.com/sparks.
—James M. Manheim
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