BOSTON — Most high school coaches preach the same old thing: Fundamentals, teamwork, defense over offense. And most kids, in keeping with tradition, ignore every word.
Michael Cooper was one of the weird ones. Michael Cooper listened. When they told him “defense not offense” at Pasadena High School, he said “OK. Gotcha.” He worked on steals, blocks. Scoring was beside the point.
“In my high school, the coach had pretty much decided that one player, a kid named Michael Gray, was going to do all the scoring anyhow,” Cooper, 31, recalled Monday after practice at the Boston Garden. “So I figured defense was my best chance to get my hands on the ball.”
A specialist was born. He is now known, if known at all, as the guy who defends Larry Bird (and others) better than anybody. Shadow to the stars. On these explosive LA Lakers, he is like iron among neon, a defensive ace on a team of slam dunkers and break-dancers. He even looks more serious. As he spoke Monday he stood stiffly in uniform, his hands folded, his voice oddly pitched, almost academic, as if delivering a science lecture. His tight features and razor body somehow suggest purpose, concentration. Surely, this is one of those film-watching, no- nonsense, defensive eggheads who wouldn’t know a joke unless it tried to dribble past him.
“Not really,” said his wife, Wanda. “Actually, I have it on good authority that he once mooned the press room.”
Yes. And . . .
He what? Every trip an adventure
“The guy is crazy,” Mrs. Cooper continued. ‘He sometimes has this image of seriousness with the press during championships (such as the Lakers-Celtics tussle that continues tonight at the Garden with LA ahead, 2-1). But that’s just his game face. Actually, it’s hard for me to think of a time when he’s not kidding around.”
It is true Cooper watches film for fascinating things such as ball-denial and body position. It is also true that he got married in blue jeans and Nikes. “He woke up one morning during college and said let’s get married,” his wife recalled. “By three o’clock we had a judge, blood tests, a couple friends as witnesses, and we were married.”
When Mrs. Cooper sends him to the toy store for the kids, he comes home with packages for himself. He earns $700,000 a year with the Lakers, and yet when he left one day to finally buy a new car — “I thought he was going to come back with a Mercedes or a BMW” — he wound up returning with four new wheels for his 1972 Volkswagen.
Teammates tease him about guarding his dollars as tightly as his opponents. But as usual, with Cooper, that’s only half the story. “One day I went to this local recreation facility where our kids swim, and I noticed a new stairway/ramp for handicapped people to use the pool,” said Wanda. “I said to somebody, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ And they said, ‘Yes, your husband bought it for us.’ ”
A few months later, she learned Cooper had, for three years, been visiting a school for the handicapped on his way home from practice. Three years? “He never told me,” she said.
Cooper’s affinity for handicapped kids may well be because he almost was one. As a pre-schooler in a rundown section of Pasadena, he fell on a jagged coffee can and ripped open his right knee. He needed 100 stitches to close it and doctors told his mother he would never walk right again.
Not surprisingly, at the time of his fall, he was chasing a puppy. Defense by any other name
Well, Cooper obviously walked right again, ran again, and, as a sixth man, became a nemesis for the NBA’s top offensive stars. “He a perfect player, maybe the most versatile player in the league,” says coach Pat Riley. For yes, he now has an offensive arsenal as well, including a three-point set shot that dropped six times (a championship record) in LA’s 141-122 Game 2 victory. In Lakerland, they call that shot the Cooper- Hoop. His personal alley-oop dunk is called the Coop-a-Loop. His blocks and steals: Cooper-Scoops. Good name, huh?
“Mostly though, this team had a lot of scorers when I got here,” he said.
“So I’m glad I had already been taught how to concentrate on defense. That’s what I enjoy the most. A good block, a timely steal. That, to me, is like what the sky hook is to Kareem.”
So OK. There is room in one 6-foot-7 body for a guy who loves the thankless and helps the helpless, and still knows when a good moon is appropriate. That stuff about a book and its cover — which they also teach you in high school? Well. Let’s just say Michael Cooper makes a good case for paying more attention.
“What happened to that guy from your team, Michael Gray, the scorer?” someone asked.
“He’s in Utah, running a YMCA,” Cooper said.
“Do you take any satisfaction in that?”
“Yeah, a little,” he said, finally allowing a grin. “But don’t ever tell him that.”