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From Childhood, Through UNM and the NBA, Michael Cooper Has Persevered

By Rick Wright
Journal Staff Writer
    Back at the height of Showtime in the 1980s, Michael Cooper recalls, Los Angeles Laker coach Pat Riley used to hand out individual scouting videotapes to his players.
    As insurance against failure to complete the homework, somewhere on each player's tape would be inserted a key word— sometimes near the beginning, sometimes toward the end, sometimes in the middle.
    "You'd come to practice the next day and (Riley) would say, 'What's your key word?' '' says Cooper, 49, the former Lobo great and Laker defensive stopper who's now head coach of the NBA Development League's Albuquerque Thunderbirds. "You got fined $500 during the season and $1,000 in the playoffs if you didn't know it."
    The accountability drilled into him by Riley remains a key word in Cooper's vocabulary, and a cornerstone of his coaching philosophy, as he enters another phase of his three decades-long relationship with Albuquerque.
    Several other key words, however, come to mind.
    COMPETITIVENESS: The interview that produced most of this article almost didn't happen— or so it appeared for a moment— because Cooper took strong exception to a previous Journal article written by the interviewer that predicted a less-than-bright future for the Thunderbirds in the Albuquerque marketplace.
    "Are you the one who wrote that bad story?" Cooper said, eyes widening.
    Half an hour later, at the session's end, Cooper hadn't forgotten how it had begun.
    "We're going to prove you wrong," he said.
    John Whisenant, who coached Cooper at UNM and coached against him in the WNBA, knows his student-turned-colleague's competitive side well.
    Whisenant, a Lobo assistant coach under Norm Ellenberger from 1972-79, remembers the night in Cooper's senior season (1977-78) when Brigham Young and Danny Ainge, the Cougars hot-shot freshman guard, came to town.
    Cooper, always up for a defensive challenge, was ready.
    "The first two or three times Ainge shot the ball," Whisenant says, "Coop blocked 'em into the stands. ... I think Ainge only got seven or eight points (actually 13, nine below the BYU star's average, on 5-of-15 shooting) that night."
    A quarter-century later, in the summer of 2003, Whisenant witnessed Cooper's competitive streak again— this time, aimed at him.
    Whisenant was at the time the brand-new head coach of the WNBA's Sacramento Monarchs. Cooper was head coach of the two-time defending league champion Los Angeles Sparks.
    After Sacramento's 83-75 upset of L.A., Cooper refused to shake Whisenant's hand— alleging his old mentor had not returned some phone calls.
    "You made this personal," Cooper was heard to say.
    Almost two-and-a-half years later, both parties chalk up the long ago-resolved tiff to Cooper's competitive nature.
    "Coach Whiz is a friend of mine and always will be," Cooper says. "... (But) it just so happened that game we were taking it on the chin and it didn't feel good and I'm a competitor. It just hurt to lose; it was nothing more than that. ... After that we forgot about it."
    Whisenant says that last September, after his Monarchs won the 2005 WNBA title, Cooper was among the first to call with congratulations.
    INTUITION: Whisenant doesn't recall Cooper ever talking about becoming a coach during his playing days at UNM. Still, Whisenant says, he wasn't surprised to see his former player wind up on the sidelines.
    Cooper was, he says, the proverbial coach on the floor.
    "There was never any question about his intelligence, his basketball mind," Whisenant said. "He was one of those guys you only had to tell something once.
    "He was one of the quickest we had to recognize why we were doing something from a team standpoint and get caught right up in it. You didn't have to pound on him to get him to understand."
    Basketball intuition? Perhaps. But it was also basketball absorption.
    George Terzian, Cooper's coach at Pasadena (Calif.) High School, was a legend in Southern California. At UNM, Ellenberger and Whisenant married former Lobo coach Bob King's pressure defense with a breakneck offense. With the Lakers, Riley was a fiend for preparation.
    At each of those levels— even before he ever dreamed of becoming a coach— Cooper watched, listened and learned.
    "My high school coach was very fundamental," he says. "Norm gave me that aggressiveness, and coach Whisenant designed our defense.
    "I think Pat Riley kind of wrapped everything up with his preparation, his professionalism and his integrity for the game."
    Whisenant saw the results while Cooper was coaching the Sparks to back-to-back WNBA titles in 2001-02.
    "The Sparks had the same (core) players before Coop took over as coach, and they hadn't won," Whisenant says, "and they weren't nearly as good a team with the very same players after he left.
    "The same things I saw in him as a player, I could see in him as an opposing coach."
    DETERMINATION: Cooper's athletic career almost ended before it started one day in his native Pasadena some 44 years ago. His uncle had brought home a puppy, and Michael, 5, raced outside to see it. He tripped and cut his left leg to the bone on a coffee-can rim.
    Doctors told his mother young Michael would never walk normally again, much less run and jump.
    "I had that Forrest Gump (brace) with the boot," he says. "I had that for, like, three years.
    "I remember I used to sit at the window and watch my cousins and friends outside playing football, running. I used to say to myself, 'If I ever get a chance to run, I won't stop.' ''
    Cooper doesn't intend to stop pursuing an NBA head coaching job, either, despite being jettisoned last season after going 4-10 in 14 games as interim head coach of the Denver Nuggets. Denver brought in veteran George Karl, who led the Nuggets to a blazing finish and into the playoffs.
    Whisenant, however, points out the Nuggets played nine games against eventual playoff teams during Cooper's short tenure. Karl won 10 of his first 14, but only four of those games were against playoff teams.
    "George Karl's a great coach," Whisenant said, "but I think had (the schedule) been different, Coop might have kept that job."
    Cooper said he harbors no bitterness toward the Nuggets and that he admires Karl. But, he added, "I'll say to this day that George Karl inherited a better team than I took over."
    Cooper said he's focused on his job with the Thunderbirds and glad to have it. Still, on his way out of Denver, Cooper vowed he'd return to the NBA one day as a head coach.
    "That's gonna happen," he says now. "It's all a proving ground wherever you go."
    RESILIENCE: Whether it's the childhood injury, a 1978 torn medial collateral ligament that washed out what would have been his rookie season with the Lakers, or his coaching setback with the Nuggets, nothing has kept Cooper down for long.
    Not even a 1994 arrest for domestic violence that was the low point of his long and fruitful history in Albuquerque.
    Late on July 27 of that year, police were called to Cooper's Corrales home. According to news accounts based on police reports, a police officer witnessed Cooper pull his wife, Wanda, off a bed by her ankle.
    Cooper later brandished a vase at his wife and threatened her, the reports said.
    Cooper pleaded guilty to battery and received a deferred sentence that required him to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
    "It was an ugly scene and it's not one that I'll forget," he says now. "... No man should ever hit a woman, and no woman should ever hit a man."
    In the days following, Wanda Cooper defended her husband— calling the incident "an aberration" and expressing confidence it wouldn't be repeated.
    It never was, Cooper says.
    "I regret that it happened, but it did," he says, "and I just try to be a better man from it."
    LOYALTY: Cooper's parents divorced when he was a child, and he grew up without his father. Though other male relatives ably filled in, Cooper has sought and found mentors elsewhere.
    Basil Nellos, longtime proprietor of the Lobo Men's Shop on Central, remembers a spindly junior-college transfer basketball player walking into his clothing store in the fall of 1976.
    "I knew Michael before he shot his first basket at UNM," Nellos says. "... I've seen him grow from a young man into mature adulthood."
    Cooper has maintained a relationship with Nellos for almost 30 years, despite the former's long absences from Albuquerque during his Laker years and while pursuing a coaching career.
    "Mr. Basil was one of my guardians in a sense," Cooper says. "... I always felt like he was a second dad. I could go in there (the store) and talk to him about anything."
    Though Cooper counts among his best friends basketball luminaries like Magic Johnson, he still calls Albuquerque-area lawyer, politician and public servant Joe Lang— more than a year after Lang's death from an apparent heart attack— his very best friend.
    The fun-loving Lang was like a brother, Cooper says, but, some 10 years Michael's senior, also a close confidant and valued adviser.
    "Joe was the type of guy who was always there for you," he says.
    Michael and Wanda Cooper separated in 1996, and Cooper has an 8-month-old son, Nils, with his girlfriend in addition to his and Wanda's three children: Michael, Simone and Miles.
    Yet, he and Wanda have never divorced.
    "She was my first love, and we just haven't completed (the break)," Cooper says.
    "It's just a legal formality, I think. We're still good friends, and we stay in touch and do what we need to do (regarding) the kids."
    ALBUQUERQUEAN: Cooper, initially recruited only by New Mexico, Utah State and Seattle Pacific out of Pasadena City College in 1976, opted for UNM after getting stuck in a snowstorm during his visit to Logan, Utah.
    Michigan State entered the picture late, he says, but he didn't envision East Lansing, Mich., being any warmer than Logan.
    Yet, Cooper was so homesick during his first weeks in Albuquerque that Whisenant was forced to retrieve him via private plane when his prize JC recruit bolted for Pasadena.
    "I was the pilot," Whisenant says. "I was bringing Coop back and the ceiling got low and I had to land in Grants and catch a ride because we couldn't get into Albuquerque.
    "Coop's always said he was afraid to even think about leaving again because he was afraid he'd have to fly with me again."
    Once the homesickness was resolved, however, Albuquerque became home.
    Throughout his career with the Lakers, Cooper maintained a residence and a presence in Albuquerque. Locally, he lent not just his name but his time and his money to dozens of causes: literacy, safe sex/abstinence, AIDS awareness, etc. He campaigned against drugs, teen-age drinking, racism and sexism.
    Cooper's signature in Albuquerque became his Coop Camp, held annually from 1985-97. In peak years, the camp drew as many as 500 kids. On one occasion Cooper brought in 67 kids from the Los Angeles area and put them up at his home in Corrales.
    Now, Cooper's back in Albuquerque— conducting a camp for some of the older kids: the Thunderbirds.
    For Coach Coop, it's another rung on the ladder.
    1956: Born in Pasadena, Calif., on April 15
    1973: Scores 25 points, leading Pasadena High School to the Pacific League Championship
    1978: Leads UNM to a 24-4 record and a No. 5 national ranking
    1980: Wins first of five world championship rings with the Los Angeles Lakers
    1985: First Coop Camp is held
    1987: Named NBA Defensive Player of the Year
    1988: One for the thumb: his fifth title with the Lakers
    1990: Retires as a Laker, plays one year in Italy
    1992: Inducted into the Albuquerque Sports Hall of Fame
    1996: Resigns Laker assistant coaching position; separates from wife, Wanda
    2002: Wins second of two WNBA titles as coach of Los Angeles Sparks; expresses interest for the second time in the UNM men's coaching job but is not considered for lack of a college degree
    2005: Named head coach of the Albuquerque Thunderbirds of the NBA Development League
    12 - Seasons played with the Los Angeles Lakers
    79 - Cooper's height in inches (6 feet, 7 inches)
    71 - His height in inches as a high school junior (5-11); as a senior, he'd grown to 6-4
    5 - Number of Cooper's world championship rings. Also, number of concussions suffered during his playing career
    60 - Overall selection with which Cooper was drafted by the Lakers in 1978 (third round)
    378 - 3-pointers made during his NBA career
    905 - Points scored during his two seasons at UNM (15.6 average)
    50 - Cooper's field-goal percentage at UNM (360 of 720)
    2 - WNBA titles won as coach of the Los Angeles Sparks (2001-02)
    .791 - Cooper's winning percentage (121-32 record) with the Sparks

E-MAIL Journal Staff Writer Rick Wright