ATLANTA — Within seconds of Tiffany Hayes’s final shot going through the net, the ball was bouncing at a rapid pace down to the other end of the Philips Arena practice court. Michael Cooper, her coach, drop-kicked it there.
Their 3-point shootout was over, and Cooper was playfully frustrated with the results. After five minutes of consistent badgering — "I want a better pass than that."; "Foot over the line."; "Airball and you have to go back a spot." — the Atlanta Dream’s new coach, who finished his Los Angeles Lakers career ranked in the franchise’s top 10 in 3-point field goals, never caught up to Hayes. It was a rout from the very beginning.
"I whooped him, too," Hayes said. "I didn’t just beat him. I whooped him."
As Cooper steps into the Dream job after four years at the college level (Southern Cal), the primary goal is to get the team that has ended up on the wrong end of the WNBA Finals three of the past four seasons over its final obstacle. He brings plenty of experience in that department. After winning five titles with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Showtime Lakers during the 1980s, Cooper has built a solid reputation in the coaching profession, capturing two WNBA titles with the Los Angeles Sparks and one NBA D-League title with the Albuquerque Thunderbirds.
For those counting at home, that’s eight championships as a player or coach at various levels of pro basketball.
There’s still a rather comical disconnect between the two basketball lives of Michael Cooper, player and coach. As the years continue to pass, his players get younger and the playing days shrink farther into the background. Just how many of them recall he was the defensive stopper responsible for guarding the Larry Birds of the NBA world for those championship L.A. teams? How many know he carved out a 12-year career and even won a NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award? Do the up-and-coming players even consider him a former NBA player?
"Not much. I always say, ‘Thank God for ESPN Classic, because they play a lot of our games there. And YouTube and all that," Cooper said. "I think they know more of me as far as coaching with the Sparks than they would as a player. I know Swin (Cash) and some of the older players know about me. But every now and then I’ll have a flashback and I’ll go out and shoot with them and let them know what they’re about.
"When I retired, I was ready to retire. I wasn’t like I was forced out due to injury or something like that, so my playing days are my playing days. And now I look forward to coaching. I enjoy coaching. But you get Shoni Schimmel or Inga Orekhova, who think they can shoot 3s and show them, ‘OK, this is the little line. Let’s step back to the big line.’"
But those playing days are never too far removed from the conversation.
The ’80s era trash-talk is still in full effect — directed anywhere from a former Detroit Pistons player and current New York Liberty head coach, who Cooper (affectionately?) refers to as "big, fat Bill Laimbeer", to his former teammate and L.A. Sparks owner Magic Johnson — and titles are the first thing on his mind. He’s dropping his rookie point guard’s name, Shoni Schimmel, into sentences that include Magic. (He’s even taken a liking to her Lakers-related nickname, Showtime Schimmel.)
"I knew a little bit about him" Schimmel said. "He’s a basketball player and I’m a basketball junkie, so at least be able to know a little bit behind his background. I’ve kept up with him. But you learn more and more, especially when you get here and people are talking about it."
Even before that, one of the first things the Dream learned about Cooper was that he hates to lose … and that he wants his team to run. With Hayes, Schimmel, Cash, Angel McCoughtry and Sancho Lyttle, there’s plenty of talent and playoff experience for Cooper to have the tools to run his system. Now, they just have to run his system. The Dream can pick out their fastest-paced game from last season and Cooper will likely want them to double it. He said they were only "30 or 40 steps" behind his pace. After being traded to Atlanta last week, Cash reached out to Olympic sprinter Allyson Felix asking to borrow some track shoes.
Cooper is making his mark. But is he, along with the addition of four-time All-star Cash and some other pieces, enough to get over the Finals threshold?
In his recent book profiling the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers, author Jeff Pearlman described Cooper as the "NBA’s most paranoid player." He was always looking over his shoulder, thinking someone was coming for his spot. In chance meetings with general manager Jerry West, Cooper would press The Logo about potentially being traded away from his hometown team, a move the Lakers never made with their preeminent defensive force. But it was that added motivation that he says drove him through a successful career, and judging by his coaching track record, it’s difficult to distinguish if that paranoia-fueled work ethic ever dissipated.
"A little bit," Cooper said. "Paranoia of getting fired when the team’s not doing well. But no, it was more so back then, because born and raised in Los Angeles, I was probably one of the very few players drafted by their hometown team and had the ability to play for that team and be successful as we became. But, you know, that’s not as bad when you’re coaching."
Still, there are signs that he wants to make sure everything is still in its proper place.
When he was watching WNBA Draft last month, he could tell Schimmel’s family was hoping for her to be drafted by the Seattle Storm, the league’s closest franchise to her home in Mission, Oregon, with the seventh overall pick. The Storm passed, electing to go with UConn star Bria Hartley. Atlanta took Schimmel at No. 8 with the belief that she would fit in just fine into Cooper’s uptempo system. Cooper believed that Schimmel and her family were a bit disappointed with the draft’s results. So he picked up the phone.
"I’ve been there, done that," Cooper said. "So she was a little disappointed, but when I made my phone call to her and I told her, I said ‘Shoni, I know you’re a little down,’ because Seattle would have been a perfect place for her being from the Northwest, but I said, ‘That offense wouldn’t have fit you well. I think coming here is what you need for you.’ And she has grabbed it and taken hold of it."
Now she’s trying to be his system’s Magic Johnson, at least in training camp while waiting for some of the team’s better players to return from playing overseas, or anything close she can get to filling those ridiculous-sized shoes.
Schimmel’s picking up what she can along the way, anything and everything that might push the team to its first WNBA title in franchise history — and perhaps ending the city’s professional sports title drought along the way.
"He’ll make little comments like he knows what it takes (to win a title) and stuff like that. You just have to listen to him. I mean, I love sitting next to him on the bench because it’s like — well, I don’t love sitting next to him on the bench, but I do like sitting there because you learn from it regardless of where it is. … It’s cool to sit there and learn from somebody who has already been through it all."
Thirteen seasons on the court. A coaching career that spans three decades. Eight titles. Michael Cooper would be the first to agree with that assessment — "I know what I’m talking about," he said. — and now it’s just about getting everyone to buy in. In the Philips Arena practice gym on Friday, a renewed energy level was apparent, with coach-on-player 3-point shootouts and jokes (and the half-hearted excuse of an injured wrist contributing to Cooper’s shooting demise) being yelled back and forth across the court, setting the tone for practice with the season just one week away.
There are expectations, though.
Cooper was the first to lay those out on the table as well.
"We’re talking championship. I’m not going to shy away from that, because I need our players to understand the certain aspects and the steps you have to take to becoming a champion," Cooper said. "And as long as they know that’s the end goal, then they’ll continue to take those steps."