Back in the 1980s, Michael Cooper was a key member of the dynamic Los Angeles Lakers team that won five NBA championships.
He made a name for himself with his ball-hawking defense, but his contributions went well beyond that, as he was a very versatile role player for those “Showtime” teams.
Cooper is very fondly remembered by Lakers fans who were around during that glamorous decade, yet he is somewhat underappreciated historically, as the lion’s share of the credit for those teams’ success goes to Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy.
But he has recently been nominated for induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a member of the class of 2023.
This isn’t the first time Cooper has been nominated, however, and some are wondering what it will take for him to finally get the nod.
Is he deserving of getting inducted alongside some of his former Lakers teammates?
Cooper was invaluable to the Showtime Lakers
Cooper is an inspiring success story. A native of Pasadena, which is just a short drive from downtown Los Angeles, he suffered a severe cut in his knee as a toddler, which required a large number of stitches. A doctor told his family about him he would never be able to walk.
Not only was Cooper able to walk again, but he was able to run, and he starred at Pasadena High School, then at Pasadena City College and at the University of New Mexico. Despite being very skinny (he was listed at between 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-7 and just 170 pounds), he was extremely driven, partly by a sense of insecurity that bordered on paranoia, and it drove him to be his very best of him.
The Lakers took him in the third round of the 1978 NBA Draft, and he barely survived roster cuts to become a key member of the bench. As a young player, he was an exciting lob threat, and as the decade progressed, he saw himself play a number of different roles, including backup point guard, swingman and their designated 3-point specialist.
But it was on defense where Cooper separated himself from the rest. He would guard opposing stars and superstars at several different positions, and Larry Bird, the Lakers’ biggest superstar rival back then, said Cooper was the best defender he ever faced.
He never made an All-Star team, and his overall stats (8.9 points, 4.2 assists and 1.2 steals per game) may be dismissed as pedestrian by casual or ignorant fans, but he was very integral to LA’s success.
Cooper has done a lot more in basketball since his playing days ended
Cooper ended his playing career in 1990, but in some ways, his overall basketball career was just beginning.
He spent some time in the Lakers’ front office and as an assistant coach for them before moving on to become the head coach of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks in 1999. In just his second season in that role, they won the league championship, and they repeated the feat again in 2002.
Cooper has also served as the head coach of the University of Southern California Trojans, as well as the Atlanta Dream, the Big3 League’s 3’s Company and Chadwick School. He even spent three seasons at the helm of the Albuquerque Thunderbirds of the D-League (now known as the G League), where he won a league championship.
He is currently the head coach at Culver City High School.
The final verdict
If only Cooper’s playing career were considered for his potential nomination into the Hall of Fame, he would likely fall short.
But leading the Sparks to back-to-back WNBA championships is a major accomplishment, even when he had Lisa Leslie, who herself is a Hall of Famer, at his side.
The basketball Hall of Fame is less selective than those of some other sports, and therefore, we must conclude that, sooner or later, Cooper needs to be inducted.
The common thread with him is that he has won championships just about everywhere he has gone. If there is one quality that defines inductees more than any other, it is just that.
Once Cooper gets into the Hall of Fame, there is no doubt the Lakers will retire his No. 21 jersey soon afterward.