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Michael Cooper is still living his basketball dream, 30 years after his Lakers career

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After storied tenures with the Lakers and Sparks, the latest coaching stop for Michael Cooper is the BIG3.

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BIG3 - Week Six Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Michael Cooper is the definition of a basketball lifer.

Since ending a Hall of Fame caliber career for the Lakers, Cooper has gone on to coach in the NBA, the WNBA, the G League, the NCAA, and even southern California high school hoops before landing at his current destination: The BIG3.

For someone who loves basketball as much as he does, it’s unsurprising that he would jump at the opportunity to coach at any professional level, even a 3x3 league that is better known for its creator, Ice Cube, than the actual play on the court. But Cooper chose BIG3 specifically because he appreciated the flow of the game.

BIG3 - Week Four
It’s been 27 years since he got into the profession, and Michael Cooper still can’t get enough of coaching.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images for BIG3

It just so happened that there was an opening to coach 3’s Company when Cooper ran into BIG3 commissioner Clyde Drexler at the Atlanta airport a few years ago, and now the Laker legend is in his second season as the coach of a team with Ryan Hollins, Jeremy Pargo, Arinze Onuaku, Drew Gooden, Mario Chalmers, DerMarr Johnson, and David Hawkins.

“Here, you can get the opportunity to coach some great former and current NBA players,” Cooper says. “I’ve coached almost every level. So why not try this? And I love it.”

“What I love about is you got three players that have to figure out how to play team basketball,” Cooper adds. “Usually, when you go to the park and play, one guy that’s the best offensive player will pick two weak guys, just kind of like a rebounder and you know, maybe a passer, and then he does all the scoring. Well 3-on-3 is a little bit different cuz you have to figure out team play in the concept of being individuals out there on the court, and to coach that means you have to kind of like think outside the box, and that’s what I love doing.”

3’s Company is currently 2-4, with one week left in the regular season, and Pargo is the league’s leader in four-point shots, a feature that Cooper expects the NBA to eventually adopt because it is a “big-time play”. Cooper, who spoke to Silver Screen and Roll halfway through the season, is also a big fan of the “Bring the Fire” rule, where a player gets to challenge an opponent to 1-on-1 as a way of protesting a call. That seems much less likely to make its way to the NBA.

One of Cooper’s favorite parts of the BIG3 is the familial atmosphere. Drexler’s an old friend, which is how he got involved in the first place. He gets to work with his former players, like Johnson, who played for Cooper in 2004-05 in Denver.

Minnesota Lynx v Los Angeles Sparks
Michael Cooper and Lisa Leslie flourished as a coach/player duo, and now Leslie is using Cooper’s lessons against him.
Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Cooper also gets to coach against his former players, like Lisa Leslie. Leslie led the Los Angeles Sparks two WNBA titles when Cooper was at the helm, and now she gets to carry on his coaching legacy. The only problem for Cooper is that Leslie is really good.

“I f***ing hate it cuz she’s beating me,” Cooper says, laughing, when asked about going up against Leslie in the BIG3. “The one thing that her and I have always talked about after our days of coaching and playing with one another, is that she was always like, ‘Coop you know what, the one thing I liked about you is that you always asked us what’s going on’. And that’s how I was coached. Pat Riley would come and during the time out, he’d go Coop, ‘What do you guys see out there? What’s going on?’ Because we’re out there, but he’s on the outside.

“That’s what coaching is about, and she has taken that, And that’s how she has coached her team and, you know, for her to have the best team and they’re really really good. But if you’ve got the best player, that also helps, which I had with her, and so it’s painful, but it’s pleasurable to see too.”

Leslie’s team, Triplets, led by former NBA All-Star Joe Johnson, is the defending champion and currently sits atop the standings. 3’s Company, meanwhile, is in 9th place out of 12 teams, and likely won’t qualify for the BIG3 postseason, which will be held at Atlantis Paradise Island in The Bahamas on August 28 and September 4.

Even if this BIG3 season hasn’t gone according to plan, this year has still been a success for Cooper. For the first time, the former Laker was named as a finalist for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He didn’t make the Class of 2021, but it’s a step closer for the five-time champ, eight-time all-defense selection, and 1987 Defensive Player of the Year despite coming off the bench all season.

“I got real emotional about that,” Cooper says. “For my role to lead to the doorstep of the Hall of Fame was very, very emotional for me and, you know, I want it now. As you play for a championship and you get close to it, and you finally win one, you want more, and we were able to get five. Well, now that my role has led to the doorstep of the Hall of Fame, I’m very, very thankful and blessed that it has. But now that I’m at the doorstep, I’m knocking because I feel and I think and sometimes I deserve, looking at some of the other people — I never hate on anybody — but one day that door’s going to open for me. And when it does, that will be probably the highlight of my basketball career.

“Right now the highlight of my career is having one of the greatest players who’s ever played this game, Larry Bird, say Michael Cooper was the hardest player for me to play against. That right there says a lot and from a little guy, skinny guy that everybody said could never make it, to have this guy say that about me — right now, that beats all the championships, that beats all the Defensive Player of the Year awards, that beats all the first-team defensive player awards,” Cooper continued. “That to me is kind of what I hang my hat on. But now if I’m able to get into the Hall, and I really do believe, one day, it’s going to happen.... if I’m able to get my jersey, my picture, my bust in there, then job well done, Coop.”

Boston Celtics Larry Bird, 1987 NBA Finals
Larry Bird said one-time DPOY Michael Cooper was the hardest player for him to play against.
SetNumber: X34908 TK6 R2 F16

If Cooper were to make the Hall of Fame, that would likely ensure a place for his No. 21 jersey in the Lakers’ rafters as well. It sounds like that isn’t something Cooper has considered much, since he hasn’t yet hit the first prerequisite.

“Well that would go along with everything else, I had never thought about that because I feel retired jerseys are players that truly, truly deserve it,” Cooper says. “But if that works out to happen, I would be speechless on that one, that would be probably take me over the top, but if it were to happen, wow, I really don’t know what to say about that.”

Even if his number never hangs in Staples Center — Cooper likes to say that his 21 is a part of James Worthy’s 42, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 33, and Magic Johnson’s 32 anyway — Cooper has solidified his place in Lakers lore, just as he has for the Los Angeles Sparks. That’s a complete career in and of itself, and yet, Cooper is still out there, chasing more coaching goals.

He jokes that he gets the itch to suit up when he sees his BIG3 players failing to cover stars like Joe Johnson, and he wants to show them how it’s done, even at age 65. But realistically, he’s focusing on his AAU program called Two One Elite and keeping his ear open for coaching jobs is Los Angeles so that he can stay around his wife and his teenage son.

Whether that’s another year in a BIG3 or a return to college or high school, Cooper just can’t see himself away from the game. As he says, “I’m enjoying my life at this state, but basketball will always be a part of it.”

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