Last year, Lakers legend Michael Cooper was nominated for the the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame for the first time. And while he didn’t make it in the loaded 2021 class, it’s not out of the question that the 1987 Defensive Player of the Year — who was so dynamic that he won the award despite coming off the bench — and five-time champion with the Showtime Lakers could make it into the Hall in the future.
A few weeks ago, Cooper told our own Sabreena Merchant that he got “very, very emotional” about ending up on the doorstep on the Hall of Fame, and that being on the precipice leaves him wanting to get in more than ever.
But there was another part of their interview that stuck out as well: Cooper also made it sound like getting his jersey raised to the rafters by the Lakers would be an even bigger honor for him personally.
“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.”
For most other franchises, Cooper’s resume would leave him basically a shoe-in to get his number retired. But the Lakers have a historically high standard for these things, with Hall of Fame admittance basically a pre-requisite for a jersey retirement, with only Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant — who were surefire, first-ballot hall-of-famers for years before their retirement — getting their numbers raised to the rafters before they officially got inducted into Springfield.
But Cooper has a case to get his number retired, especially if he makes the Hall. For one thing, the Lakers were the only team he ever suited up for, a true homegrown talent from Pasadena who the Lakers nabbed with a third-round pick out of New Mexico. Cooper wore No. 21 in purple and gold for 12 years before going to play in Italy, making eight All-Defensive Teams during his career in addition to his one DPOY award. Add in that the franchise won five championships during the just over a decade he spent in a Lakers uniform, and it’s clear that Cooper was a winning basketball player.
And as we noted when he was nominated for the Hall, it’s not just intangibles and harder-to-quantify defensive success that make Cooper’s case. He also has solid statistical arguments for his contributions to the team, ranking in the top 10 in Lakers franchise history in games and minutes played, 3-pointers made, assists, steals, blocks and Value Over Replacement Player. The only players to play more games or minutes for the Lakers and not have their jerseys retired are Byron Scott and Derek Fisher.
Is that enough to get his jersey retired? Without Hall of Fame admittance, maybe not. But Cooper has a better case than some might think, with or without that honor. And given that it appears like he (correctly) sees a Lakers jersey retirement as an even bigger deal than the Hall of Fame, it’s hard to argue that he isn’t a truly deserving Laker through and through, a carrier of Showtime-era purple and gold blood. Whether his No. 21 gets put away for good or not, real fans will always know that the team will never have another player wear it quite like Michael Cooper.
What do you think? Should Michael Cooper have his jersey retired? Let us know in the comments below. And for more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.