Swanson: Michael Cooper continues offering Hall of Fame wisdom (2024)

What makes a Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer, you ask?

Hard to say exactly, the criteria has always been impossible to pinpoint, decided by mystery voters who don’t seem necessarily to be following a specific recipe.

But you know it when you see it.

And Michael Cooper is it.

Not only because of his contributions to the Lakers’ five NBA championships between 1980 and 1988. Or his inclusion on eight NBA All-Defensive teams. Or that 1987 Defensive Player of the Year award.

It’s all that. And much more. It’s all that and the fact that since he retired from the NBA in 1990, Cooper has been a prolific steward of the game, paying it forward one coaching opportunity at a time. He’s taught and mentored NBA players, WNBA players, collegians and preps. The only level he hasn’t coached yet – yet, Cooper stressed – is community college.

Oh, and he’s worked with kids too, shared his vast insight with youngsters at camps in his hometown of Pasadena, in Albuquerque where he went to college at the University of New Mexico and, last summer, in Long Beach. His pal, Greg Smith, invited him to out for the inaugural BBallers Hoops Pro Camp, a summertime offshoot of a growing youth program Smith started initially in a Long Beach church parking lot during COVID.

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Last summer’s camp was “off the hook,” Smith said. “Just being able to give kids an opportunity touch someone like Mike, who they’d never be able to touch otherwise, is an amazing opportunity.”

It went so well that Cooper will be back this summer, high socks pulled up, at Alpert Jewish Community Center in Long Beach.

Cooper, 68, will again take time to tutor and offer tips, to school these youngsters and sign autographs for them. He’ll spend three weeklong sessions beginning July 15 inspiring boys and girls between the ages of 7 and 11, neophyte hoopers who will be learning the game not just from a Lakers great who’s really hoping that the Dallas Mavericks can keep the Boston Celtics from winning an 18th NBA title – but from a soon-to-be Hall of Famer who’s really hoping the Mavs can keep the Celtics from winning an 18th NBA title.

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Cooper will be inducted Aug. 17, in Springfield, Mass., going in as part of a 13-member class that also includes big basketball names like Vince Carter, Seimone Augustus and Chauncey Billups.

Also, for the third time, Jerry West – another former Lakers great who will be inducted this time as a “contributor” after previously being recognized as a player and as a member of the 1960 Olympic team. See!? These Hall of Fame cooks are eyeballing it as they go about concocting this exquisite, international basketball stew, persnickety details be damned. Like, say, dates.

I mean, they called up Cooper – who was previously a Hall of Fame finalist in 2021 and 2022 – to tell him the good news on April 1.

On April 1!

“The other times I got that call, I was denied, so I was saying, ‘That’s a cruel joke on April Fool’s Day!’” the former Pasadena High great said. “And they were like, ‘No, Coop, you got in!’”

I don’t even know where to start! I tried to wait until Saturday…but I just can’t hold the news 😂 I’m so so thrilled that my Showtime running mate and one of my best friends Michael Cooper has been elected into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame!!

Coop is the greatest… pic.twitter.com/54K0S0znWa

— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) April 5, 2024

Cooper said he’s certain the honor has as much to do with his contributions after his playing career as anything he accomplished on the court (he averaged 8.9 points, 4.2 assists and 1.2 steals per game during his 12-season NBA career, all with the Lakers.)

And that makes it all the more rewarding.

“The Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame is not about how many points you had or how many dunks, it’s about what you’ve done to improve this game and help grow it,” he said. “And I’ve had an opportunity to do that at almost every level.”

Including, of course, the upper echelon of women’s basketball. Cooper came aboard as the Sparks’ head coach in 2000, winning consecutive WNBA titles in 2001 and 2002. He called that the “most memorable” time he had coaching, getting in on the ground floor of a league that’s now gaining notably more traction among American sports fans.

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“To see where the WNBA is today makes me feel proud, like I was in in on that when people said that league wouldn’t stand and wouldn’t go anywhere,” he said. “And now here they are, in their (27th) season.”

Following with his initial coaching gig as a Lakers assistant and the first of two tenures with the Sparks, Cooper has worked as a coach with the Denver Nuggets, the USC women (he thinks JuJu Watkins could go pro today if she was so incentivized), the G League’s Albuquerque Thunderbirds, the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, the Chadwick School Dolphins and, most recently, the Culver City High School Centaurs.

The thing about developing talent across all those stages? It boils down to the same thing: “Getting players to understand that what you put into his game, you’ll definitely get out,” Cooper said. “That’s something Greg and I will try to tell these kids: Your hard work pays off.”

(The BBallers Hoops camp, by the way, isn’t outlandishly priced. There are three five-day sessions, running $250 per player per session, with scholarships available: bballershoops.com/scholarships.)

“As long as we can instill that mindset to work, whether it’s in class or on the basketball court or in your religious life, you have to work hard,” Cooper said. “That’s the one thing that’s the linking chain through all these, from high school to the pros, from women to men, keep working hard and try to get better every single day.”

OK, you ask, but what about defense?

That comes down to some fundamental principles too, he said: Stay low. Keep your feet moving. Back straight. And once you get that down you can work on cutting off your opponents’ oxygen on the court. Figuratively. I think.

Those are lessons even future Hall of Famers have to learn. Certainly can’t hurt to have a Hall of Famer doing the teaching.

Swanson: Michael Cooper continues offering Hall of Fame wisdom (2024)
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