Michael Cooper knows a thing or two about winning championships. As a player, he hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy in five of his 12 seasons (all with the Los Angeles Lakers). As a coach, he won back-to-back titles with the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA and an additional championship with the Albuquerque Thunderbirds of the NBA G League. Cooper was a dominant defender, winning the 1986-87 Defensive Player of the Year award and earning eight All-Defensive Team selections.
He has also coached in the NBA (with the Denver Nuggets) and college (at USC). Now, as he’s coaching in the Big3, HoopsHype caught up with him to discuss his experience in the three-on-three league, today’s NBA, the direction of the Lakers, the Los Angeles Clippers’ huge summer and more.
You’re coaching the team 3’s Company in the Big3. What made you want to join the league and what has that experience been like so far?
Michael Cooper: My experience has been awesome. The idea was first brought to me when I talked to Clyde Drexler during the first year that the league started. I was wondering to myself, “How are they going to make this work?” The next year, I get a call from my agent and he said that Clyde expressed interest in me joining the league. From there, I got a chance to talk to [Clyde] about it and I thought it would be a great opportunity in men’s basketball with a lot of former NBA players. I liked that I was getting a chance to do something that was totally different.
I have coached and won at almost every level, and this another level I’d like to entertain. Half-court basketball takes you back to your school-ground days, playing three-on-three and the idea is to stay on the court all day. You had to figure out which two guys to pick depending on what your strengths are – maybe you need a big guy who can rebound or you need a guard who can score. Thinking about that and then putting it on this big stage, like Ice Cube and Jeff Kwatinetz have done, it has been a great experience! People may think it just turns into one-on-one, but that’s not the case. There really is a tactical approach to this. I love coaching. I love trying to put a team together and trying to figure it all out. Overall, the experience has been great.
As you mentioned, you’ve had success coaching men and women prior to the Big3. What are some of the biggest adjustments that you have to make when you’re coaching or playing three-on-three?
MC: I think the biggest difference is motivation and getting them to buy into team play. In three-on-three, there can be some one-on-one basketball to a certain degree, but that’s not what is going to win games. When [a former NBA] player sees someone who played a step below them or someone who didn’t quite get there [to their level], they still have that competitive nature and they want to try to get it done by themselves. You have to get them to buy into the system and to ball movement. Even though you only have three players, you still need bodies moving and the ball moving.
The biggest thing has been motivating them to play hard every single point of every single game. That’s been the biggest adjustment; in the NBA, you don’t necessarily have to do that. In the NBA, there are five players out there and if three of them are buying in, sometimes one or two players don’t need to buy in as much and that’s a bit easier for guys. But here? They have to buy in and you need to get them to understand that’s what it takes to win. Yes, it’s about scoring 50 points and you have to put points on the board, but you really need to play good defense if you want to win.
You had a fantastic career, winning five championships as a player and several more as a coach. What are your interactions with today’s players like? Do you feel like today’s players respect their predecessors?
MC: Even if the players haven’t seen my career or heard about it, they know that I’ve won championships and I think that alone brings me some respect. Among the peers I’m coaching against – Dr. J and Rick Mahorn to name just a few – they understand and are telling their players about that. I think we all talk to our players about who we are and what we’d like our team to be. For me, they understand that’s more of a defensive-minded approach with my background. The players we’re coaching in the Big3 have respect. But they’re only going to respect you if they feel you’re committed and putting your all into the game. If you’re just there for a paycheck and just sitting there, letting them do their thing, they won’t respect you as much. I’m not that type of coach, and I don’t think any of the coaches in our league are that way. The respect factor is already there.