EXCLUSIVE: Michael Cooper talks BIG3 Championship, LeBron James, Lakers, Magic Johnson, and more
After a successful stint with the Los Angeles Lakers in which he won five NBA titles playing alongside Magic Johnson, Michael Cooper embarked on a new journey as a coach only a few years he called it a career as a player. Cooper has been incredibly successful in his post-playing career coaching on many different levels.
From being a two-time WNBA champion head coach with the Los Angeles Sparks to helping lead the Albuquerque Thunderbirds of the then-D-League to a championship in 2006, Cooper has shown he can get it done as a leader of men and women. Now the Lakers legend is on the cusp of adding yet another title to his resume as the coach of the BIG3 League’s 3’s Company.
On Friday, Cooper will head into the BIG3 Championship game at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn against Team Power led by head coach Nancy Lieberman. A highly-anticipated matchup between the league’s two best teams this year with notable names leading the way for both teams in Corey Maggette, DeMarr Johnson, Cuttino Mobley, Drew Gooden, Glen Davis, Andre Emmett, Chris Anderson, Dahntay Jones, and Quentin Richardson.
Ahead of his first championship appearance in the BIG3, Cooper spoke with ClutchPoints about the upcoming game along with many other topics including his beloved Lakers, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, and the talented young core in Los Angeles.
Ryan Ward: It’s been quite a successful ride thus far in the BIG3 League. What has your experience been like thus far?
Michael Cooper: It’s actually been a lot of fun. I was kind of wondering how it was going to go because 3-on-3 that’s something you do in the schoolyard way back in the day, but it’s very intense. The players are very, very good. The competition level as far as the coaches is tremendous, so I’m having a wonderful time.
Blessed to have a pretty good team. I took over Allen Iverson’s team [3’s Company], so it’s been a lot of fun.
You’ll be taking on Nancy Lieberman’s Team Power in the BIG3 Championship game on Friday. How confident are you that your team can come out on top at the Barclays Center?
MC: I know that if we play the way we’ve been playing the last three or four games, we miss Baron Davis a lot, but if we play the way I know we can play, they got to deal with us because we’re a good scoring team.
The one thing I love about us is our defense is getting better. You have to be able to some defense. We got some people that can play a little D.
Nancy Lieberman has also been very successful in the BIG3 so far. What do you think of the job she’s done?
MC: I think Nancy knows this game from the men’s point and the women’s point. She has a very good basketball team.
Power is a good team. You have Corey Maggette and [Cuttino] Mobley and Quentin Richardson all have played together at one point in time whether it be Houston or the Clippers, so they know each other well, and then you add Big Baby Davis into the mix along with Birdman. They got a good little core there.
What we have to do though is just defend them and take away the three-point shot. That’s their biggest weapon is three-point shooting.
With most of the team being former Clippers, does that give you a little added incentive?
MC: [Laughs] A little bit, but no. This is totally different. It’s good basketball. It’s quality basketball. I think if we just come out and do the things we’ve been doing, you have to rebound against that team; we’re going to be very successful.
Who has impressed you the most on your team 3’s Company thus far? Who is your team MVP?
MC: Andre Emmett has been a big plus for us. I think he’s really done a fantastic job of handling the ball and scoring. We had Baron Davis for a while. Baron got injured, so he kind of had taken on a load, but it has been a good team effort from everyone. Everybody is doing a tremendous job, and they’re not worried about the minutes. They’re just worried about what we do and how we get it done.
If you win the BIG3 Championship on Friday, you’ll set quite a precedent. Five NBA titles as a player, two WNBA titles as a coach, a D-League title (now G League), and a BIG3 title. Is coaching in the NBA as a head coach in your future?
MC: Yeah, but I’m not hanging my hat on it. I just enjoy the fact that I love coaching. This brings a little special mark to it. Simply for the fact that anything professionally to do with basketball I’ve been successful and have won.
A little more incentive for me, but you know what, it’s more incentive for this team because these guys play extremely hard. Everybody talks about how do you coach these guys. You don’t necessarily coach them. You kind of manage them. I think we’ve been doing a great job of that and as long as we continue to play as a team. If we do that, we’re going to be alright.
You say it’s more managing players. Is that because it’s more veteran players that already know the drill?
MC: Yeah. They’re veterans, and they understand what’s going on. In 3-on-3, there’s not too much coaching going on. What I try to do is make sure I make the right substitutions, and then make sure that I stay on those officials because that’s a big key.
Transitioning to the Lakers here, what do you think about your old team signing LeBron James?
MC: I think LeBron James was brought there for the purpose of helping these young people understand what it takes to win. The organization is always a top-notch organization because they need those marquee players, but then he was brought there to add the luxury for any new free agent.
Who wouldn’t want to play with LeBron? I think all those things play into the whole aspect of him coming to Los Angeles. Are they going to win a championship right now? I don’t see it because there are too many tough teams. The Utah Jazz have shown they’re going to be a definite playoff team. I think you have to understand that they have Houston and the Golden State Warriors. The Lakers will be a good four or five playoff team, but again, it’s for the future, and that’s what they’re building for.
What has your impression been of Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Brandon Ingram?
MC: Lonzo Ball has shown that he’s kind of like a Magic Johnson-type of player. He’s the type of player that makes other players around him better. I think Kyle Kuzma has shown that he can shoot the ball with some of the best.
Again, you have to put the ball in the basket along with Steph Curry, [James] Harden, Klay Thompson, and I think the Lakers have that now. They have that shooting, and Brandon Ingram is a player that is coming into his own. He’s a player that I really, really like. He has a great upside.
For the future moving forward, put some good bench players around them and some other players they get through the draft, you have the makings of a good basketball team.
Is there any Lakers player that sticks out in particular in terms of star potential?
MC: Brandon Ingram is a player that is going to stand out in my mind. He’s going to be a player that they’ll always be proud to have. I think Lonzo Ball as he learns his game and understands it, he’s going to be pretty good in the future too.
What is your take on LeBron and Kobe Bryant fans clashing or being divided since the signing?
MC: LeBron is a great player and when people talk about great Lakers just understand what they’re talking about. And LeBron was not afraid to put that uniform on, so that’s a plus in itself right there.
Most of the time, great players, Laker players, are judged by winning championships and that kind of thing, but I don’t think that’ll be the case here because he’s done so many great things. If he comes there and turns the Lakers organization and flipped that whole thing and get them on the right track moving forward, he has to be considered one of the best.
So LeBron can come to LA and not win a championship, and it’s not going to tarnish his legacy?
MC: I don’t think it’ll affect his legacy. You’ve got to give LeBron a lot of credit for this because he could’ve stayed Cleveland. He could’ve gone somewhere else, but he chose Los Angeles.
Coming to Los Angeles, that in itself shows you got a lot of moxie about you to come there to a franchise that’s on the upswing. They haven’t won anything in a while, but there has always been good players on that team moving forward. So for him to come there and re-energize or restart that program, that’s a credit to him already, and anything he does with the Lakers is only going to add to what he’s already done as a player.
You played with two players in the conversation for greatest of all time in Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Now you’ve got LeBron, Kobe, and Michael Jordan in the conversation. What’s your take on that?
MC: He [LeBron] is going to be there. I think to talk about great players that have been around for a while; he has to be up there with No. 1 because LeBron has played a serious position. At his size and the things he’s able to do, he’s literally almost like Magic. Played five positions. He’s been a point guard, shooting guard, and small forward. He rebounds like a big.
He’s done a lot already that has to be counted for something, and it’s not just a matter of what have you done for me lately. It’s what have you been doing, and he’s been one of the best that last two or three years.
Does Magic Johnson still amaze you with the things he’s been able to do?
MC: Magic has always been a businessman, and he’s always been a player that fought like a businessman. The things he’s doing now, no, it doesn’t surprise me at all. He’s just continuing the success that he’s always had. He’s always been a leader, and now he is just proving it on a whole different level.
The Lakers don’t necessarily have to woo anybody because our organization is one of the best in the game and it’s an organization that has one of the best facilities and amenities that go along with sports.
We didn’t have to woo anybody. All we had to do was go out and make sure we get the right person because everybody can’t be a Laker, but we got one of the best. I think he is going to show why he’s a great player.