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He Possessed a Sixth Man’s Sense

I would like to take this opportunity to say goodby and good luck to my idea of a real basketball player.

I would like to say a few words about a player who could play for me anytime, anywhere, skinny legs and all.

His name is Michael Cooper, and he is leaving us. Leaving town. Leaving the country, even. Leaving everything but our hearts and minds.

Some guys, you wish they’d just get up and go. When they can’t cut the mustard the way they used to, you wish they would untie their laces and go back to wearing long pants.

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I never felt that way about Michael Cooper.

Even when his skills began to diminish, I never minded seeing Coop come into a game for the Lakers. I never wondered when the Lakers were going to get around to phasing him out. It was always good to see him on that basketball court. Always.

Cooper can still play the game. Italy is about to find that out.

Il Messaggero Roma, the team that once had Brian Shaw and Danny Ferry, just signed Coop, 34, to a two-year deal. As must be obvious by now, Il Messaggero is an organization that specializes in buying classy imports.

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Cooper will get by on smarts and savvy more than he will on shots or speed. He won’t dominate the play over there, the way, say, Micheal Ray Richardson does.

A hundred lire , though, says that a few weeks into his Il Messaggero career, Cooper turns out to be the brains of the outfit. He’ll be a good influence, a good companion, a good public spokesperson.

The Lakers ought to leave a blank space on their bench on opening night, in tribute to Coop.

He was everything you ever wanted in a non-starter, and more. He was the ultimate won’t-hurt-you kind of player. Won’t make the dumb mistakes. Won’t take the foolish shots. Won’t let his man fake him into the folding chairs.

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To me, Michael Cooper, in many ways, was a Laker to admire far more than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who came from the factory with more standard equipment than did Coop.

Cooper was the 60th player chosen in the 1978 college draft. Fifty-nine guys were perceived to be better NBA prospects than the dude from New Mexico with the cowboy’s gait and the bony knees.

Maybe Mike’s high collegiate effort of 26 points didn’t impress everybody. Maybe too few people saw the potential of a player who scored points for you with his defense rather than with his offense.

Yet, Coop could go to the hoop. He was one of the reasons the Laker fast break was the prettiest thing in motion inside the Forum this side of Paula Abdul.

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With that lope of his, those lengthy strides as elegant as a harness horse’s, Cooper seemed to cover the distance from free-throw line to free-throw line in about, oh, five steps. He looked like Carl Lewis, heading toward a pit of sand. I kept expecting Coop to hop, skip, jump and go bounding into the $8.50 seats.

And, when it came time for one of those super-duper Cooper alley-oopers, there wasn’t a soul in the joint who wasn’t turning to the person occupying the next seat and giving five.

Man, there wasn’t much Mike Cooper couldn’t do. He scored 31 points for the Lakers once, had 13 rebounds once, had 17 assists once. He might not have been Magic, but he was definitely Almost Magic.

Cooper also played in 455 consecutive games once. How’s that for a stat? Nowadays, some of these guys sit out two weeks with busted sunglasses. Not Coop. He punched the clock.

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Most of all, I suppose I’ll miss his Supp-Hose.

Oh, those socks. I never did know why Cooper wore his stockings the way he did, high up the calves. They were the whitewalls to his wheels. Cooper wore socks to the knee so often, he could have enrolled in college at Vassar.

What Pete Maravich did for floppy footwear, Michael Cooper did for leggings. They always looked great on that exclamation-point body of his. Made him look, I don’t know, regal.

What Michael Cooper did without a basketball in his hand should not be easily dismissed. He did endless charity work, conducted camps for kids and adults, sponsored a “Call Coop” help-hotline in New Mexico for teen-agers feeling friendless, gave hours and hours to angry, hurting young people confined to juvenile-detention centers.

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Mike and Wanda Cooper were, as much as anybody, the First Couple of Forum basketball, truly pleasant people to see and know. I wish I knew them better. Italians are lucky. Some of them are going to get to know the Coopers better.

For years now, Coop has been spending portions of his summers in Italy, on holiday and running clinics. For the next couple of years, when he takes a vacation, it’ll be to the United States.

The Lakers won’t retire his number, and shouldn’t. Michael Cooper wasn’t that sort of player.

He was the sort of player who made life easier for everybody around him. If only more players could be Michael Cooper’s sort of player.

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