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Spark Coach Realizes Road Won’t Get Easier

Times Staff Writer

Phil Jackson isn’t the only basketball coach winning championships at Staples Center. Michael Cooper has guided the Sparks to consecutive WNBA titles and is a hot coaching commodity, so much so that Spark President Johnny Buss signed Cooper to a two-year contract extension during the off-season. Winning titles is not new to Cooper. He won five with the Lakers.

Question: There has been interest in you by NBA teams in the past. There may still be interest. Are you at a point in your life that, if you’re going to get an NBA coaching opportunity, it has to happen soon?

Answer: No, that’s a luxury I have; I don’t have to do it soon. With the WNBA coming to a formal agreement, it means we’ll be here another five or six years, and that gives the league the stability it needs. That will move it at least past 10 years. So I am quite comfortable here and quite happy. But if an interesting job opportunity were to arise in the future with the NBA ... coaches have to understand when you’ve run your time with your team. So I would look and see what’s going on. You would always like an opportunity to coach in the league you played for.

Q: How concerned were you that the negotiations between the WNBA and the players’ union would cost the league the 2003 season?

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A: I wasn’t concerned that the season wouldn’t happen. I’d say I was 95% sure something would get done, even though things came down to the last moment. I knew the players had to have a voice and make their concerns known. But they understood the ramifications of a strike and possibly losing the league. And the league also didn’t want it to happen. You have too many young women players that are coming to the forefront and can take this league to another level. The Lisa Leslies, Sheryl Swoopes and Cynthia Coopers have made wonderful contributions. But you also have to look toward the future in the Diana Taurasis and Alana Beards. This league could be getting ready to take off the way the NBA did when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson came in. So I think everyone knew the league had to survive.

Q: Last year you boldly predicted the Sparks could go undefeated in the regular season. What predictions do you have for this season?

A: This is going to be a very, very difficult season for us and everyone else, because the league has gotten better. We’ve got some great new talent like LaToya Thomas and Chantelle Anderson coming in [from the college draft] and they will make teams better; obviously, Sacramento has done itself a world of good. Seattle with [new] Coach Anne Donovan has good players that can compete. So we’re going to have to come out and play hard. Every coach tries to find something to get the players going. Last year it was trying to go undefeated. It didn’t happen, but we still did what we wanted to do -- win the championship. This year we have to look to compete every game. That’s my challenge to this team. But I also feel we won’t play a team that’s better than us.

Q: Still, you make the point of how improved the league is, especially since teams were able to get proven WNBA players from the dispersal draft after the Portland and Miami franchises folded.

A: I won’t say we’re in for a rude awakening. We’ll see how good teams are, starting with the expansion Connecticut Sun [formerly the Orlando Miracle] to open the season [on May 24]. But I think it’s going to be an exciting year.”

Q: Why would the league schedule your first four games on the road? The Sparks won’t have the ring ceremony until June 5.

A: Usually the champs do get the season-opening game at home. But I like the fact we start out on the road. Let’s get tested real early.... We’re missing DeLisha [Milton] and Mwadi [Mabika] while they finish up their European seasons. But once they get here, and if they come out of the blocks sprinting, I’ll like our chances.

Q: The Sparks made a couple of key veteran acquisitions, getting guard Jackie Stiles from the dispersal draft and signing free agent Jennifer Gillom after she rejected an offer from Phoenix. What other ideas do you have for shaping this team?

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A: Those two acquisitions were the biggest. Jennifer gives us another big person we can go to at crunch time; she’s always been a prolific scorer. You add her with Milton and [Latasha] Byears and we have a good mix in the front court. And now we don’t have to regulate our fouls as much. With Jennifer, Lisa and DeLisha, [they] might get three-four fouls and you can still let them play. Stiles can give us more offense. I’m shocked at her size. She seems so little to do the things she did in college and when she was the WNBA rookie of the year. That shows you she has determination and grit. Now, with Tamecka Dixon, Nikki Teasley and Nicky McCrimmon, we have four guards who can flat out play the game of basketball.

Q: It’s very early in training camp, but what rookie is catching your eye?

A: I like what I’ve seen in Chandra Johnson.... She works hard and is very tough mentally. And that’s one of the key components of our team. I like to think we are a mentally tough team. She is tall, strong, can run and can hit the three-point shot, although we won’t ask her to do that. She also has great footwork in the low post.

Q: Are you keeping up with your former team, the Lakers, during their playoff run?

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A: Oh, yes. I think the fifth game in the Minnesota series -- that’s the Laker team you’re about to see. They did a great job Thursday in putting the series away, but I think they hit their playoff stride in that game. Rick Fox’s injury has opened the door some for other teams. But Brian Shaw and Devean George have stepped up their games; we’re starting to see what the Lakers were expecting from Devean two or three years ago. So I think it will be easier for Shaquille [O’Neal] and Kobe [Bryant] now because they don’t have to score every time. They can let other players get 12-14 points, so they don’t have to score 60-70 points between them. Forty-five to 50 points would be enough. That means they are getting some rest and will have more energy. After the first round, the playoffs are like a 15-round heavyweight fight because every team can take you to the limit.

Q: As a coach, what kind of challenge do you see that San Antonio brings?

A: “I think the Lakers feel they have a mental edge over the Spurs. Shaq doesn’t present a matchup problem for San Antonio, with Tim Duncan and David Robinson, but he does present a physical problem. You’re going to have to send two or three players at Shaq, and that leaves other people open. It’s up to the Lakers who are open to knock down the shots. If they don’t, that’s the only chance San Antonio has to win.”


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