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Cooper Quits Sparks for NBA

Times Staff Writer

The Lakers aren’t the only Los Angeles pro basketball team with coaching issues. The Sparks now have one as well.

Michael Cooper said Tuesday he is resigning as Spark coach to take an assistant coaching position with the NBA’s Denver Nuggets. Cooper will remain with the Sparks through Saturday’s game in Houston. Then he will join the Nuggets’ summer league team in Las Vegas.

“I want to thank [Denver Coach] Jeff Bzdelik and [General Manager] Kiki Vandeweghe for taking a big interest in me,” Cooper said. “I’m just looking forward to the challenge that lies ahead with the Denver Nuggets.”

Spark President Johnny Buss did not meet with the media Tuesday but released a statement: “We are extremely excited about the opportunity that Coach Cooper has been given. We are not sorry to see Michael go because we are so proud of all that he has accomplished. However, he will be sorely missed.”

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Spark General Manager Penny Toler also was unavailable for comment, but it was learned that Cooper’s assistants, Karleen Thompson and Ryan Weisberg, would serve as co-coaches of the Sparks until an interim or new coach is named. After Saturday’s game in Houston, the Sparks will have a week off before playing host to Sacramento on July 17.

The players were both happy and wistful about Cooper’s intended departure.

“I have mixed emotions,” Lisa Leslie said. “I’m really excited for Coach Cooper and his opportunity to reach his ultimate goal, and that’s to get back to the NBA. He’s a very knowledgeable coach ... who can truly help elevate a player’s game as he has done with me.

“It will hit us later, his absence, especially in certain situations with our defense. And also his presence; he goes after the officials, really fights for us, but also gets on us a lot. And he’ll be missed more off the court -- his personality, everything else he’s brought to us. But I’ve come to the realization that this is bigger than us, the Sparks.”

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Tamecka Dixon said she expects Cooper to be successful in Denver. She added the team is prepared to move on with his permanent successor.

“The coaching staff we have in place has done a good job in preparing us to play,” Dixon said. “We feel ready for whatever challenge we have ahead. Our assistants are two of the best out there, and we’re comfortable that they can lead us as well as Coop did, because we believe the system we play in.”

DeLisha Milton-Jones, noting the Sparks “went from nothing to something” under Cooper, also hopes the next coach won’t try to have the team undergo major changes in the middle of the season.

“I’m glad it’s only one piece needed for the puzzle instead of three,” Milton-Jones said. “Management made a wise choice in keeping Karleen and Ryan here to coach the new coach -- if there is one -- to the way things are done around here. If someone wanted to change everything completely, that would be our downfall.”

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Cooper, 48, the third coach in the franchise’s eight-year history, has had a tremendous run since succeeding Orlando Woolridge after the 1999 season. The Sparks have won four Western Conference regular-season titles, three Western Conference playoff championships and two WNBA titles under Cooper. In 2000, 2001 and 2002, the Sparks had the league’s best regular-season record.

The Sparks were 136-37 under Cooper, going into tonight’s game against Phoenix, and 20-7 in the playoffs.

Cooper has said that coaches have a shelf life with their teams, that at some point the players tune out the slogans, inspiration and reprimands. There were times this season Cooper thought it was happening to him with the Sparks, even though the team is 11-6 and a half-game out of first in the Western Conference.

That was not why he took the Nuggets’ offer, though.

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“I believe in timing,” Cooper said. “I’ve had an opportunity to join NBA teams the past two years and I’ve turned those down. But this, like they said in the ‘Godfather’ movies, was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

He had been a candidate for the New Orleans head-coaching position in May that went to his former Laker teammate, Byron Scott.

This isn’t Cooper’s first venture to the NBA sidelines. After a successful career as a player on five league championship teams in 12 seasons with the Lakers from 1978-79 to 1989-90, Cooper began his second career as a special assistant to then-Laker general manager Jerry West in 1993.

Before joining the Sparks as an assistant coach in 1999, Cooper served as a Laker assistant coach from 1994-97 under Magic Johnson and Del Harris.

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