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MICHAEL COOPER: A LAKER DEEP THREAT : Three-Pointer Is Becoming an Arc of Triumph

May 07, 1987|GORDON EDES | Times Staff Writer

He may not be aware of it, but Michael Cooper is having an identity crisis.

It's not the first time.

"I'm not schizo," the Laker guard once said, rebuking a friend who dared to make that suggestion. "I have three personalities."

That time, however, they were talking about Cooper's off-court persona, which ranges from devoted family man and conscientious public servant to the wacky character who has been known to moon the press room on his way out of the Forum, then disappear down the arena tunnel with a Boris Karloff-like cackle.

Cooper can live with that image. His teammates, not to mention his wife, Wanda, have to.

But now Cooper is messing with his on-court reputation as the Lakers' defender of the realm, the bane of Larry Bird and Michael Jordan alike, the fastest hands in the West.

Has Michael Cooper let his guard down? Hardly. Earlier this week, he was named to the National Basketball Assn.'s all-defensive team, the seventh straight year he has been either a first- or second-team choice.

It's just that now, instead of merely stealing opposition hearts--and anything else they might leave untended--Cooper can break them, too, with his latest weapon--the three-point shot. And it's legal, too.

Just ask the Golden State Warriors, who were carried out on their shields Tuesday night when Cooper buried four straight shots--including three three-pointers--at the end of the Lakers' 49-point, third-quarter explosion.

When Cooper erupted, so did the Forum, in a celebration that didn't stop until the horn sounded for the start of the fourth quarter. And the Lakers carried on until the end of their 125-116 win over the Warriors in the first game of the Western Conference semifinals, which will resume tonight at the Forum.

"That's something I'll always remember as one of the highlights of my life," Cooper said Wednesday. "Especially when the (crowd noise) kicked the Laker girls off the floor."

In four playoff games this spring, Cooper has made 10 of 14 shots from three-point range, a .714 percentage. He has been even deadlier this season against the Warriors, making 12 of 16 in the regular season and 3 of 3 Tuesday, for a total percentage of .789.

"I still look at myself as a defensive player," Cooper said.

Try telling that to the rest of the league. Yes, Cooper once gained notoriety for the Coop-a-Loop, in which he would levitate above the rim, receive a lob pass from Magic Johnson and slam it home in 57 varieties.

But that was show time, a novelty act that could charge up the most blase of crowds. The three-pointer, however, is lethal.

"The Coop-a-Loop involved creativity, hang time, getting up there and getting the ball," Cooper said. "But the three-pointer can be back-breaking."

The Lakers once used the three-pointer sparingly--and ineffectively. In the 1982-83 season, they misfired on 42 straight shots from beyond the three-point arc.

But this season, Cooper alone made more three-pointers, 89, than eight NBA teams. He finished second by one three-pointer to Bird and was just three short of the league record set by Utah's Darrell Griffith in 1984-85.

With Byron Scott also taking aim from long range and connecting 65 times, the Lakers finished with a club-record three-point percentage of .367.

This is the same Cooper, mind you, who once needed to be coaxed to shoot.

"We used to have to beg him to shoot if he missed three or four in a row," Scott said. "Even now, he still gets a little discouraged if he misses a couple."

But Cooper doesn't need much coaxing now. He abruptly interrupted an interview Wednesday after a questioner asked him why a player with his leaping ability doesn't shoot a jumper but relies on the old-fashioned set shot.

"I can, too, shoot a jump shot--want to see?" he said, whereupon he walked back onto the court, grabbed a ball from the rack, and let fly from about 18 feet.

The ball clanked off the rim.

"That's why I don't shoot it," he said, returning with a grin.

In the past, Cooper said, the Lakers had shooters such as Bob McAdoo and Mike McGee coming off the bench to provide instant offense. That role has now fallen to him, he said, almost by default.

"I'm looking to take it now in the flow of a game," Cooper said. "Coach (Pat) Riley has given us the green light to take the three-point shot, so now I'm not hesitant or tentative."

A more offensive-minded Cooper has been just waiting to emerge, Scott said.

"To himself, he's always been a pretty good offensive player," Scott said. "It's just that now, he's getting recognition as a good offensive player and defensive player."

In an age of specialization, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar told Sports Illustrated, Cooper is a rarity.

"He's a true swingman, a backup point guard, a three-point shooter," Abdul-Jabbar said. "And yes, a true stopper. He challenges everybody."

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