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NBA Finals: Lakers vs. Bulls : When Not in Rome . . . : Cooper Talks About Season in Italy and Possible Return to the NBA


One year after he left this country when his umbilical cord to the Lakers was painfully severed, one month after some members of the Italian press tried to run him out of that country, a couple of weeks after one member of the U.S. press fingered him for having led a players' revolt against Pat Riley, Michael Cooper, for some reason, was reluctant to talk.

"Why do you want to do a story on me?" he asked. "Why now?"

Well, it was explained to him, Los Angeles basketball fans remember him fondly and want to know about his life in Rome, what the Italian League is really like, whether it's true spectators there make a prison riot seem tame, if it's possible his future will lead back to the Forum and, more pertinent to the Lakers' current situation, how he would guard Michael Jordan.

"OK," he said. "But this is going to be a positive article, isn't it?"

Why not?

In 12 seasons with the Lakers, Cooper was one of the most popular players in the team's history. The chants of "Coop, Coop, Coop," still echo at the Forum. His Coop-a-Loop slam dunks, his duels with Larry Bird, his three-point shots from the backstretch at Hollywood Park won't soon be forgotten.

Even when it became apparent last season that the skills that earned him recognition as one of the league's best defensive players and sixth men had diminished in his 34th year, the Lakers were prepared to honor the final season of his contract.

They were not prepared, however, to offer him an extension and a raise from his $600,000 salary. When he brought to the table a two-year, $3.4-million offer from a Roman team, Il Messaggero, the Lakers bade him arrivederci.

As with the end of any long relationship, there were some hurt feelings, some things said that shouldn't have been, some things not said that should have been. But all that lingers, Cooper said this week, are pleasant memories.

He has returned home for the off-season to discover that he is as intense a Laker fan as he was a player. He went to one Laker game against Portland at the Forum, but he jumped out of his seat so often that the fans behind him complained because they couldn't see. He has decided to watch the rest of the playoffs on television.

"I'll always be a Laker," he said.

Whether he'll be a Roman for even one more season remains to be seen.

Life in Rome, he said, was "very enjoyable," made even more so perhaps because he and his family didn't live in Rome but in a villa about an hour north of the city. He was so removed from the Eternal City's infernal madness that his teammates nicknamed him "the Farmer."

The Italian League took some adjustment. The horror stories about travel that some former NBA players tell did not apply, Cooper said, because Il Messaggero is a wealthy team that can afford to fly to most cities and has its own luxury bus for other trips. And the teams, he said, are better than U.S. fans have heard, about on a level with NBA expansion teams. But the referees, he said, are as bad as advertised. And the fans?

Listen to this story:

"We were playing at Phonola Caserta, and I had just gotten a rebound and made about three dribbles down the floor when there was this big boom," he said. "It was like somebody had dropped a bomb. There was smoke everywhere. I stopped dribbling and ran with the ball. Somebody had thrown a stick of dynamite and blown a hole in the court."

Fortunately, no one was injured. And the hole was at the other end of the floor--out of play. When the smoke cleared, the game continued.

That was an isolated incident, Cooper said. Most of the time, when fans were aroused, they just threw coins.

Did Il Messaggero's fans get their money's worth from Cooper?

You decide. They got a guard who averaged about 17 points, played his characteristic hard-nosed defense, led the team in rebounding for the first two months of the season and led the league in complimentary tickets. He gave 40 tickets for each home game to underprivileged kids, who sat in a section called "Coop's Corner." He was the most valuable player in the all-star game and won the three-point contest.

But Cooper admitted that he did not play as well in the second half of the season. He saw Italian doctors, who said he had mononucleosis. He saw American doctors, who said he was fatigued after going from a 20-minutes-a-game member of the supporting cast in the NBA to a 39-minutes-a-game role in Italy.

One year after going bust with the much-ballyhooed duo of Danny Ferry and Brian Shaw, Il Messaggero reached the semifinals of the league playoffs, its best finish since 1983. But some members of the Italian press thought the team should have won the championship, blamed Cooper for not emerging as a more dominant player and called for his release.

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