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Cloud Hangs Over Cooper's Departure

July 02, 2002|MIKE TERRY

Cynthia Cooper was standing near the visitors' locker room at Staples Center a week ago when she was asked about her newborn twins.

The twins--a boy and a girl--were delivered by a surrogate mother, but Cooper, who has three other sons, was excited about the new additions to her family and the challenge of raising her larger family while handling the demands of coaching the Phoenix Mercury.

"I'm like the typical new mom; my babies are the best, they are perfect," said Cooper, chatting before the Mercury's game against the Sparks. "My wonderful husband [Brian Dyke] has agreed to travel with me this season and help keep them, so I can continue to bond with them. I'm very lucky that he pacifies me. When the season is over, I'll stay at home and let him run the streets a little."

But somewhere between L.A. and Phoenix, something changed.

The next morning, Cooper had resigned as coach, after a year and a half on the job. Her overall record was 19-23, but she had the Mercury off to a 6-4 start and in the hunt for a playoff berth.

So what happened? And why won't anyone talk about it?

Before she left, Cooper, who played at Locke High, USC and overseas before leading the Houston Comets to the first four WNBA championships, issued a statement to the effect that her resignation had been by mutual agreement.

"After talking with [team President Bryan Colangelo and Vice President Seth Sulka], I decided that the best thing for me, my family and the organization as a whole was for me to step down," Cooper said.

Only they know the reason why.

Cooper was a demanding coach, and that might have grated on the players. But none have expressed any joy publicly in her resignation, not even forward Lisa Harrison, who had a loud argument with Cooper on June 23.

"No one saw this coming, not at all," said veteran center Jennifer Gillom. "Yeah she could be tough, but she was passionate about her work. We didn't want to see her go. It definitely was a shock."

No one has said anything about how many times Cooper was to have taken her babies with her on the road. Maybe the Mercury management thought it was a one-shot deal. Or told Cooper she could do it for the season, then changed its mind. It's not as if the arrival of the twins June 15 came out of the blue.

Or perhaps Cooper somehow wore out her welcome and no one admits to it. Phoenix officials say there were no plans to fire her.

The players have already had more than their share of issues this season. Russian center Maria Stepanova came to training camp long enough to tell the team she would not play in the league this year because her boyfriend could not get a visa. She did stay long enough to qualify for the WNBA medical plan, though, which will cover expenses for the birth of her child in January.

Then there was another Brandy Reed saga. The talented but troubled forward was suspended again, for the second time in 13 months, and is facing legal problems after having been charged with possession of marijuana and driving on the wrong side of the road.

Now this.

Cooper, one of the greatest players in WNBA history, was coming along as a coach. She doesn't deserve an exit as murky as this--even if it was her own doing.


Add Reed: She has talent--she was a WNBA All-Star in 2000, the season she averaged 19 points--but has she thrown away her WNBA career with this latest escapade?

Reed cost herself the 2001 season in Phoenix after getting suspended in a contract dispute. She told management she would stay out of trouble this year--then couldn't make it through 10 games.

The Mercury hasn't cut her--yet. But if Phoenix does let her go, will any other general manager risk taking her on?

According to one, Reed's skills probably will keep her in demand awhile longer.

"With her talent it could go either way," the general manager said, asking not to be identified. "It depends on how desperate a team is. If you have a hole to fill on your team, you will take a chance. But this is, what, her second or third chance? Whoever would take her would probably put her on that zero-tolerance policy, like Bobby Knight [had at Indiana]."

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