Los Angeles — The general public may not know it yet, but his opponents are clearly aware that Mike Cooper of the Los Angeles Lakers is one of the best young guards in the National Basketball Association.
Cooper doesn't start for the Lakers. He plays behind Norman Nixon and Magic Johnson, and his statistics, by themselves, are wallpaper. When you average fewer than 10 points per game, even the call-in talk shows ignore you.
But even though Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson get 90 percent of the Lakers' publicity, Cooper is a young man who can make things happen. He's 6 ft. 6 in. tall, he can run and jump, and his defense is the quality of flypaper.
Yet in training camp the coaches were so unsure about Mike that for several weeks they couldn't decide whether to keep him or Ron Carter, who had played 46 games with the club a year ago.
Although Cooper had been the Lakers' third-round pick out of New Mexico in the 1978 college player draft, he logged only seven minutes with the club last season, because of a severe knee injury. And without much guard depth on the team, LA needed somebody this year who could play a lot of minutes behind Nixon and Johnson.
Cooper's chief competition was veteran Ron Boone, who had begun to slow down and really didn't fit in with the Lakers" running game, plus Carter, who had shown a lot of potential on offense.
Cooper removed Carter from consideration by outshooting him in practice and by playing the best defense by a guard since the Lakers employed Jerry West. Then partway into the season, new Head Coach Jack McKinney eliminated Boone by trading him to Utah for power forward Spencer Haywood.
"When McKinney told me I was going to be the team's third guard, I tried not to show how much it meant to me, because I didn't want to come off looking like a little kid," Mike explained. "I was afraid that my whole game would get out of control if I didn't learn to handle my emotions.
"Nixon was a big help to me at the beginning because he'd been around for a couple of years and knew what to look for, especially on defense," Mike continued. "He also helped my scoring average by getting the ball to me on the break. After that, with my spee, it wasn't too tough getting away from the man guarding me and making the basket."
When Johnson was injured in the third game of the season, McKinney started Boone in the team's next game. But when Ron played poorly, Cooper started the next two, scoring a total of 36 points while putting handcuffs on Seattle's Dennis Johnson and Utah's Pete Maravich, now with the Boston Celtics.
since the Cooper has started several more games for the Lakers (always when Johnson was hurt) and played well. On the break, Mike has two speeds -- fast and where did he go?
Defensively Cooper can run with anybody and has superquick hands and the kind of anticipation found only in people more interested in stopping others from scoring than in scoring themselves.
"Having someone who can substitute for both Nixon and Johnson without any reduction in our running game has been one of the reasons we've been able to win so often on the road this year," said interim coach Paul Westhead, who has run the team most of the season while McKinney has been recovering from an injury. "Mike is simply one of those people who can come in off the bench and quickly adjust to almost any situation.
"Although we bring in Cooper sometimes to cool off a particular opposing guard with his defense, he now has just as much talent offensively," Westhead added. "With a lot of teams in this league Mike would be a starter. But his special value to us is having him available whenever we need a lift off the bench."