Being a pro basketball wife has extra dimensions

Wanda Cooper is a bright, articulate, college-educated young woman who once held down a demanding full-time position as a probation officer. She is also the wife of a pro basketball player and the mother of a one-year-old son, which is enough to keep her fully occupied at the moment.

Wanda's husband is Michael Cooper of the Los Angeles Lakers. On most National Basketball Association teams he would be a starter, but here he's the No. 3 guard behind Magic Johnson and Norman Nixon, though over the course of a season he plays almost as many minutes as either of the others.

Asked what it's like to be married to a man whose team plays 41 games on the road over a six-month period, and this doesn't include playoffs, Mrs. Cooper replied:

''It's an adjustment because often, when a decision involving yourself, your child, or your home has to be made, there isn't anyone there to help. It also requires a lot of patience, understanding, and learning how to be comfortable when you're out with your husband and have to share him with the public. I think this is why Michael and I value our privacy so much when we're at home.

''As for the Lakers, I take it just as hard as he does when they lose. To me the other wives are almost like family. Most of the time when we know our husbands are going to be traveling, three or four of us and our kids will take turns spending several nights in a row at each other's homes.''

Mrs. Cooper was born in England, one of nine children of a US Air Force engineer who later served in Germany and France. By the time the family returned to the States for good, Wanda was a junior in high school.

It was while attending the University of New Mexico that she met Michael, and also became part of a student-aid program that led to the probation officer's job with the Albuquerque Municipal Court System.

''I worked with men, women, and juveniles,'' Wanda said. ''Six days a week, 8 to 5, I counseled people who had been convicted of petty larceny, drunk driving, assault and battery, etc., and placed on probation.

''These are not easy cases to handle because just telling someone with a severe alcohol problem to stop drinking doesn't solve anything. You have to find them a place where they can get professional help and then, unless you continually check on them, often they only go that one time.

''Depending upon the seriousness of the crime, I had some people reporting to me once a week, others twice, and a few once a month. But there is never enough time for everybody when you are a probation officer. My guess is that my work load between 1974 and 1978 numbered more than 1,000 cases.''

The case she remembers most was of a pregnant young woman hooked on heroin.

''This woman had a boyfriend with the same habit and they just seemed locked into wasting their lives together,'' Wanda said. ''We failed with the woman, but we did get her to give up her baby for adoption.''

When the Lakers play at home, Wanda and Michael have a regular routine.

''I don't know how he can eat the same things all the time on game days, but he does,'' Wanda said. ''For breakfast, I cook him a 3-egg omelet with bacon, 10 homemade biscuits, topped off with orange juice and generally one other beverage.

''By 11 a.m. he's at the Forum, doing exercises and practicing shooting for an hour with his teammates. He won't eat his main meal until after the game, but it is always at home and I'll make it for him.''

Mike has a film projector, and after he returns from the morning workout he usually spends at least part of the afternoon studying that night's opponent. Also, if he is having problems with his game, he watches what they call ''isolation films'' of himself in action that the coaches have put together.

Last year the Coopers (prior to the birth of their first child, Michael II) bought a picturesque home that was built in 1930. It has wooden floors, 10 -foot-high beam ceilings, and 3,700 square feet of living space.

''It is a house with character and personality - something we've always dreamed about owning,'' Wanda said. ''It's a 15-minute ride to the Forum or the airport. One of our ambitions is to fill it with antiques.''

The 6 ft., 6 in. Cooper, now in his fourth season with L.A., has established his trademark on the court. Possessing legs with the consistency of spring steel, he can leap high enough to take a pass well above the 10-foot rim and guide the ball through the basket. It is a particularly spectacular maneuver because it is usually done all in one motion.

But eventually the glamorous part will end - so although Mike should have many playing years left, Wanda was asked if they ever think about life after the Lakers.

''Yes we have, and I think we already have the answer,'' she replied. ''Right now Michael is living his dream as a player. I think in the future he'll probably live it again as a coach.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.