When the Atlanta Dream found their new coach Michael Cooper, he brought something they never had before. The opportunities for Marynell Meadors to be a championship player weren't around when she graduated from Hillsboro High School in 1961. Fred Williams was an assistant coach for years, but never had the fortune to win a championship at the helm of a team.
Michael Cooper, on the other hand, has known success at multiple levels of the game. As a player for the Los Angeles Lakers, he won five NBA championships and was the NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 1987. He was the coach of the WNBA Los Angeles Sparks from 2000-04 and 2007-09, winning two WNBA championships in 2001 and 2002. In the other phases of his coaching career, he was a NBA D-League head coach from 2005-07, winning the D-League Championship with the Albuquerque Thunderbirds in 2006.
This makes Michael Cooper someone who has won championships in all three leagues associated with the NBA. He has also coached women's college basketball, recently serving as head coach at Southern California from 2009-13, where he finished with a record of 72-57 and taking his team to the WNIT Finals in 2011.
There's no question that Michael Cooper knows how to win. He learned from the best, from Pat Riley, his coach when he was #21 on the Lakers. Riley won five NBA championships over two decades. Cooper hasn't been coaching for as long, but like the Lakers and like his ex-coach, he clearly likes winning championships.
I had a chance to talk to Michael Cooper at the Atlanta Dream's headquarters just a couple of weeks after he had accepted the head coaching job. He's been out of the league for four years, but he doesn't seem to be wasting any time and was generous enough to answer a wide array of questions ranging from the practical to the speculative. He shared his answers with us, and now we share them with you.
Swish Appeal: The Dream are going to a separate coach/GM system. For all six seasons as a franchise, the coach of the Dream has also been the GM. How do you handle the responsibilities in a coach/GM system, say, in personnel decisions?
Michael Cooper: I think it gets convoluted and all mixed up when you mix them together. I think some people are good at that. If that was something that [Dream ownership] had to have, I would have done it – but I’m a coach and a very good coach. I think when coaches can concentrate on what they do well, which is managing the team, and getting it ready to play, preparation, and player development – it makes for a better fitting. For this being the first time with our owners wanting to do that, I think it’s going to work out well.
Swish Appeal: Given that a general manager and a head coach might have different priorities, what is the secret of avoiding conflict?
Michael Cooper: I think the biggest secret is that there has to a line of communication – you have to talk to one another, let everyone know what page we’re all on and make sure things are explained in detail.
I think the one problem you have with a coach trying to be a general manager is that a general manager’s job is to get the team set up, deal with contracts, negotiations with agents and stuff like that. You then get the ultimate problem with the player feeling that they’re worth X amounts of dollars and you’re telling them that they’re not, that they’re better suited for the financial amount you want to give them. Then, a month later, you’ve got to turn around as a coach and tell those players – the same players you’ve been negotiating with – "Hey, come on work hard for me!"
I think the head coach and the general manager have to be on the same page with player personnel and with the things that are going on with the league. That’s the fun part about the WNBA – there aren’t 40-something teams with a lot going on, there’s just a little bit and I think it’s enough for everyone to be able to understand and stay on the same page working on the same goal.
Swish Appeal: What did you learn about yourself while serving as a coach at Southern California?
Michael Cooper: I learned – and it was part of the job and I understood that going in – but I hate recruiting. Not recruiting in the sense of scouting, but in the sense of "who do you talk to when you’re trying to attract this kid?" There was the uncle, the aunt, the grandmother, the grandfather, the high school coach, the AAU coach -- !
Swish Appeal: -- there’s always a gatekeeper --
Michael Cooper: - there’s too many people. That was the worst thing. But the fun part about it was that you’re catching kids at the stage where they were still coachable. Their skill and athleticism wasn’t up to where it is in the WNBA – in the WNBA there are other things you have to work with, but at the college level you’re working with the kids and helping them improve their game, and to become better people in society.
Swish Appeal: Were you considering other offers at the time you took the position in Atlanta? For example, did Tulsa or any other college or professional team try to get in touch with you?
Michael Cooper: Actually, I contacted Tulsa first. My agent – I still had a five year deal at USC, so USC still owed me some money. I wasn’t really looking for anything, and my agent said "Coop, there are a couple of jobs," and I said, "Okay, put my name out there if you want." I still wanted some time to myself in a sense.
So when we contacted Tulsa, the next day I get a call from the executive firm doing the search on behalf of the Atlanta Dream. It happened so fast, it was like – I got a call from them, the next thing you know I’m down here interviewing, the next day they’re offering me, the next thing you know I’m the head coach.
Swish Appeal: So it happened in a brief time?
Michael Cooper: A brief time. Those are good things. One thing I’d like to say is that the Dream knew what they wanted. They had a certain group of people they were looking at, and once they did their interview they moved on it.
Swish Appeal: A follow up: were you in the group of people they were initially looking at? Or did they just notice…?
Michael Cooper: I think through the search firm, they picked out three or four people and I think that they did a great job in their due diligence of interviewing those people really quickly. Mary [Brock, co-owner], Kelly [Loeffler, co-owner], Ashley [Preisinger, CEO] – I was down here and it went smoothly. I like to think my interview was impressive. I think I hit on some of the subjects that they felt they needed in a coach for their team to get to the next level.
Swish Appeal: What is the one thing you see as needing to change to get the Atlanta Dream a title?
Michael Cooper: I was sitting upstairs in the office, and I put on the board "Championship Teams" and I put four things that championship teams have to do.
One, you have to be on time all the time. Championship teams are on time from Day One. This goes back to my playing days and the methods that Pat Riley used to orchestrate to win a championship and I still use some of the attributes in my coaching career that I learned there. Being on time is first and foremost. I’d rather be an hour early than one minute late.
The second thing is championship teams have respect for their teammates. You have to respect your teammates because they’re going to war with you. If you want to do something individually and get all the accolades and all the pats on the back, go play tennis or do some individual sport like golf. You have to respect each other.
Championship teams have to be polite to people. Championship teams have to do that. You have to be polite to the public, your fans, the organization. You have to be polite to your opponent to a certain extent.
Last but not least, a championship team has to communicate with one another. Communication is the most important thing and when you lose that – whether it be from coach to player or player to player or coach to administration – you lose something in that and that’s when the disconnect happens and that’s when the chain gets broken.
Swish Appeal: Can you say anything right now about your future assistant coaching staff? Will you be bringing in your own assistants or will you keep Joe Ciampi and Julie Plank?
Michael Cooper: No, right now after we finish with the league meeting, I’m going through an evaluation period and looking at stuff. I have some people in mind but I’m definitely going to look very closely at Coach Plank and at Coach Ciampi because I think both of them have a special skill. As a head coach, I’d like to think that I’ve been through a lot, but I don’t know it all. It’s important that you have assistant coaches that can fill that gap, that I can look at them and say, "Hey, coach, what do you have?" and they can come up with something.
Swish Appeal: You once said that basketball is a "thinking player’s game". Will you be bringing in the same philosophy to the Dream that you brought to the Sparks – for example, quizzing players and a focus on team members being able to scout their opponents?
Michael Cooper: Oh, of course. That’s a must. You have to understand who you are playing in order to beat them. This goes back to our days with the Lakers and Pat Riley would do a scouting report in the playoffs for the game and everyone would have their own scout, but then you would be quizzed on other players. During the course of a game, a mismatch may happen at any time, so you have to know what that opposing player does well, and what that player doesn’t do well.
That’s all part of it, and if you can think the game as well as play it that makes you a double threat out there, and that makes you a championship team. We’re quizzing, and they have to know it.
Swish Appeal: The Dream have depended greatly on success in the transition game for all six years. Given Atlanta’s failure to win a championship, does that need to change? If so, how, and if not, why not?
Michael Cooper: We’re going to ramp it up a hundred miles more - !
Swish Appeal: - we’re still going to Run With The Dream - ?
Michael Cooper – we’re still going to Run With The Dream. To me, especially the way this team is built. Not too many big bodied people down there – I mean, Erika [de Souza], you have some, but she likes to run. I had an opportunity to coach Erika when she first came into the WNBA so she understands my philosophy a little bit.
But no, we’re going to get out and run. We’ve got some athletes out on the perimeter – Armintie [Herrington], Jasmine [Thomas], Angel [McCoughtry]– all those players can get out and play in open court and we’re going to give them first looks and see what they can do. If they don’t have it, by then the rest of the team should be down and we’ll flow into our offense.
For more on the Dream's offseason, check out our Atlanta Dream offseason storystream.