Reprinted from SHOWTIME: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright Jeff Pearlman, 2014.
Michael Cooper remembers the first time he was ever asked to guard Larry Bird one-on-one for a prolonged stretch. The date was January 18, 1981, and the Lakers traveled to the Boston Garden to face the hated Celtics. At the time, Cooper was feeling awfully good about himself. With Magic Johnson sidelined with an injury, he was a fixture in the starting lineup, right alongside stars like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes and Norm Nixon. Cooper stood as a key cog on basketball's best team and, he says, "I was as cocky and confident as I'd ever been."
To Cooper, Larry Bird was still merely larry bird (lowercase intended) -- an overrated Great White Hype who captured a nation's imagination more for his pigmentation than his playing ability. Cooper had seen it all before. Doug Collins. Mike Dunleavy. Tom McMillen. Mike O'Koren. White guys came, white guys went. Larry Bird? Who the hell was scared of Lar--
"I'm getting ready to wear your f----- a-s-s out."
The words were uttered softly. Almost in a whisper. Had the white boy just spoken in such a manner to Michael Cooper? Had he really said such a thing? Barely two minutes had passed in the opening quarter and Bird was already slinging yang.
"Bring it, mother------," replied Cooper, hardly a linguistic wallflower. "Bring it."
Larry Bird brought it. Celtics guard Nate Archibald dribbled the ball down the court. Cooper followed Bird toward the top of the key -- "Larry's standing there talking to me, talking to me. Nonstop talking" -- then shadowed him as he walked down the lane and circled around a Robert Parish pick. "About to wear your a-s-s out," Bird said. "Wear ... it ... out ... " Bird pushed off Cooper. Cooper pushed off Bird. "Bring it," the Laker said. "C'mon, f----- ... "
Bird jumped back, caught a pass from Johnson. "I'm still here, m-----------," Cooper said, grabbing a handful of Bird's green-and-white jersey. "I'm still here." Abdul-Jabbar, guarding Parish, stepped off his man to help. Bird jumped to shoot, and Cooper lunged toward him -- certain he was about to block the shot.
Then, quick as a dragonfly, Bird somehow brought the ball down and wrapped it around to a wide-open Parish. "I still have no idea how he got the ball to him," said Cooper, "because my hands are up in the air, Kareem is coming out -- and the only way he could have gotten it to him was to lob it over the top. But he didn't lob it over the top. I'm still confused." Cooper spun, just in time to see Parish slam the basketball through the hoop.
He looked back toward Bird, who smirked. "Wearing your a-s-s out, m-----------," he said. "Wearing it out. ... "
Those words stuck with Michael Cooper. That moment stuck with Michael Cooper. Throughout his first eight-plus NBA seasons, he had been assigned to guard players of all shapes, sizes and builds. One night he might find himself standing before Utah's Rickey Green, the league's fastest point guard. The next night, it could be Denver center Dan Issel. Or Milwaukee small forward Junior Bridgeman. Or Knicks shooting guard Michael Ray Richardson. "He was worthy of Defensive Player of the Year every year," said Greg Ballard, the Golden State forward. "He was long, fast, stronger than you'd think. Coop was made for defense."
Although the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird connection was forever discussed and hyped, it was Cooper who felt tied to the Celtics star. He obsessed over Bird's moves, over his thinking, over his patterns and tendencies. If a Celtic game was televised, Cooper watched, his eyes glued to number 33. He looked toward nights against Boston as one would a wedding. It was Michael Cooper's moment.
"Covering Larry -- that meant everything to me," he said. "People said he was overrated ... f---, no. If anything, he was underrated. What made him so good was you didn't just have to worry about his scoring. You had to worry about this guy's defense, his passing, his ability to save balls from going out of bounds, his ability to set picks and get people open. Larry could beat you in many ways. And he was the hardest player for me to play against, because you had to guard against all those things. Most players are one- or two-dimensional. Larry was ten-dimensional."