ATLANTA (AP) — Michael Cooper remembers the day well. The sun was shining bright, yet the notorious Atlanta heat wasn’t too stifling. The sky was a brilliant blue, speckled with only a few puffy white clouds.
As he looked out the eighth-floor window, all seemed right with the world. His job was going well. His wife and young son were good.
Then, the doctor delivered one word that changed everything.
“I’m like, ‘OK, how long do I have to live?'” Cooper recalled. “That’s the first thing that came into my mind.”
The defensive stopper for the Los Angeles Lakers during their glorious “Showtime” era of the 1980s was facing an opponent unlike any other.
“This lets you know that life is fragile, and it can be taken away from you at any moment,” Cooper said. “Here I was, just going along, having a great time down here in Atlanta with a team that I know can win a championship, and the next thing you know, they tell me … ‘You have cancer.’ Now, tongue cancer isn’t as bad some cancers. But cancer is cancer.”
Cooper is in his first season as coach of the Dream, a team that finished first in the Eastern Conference after reaching the WNBA finals three of the last four years.
The Dream were dominating the East with a 15-6 record when Cooper went in to have a small spot on his tongue checked out. It seemed like a cut, but just wouldn’t heal. It had become quite annoying, making it difficult for the 58-year-old to chew, drink or swallow.
The specialist knew right away it was cancer. Cooper underwent surgery six days later to have the lesion removed. Also, his lymph nodes were taken out, reducing the risk of the disease spreading but leaving a gnarly scar down the left side of his neck.
The very day of his surgery, Cooper’s 83-year-old father, Marshall, was buried. He had been in failing health, and the two were able to visit a few weeks before he died.
“I flew to LA on a weekend when we had some days off,” Cooper said. “I told him I loved him, said all the things I wanted to say. We laughed and talked. I told him, ‘Pops, if you’re hanging around for me, don’t hang. I’m OK.’ That was the last time I saw him.”
Instead of grieving, Cooper actually took a bit of comfort from his father’s death as he was wheeled into the operating room.
“I knew I had another angel up there looking out for me,” he said. “I knew things were going to be all right.”
The cancer was caught in its early stages, according to Cooper, and the chances of a full recovery are good. He’ll need to undergo about six weeks of radiation after the season, but hopes the worst of his ordeal is over.
He missed only six games, but the Dream took a definite turn for the worse while he was out, eventually losing nine of 11.
“Anytime you’re on a team, you want consistency, you want familiarity,” said DeLisha Milton-Jones, a 15-year veteran. “When you’re thrown a blow like that from the head coaching position, I mean, he’s your first leader. When you don’t have him there, of course the team may stumble a little bit. And we did.”
Now, there’s a chance to make it right.
A best-of-three series against the Chicago Sky begins Friday night. Atlanta, led by top scorer Angel McCoughtry and rookie star Shoni Schimmel, is favored in the East. But no one outside this locker room really believes the Dream (19-15) can knock off the Western Conference champion Phoenix Mercury (29-5) or the Minnesota Lynx (25-9) — should they get that far.
Cooper, meanwhile, is still adjusting since returning to the bench.
He tires more easily than he did before, and he’s been told not to raise his voice while his tongue recovers. He talks just fine, other than swishing saliva around his mouth more frequently, but relays instructions during the games through assistant coach Karlene Thompson.
But this is where he wants to be, where he needs to be.
“It’s been great to be around the team,” Cooper said after a recent practice at Philips Arena. “With my wife and son back in Los Angeles, the team has been like a comforting thing for me. It’s like family coming here. That’s why it was important to come back as fast as I was able to come back.”
His eyes darted around the court. One player was getting in some extra free throws. Another was shooting from 3-point range.
“This is what love,” Cooper said, smiling like a man whose life is back in order. “Being in a basketball gym. The smell of hoops.”
Cancer couldn’t take that away.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963