Michael Cooper And Bill Laimbeer Are Keeping Their NBA Rivalry Alive In The WNBA

Michael Cooper and Bill Laimbeer were part of a legendary NBA rivalry in the 1980's. They're coaching in the WNBA, now, but are as competitive as they ever were.
May 26, 2016, 4:06pm
Image via YouTube

Thousands of children went on a field trip to Madison Square Garden on Tuesday for a promotion that the New York Liberty dubbed, with a certain lack of creativity, "School Day." The kids were impossible to miss—they laughed, screamed, got hopped up on soda, and watched an early season WNBA game between the Liberty and the Atlanta Dream. All in all, it beat spending the day in class.

Few of the kids probably had any idea the team's coaches have a rivalry dating back to the 1980s, before any of them were born. More than 25 years since the "Showtime" Los Angeles Lakers and the "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons squared off in the 1988 and 1989 NBA finals, two of their best players are still going at it, albeit in a setting no one could have imagined back then.

Read More: How The WNBA Compares To Other Sports Leagues At Age 20

Former Lakers guard Michael Cooper, 60, coaches the Dream, while former Pistons center Bill Laimbeer, 59, coaches the Liberty. They are at an age when most people are staring down retirement, and indeed their playing careers are decades in the past. But, in their second lives on the WNBA's sidelines, they have faced off numerous times. Each remains as committed to beating the other as they were in their playing days.

"My competitive juices flow as long as I got big, fat Bill Laimbeer over there, a former Bad Kid," Cooper told VICE Sports before Tuesday's game. "I'm not even gonna call them Bad Boys. They're Bad Kids because we spanked their ass. I always let him know that. This is no secret. I'll tell it to his face. That's what's fun to me."

Cooper and Laimbeer played different positions—Cooper was a rangy shooting guard, Laimbeer a beefy and sharp-elbowed center—but shared a reputation for aggressiveness that could border on recklessness. In 1988, the Lakers beat the Pistons in seven games for Cooper's fifth NBA title. A year later, the Pistons swept the Lakers in four games, giving Laimbeer his first. To this day, Cooper fondly recalls how he never backed down from the Pistons.

"I fought Bill Laimbeer twice," Cooper said. "I fought that fuckin' other guy he had on his team, Rick Mahorn, three times. Didn't like him. Couldn't stand John Salley. [Dennis] Rodman didn't fuck with me, so I didn't do nothing with him. Isiah Thomas. [Joe] Dumars. The only one I liked on that team was Vinnie Johnson because Vinnie never said anything. He just lit your ass up."

Neither Cooper nor Laimbeer envisioned coaching women's basketball when their playing careers came to an end; the WNBA didn't even exist yet, and neither had any experience with the women's game. When Cooper was an assistant with the Lakers in the mid-1990s, one of the team's public relations employees, Rhonda Windham, asked him to attend the "Say No Classic," a summer women's basketball league that Windham ran in Southern California. Cooper wasn't too impressed with the competition the first day, as he remembers it, but he changed his mind the next day when he saw future WNBA stars Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson play.

The next weekend, during a tournament in Venice Beach, Cooper coached a women's team that featured Yolanda Griffith, a future WNBA MVP and eight-time All-Star. Cooper was hesitant at first and didn't know how he should treat the women, but realized he was in his element after Griffith took over a huddle during a timeout and screamed at her teammates for playing bad defense.

"I heard her say this, 'Listen, if somebody can't stop that fuckin' player, I'll get out there and stop her,'" Cooper said. "The way she said it is how we used to talk against the Celtics, how we used to talk against the Pistons. She said it with such forcefulness and competitive spirit. I went back in there and I said, 'Well, anybody gonna do it?' That's when I got involved, right then."

When Michael Cooper gives you the dang business. Photo by Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Cooper's first job in the WNBA was as an assistant with the Los Angeles Sparks in 1999. He became the team's head coach the next year and was named the league's coach of the year. He led the Sparks to the WNBA title in 2001 and 2002.

In 2003, the Sparks made the finals again and faced the Detroit Shock, which were completing an improbable turnaround under Laimbeer, who had been hired after the Shock lost their first 10 games of the 2002 season. Laimbeer had been working as a consultant with the Shock and as a broadcaster for Pistons games. Laimbeer had never coached before, but had no problem adjusting to his new role. The Shock won three WNBA championships during his seven full seasons with the team, beating Cooper's Sparks in 2003 and then winning again in 2006 and 2008. Laimbeer left in 2009 to join the Minnesota Timberwolves as an assistant, but he only lasted two seasons in the NBA.

Laimbeer never had any problems making enemies as a player, and didn't make many friends among NBA execs during his time on the NBA sidelines. In 2013, NBA general managers told ESPN's Kate Fagan that Laimbeer was "lazy" and "a buffoon" and that "guys just won't play for him." By the time those quotes ran, Laimbeer was in his first season coaching the Liberty, and back in a league that holds him in higher regard.

The Liberty fired Laimbeer in October 2014 before changing their mind and re-hiring him three months later. It was an odd decision, but Laimbeer didn't miss a beat, leading the Liberty to the league's best regular season record and winning his second WNBA coach of the year award. "You speak to them a little bit differently because they're a little bit more emotional, but other than that, you can treat them just like the guys," Laimbeer said of coaching women. "I coach the players like I wanted to be coached. I thought I was a reasonably smart player and did my job. I expected certain things from the coach. I try to take that to the court when I coach these ladies."

Players have noticed a different Laimbeer than the persona he displayed during his playing days, when he was known as an intimidator and one of the NBA's alpha irritants. While Laimbeer can still flash some of his old moodiness, he has mellowed some with age. "When I first got here, I thought he was going to be kind of like [UConn] coach [Geno] Auriemma, fiery and just angry," said Liberty center Kiah Stokes, who played for Auriemma. "He's pretty calm. He gets upset if we don't execute, but it's nothing too crazy."

When you're pretty calm, actually. Photo by Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

Cooper, for his part, is a much more demonstrative presence. Atlanta guard and former UConn star Tiffany Hayes sees similarities between Cooper and Auriemma, who has led the Huskies to a record 11 NCAA tournament titles. "The first time I met him, he reminded me of Geno," Hayes said. "That's why I adjusted to him fairly quickly, probably faster than the other players. He reminded me so much of Geno. He's going to get out of you what he wants out of you. And off the court, he's the sweetest guy. They're one and the same."

Like Laimbeer, Cooper has experience coaching men, although most of his time as a coach has been in the women's game. Cooper was an assistant with the Lakers from 1993-1997 and again with the Nuggets during the 2004-05 season, and was the team's interim coach when Denver fired Jeff Bzdelik. Cooper also led the Albuquerque Thunderbirds to the 2006 NBA D-League title, but he left a year later to return as the Sparks' coach. He also coached the USC women's basketball team from 2009-2013, before coming back to the WNBA; he's now in his third season with the Dream and doesn't have much interest in returning to the NBA.

Cooper cited the experiences of his friend and former teammate, Byron Scott, whom the Lakers fired last month after a 17-65 season. "That money isn't worth that," Cooper said. "I enjoy my life. I want to enjoy my family. I look good for a 60 year old guy, don't I? Just think how you would look if you were up there in the NBA always doing this," and here Cooper despondently put his face in his palms. "I enjoy where I am. I think I'm making an impact on the game that is going to be bigger and better as the years go on."

Laimbeer is as crusty as Cooper is voluble, but he also seems content coaching in the WNBA, and with the lifestyle it affords him. When the five-month season ends, he returns home to Florida, where he enjoys golfing and fishing and being around his family. "The NBA's a lot more of a grind, a lot more games, a lot more hours," Laimbeer said. "There really is no time off at all. This is more of a half-year sport. There's not a lot to do during the offseason, so it gives you a break."

Entering Tuesday, Laimbeer and Cooper had coached against each other 20 times in the WNBA, including an infamous game on July 8, 2008 when the Sparks and Shock were involved in a brawl that led to suspensions for 10 players and Shock assistant Rick Mahorn. That's the only time the two teams have replicated the old Lakers/Pistons dynamic, and have otherwise kept the competition on the court. Laimbeer held a 13-7 edge and had won seven of their last eight matchups heading into Tuesday's game.

It looked like Laimbeer would come out ahead again on Tuesday, as the Liberty led by 12 points late in the third quarter. But after Cooper and forward Angel McCoughtry were called for technical fouls, the Dream made a comeback. They had a two-point advantage before Liberty guard Sugar Rodgers' acrobatic, driving layup with 20.3 seconds remaining tied the score and sent the game to overtime. During the extra session, the Dream dominated, holding the Liberty to 1-for-14 shooting from the field and pulling away for an 85-79 victory.

For Cooper, an eight-time All-NBA defensive pick and the NBA's 1987 Defensive Player of the Year, it was a win that affirmed the emphasis he's put on defense with the Dream. It was also nice to beat Laimbeer, his longtime rival.

"Don't tell him this," Cooper said. "I actually like Bill. I just have to keep that war going. He enjoys it, too. It keeps us young. He's a little more rounder. I'm more balder. But it keeps us close to the game. That's what I like."