Michael Cooper v. Kevin McHale
MICHAEL COOPER IS 6 FEET 7 inches tall, with long, thin legs, a narrow waist and an upper body that fans out like a V into a pair of shoulders so acutely angular they might be supported by a crossbeam. Cooper running at full speed is a picture of graceful efficiency: He seems simply to glide, feet never touching the ground. When he jumps, we're talking serious levitation. Like a Mirage jet, he is built to soar.
Kevin McHale is 6 feet 10 inches tall, most of it elbows and knees. His running motion - head thrown back, arms churning, feet clomping - is an exercise in locomotion that belies considerable speed. With his shaggy black hair, sad eyes and quick, gentle smile, McHale recalls a favorite English teacher.
Both of these men are professional basketball players, Cooper for the Los Angeles Lakers, McHale for the Boston Celtics. What's more, they are stars, big stars who are hounded for autographs, sought for postgame interviews and paid well (just prior to this season, McHale signed a four-year contract worth about $1 million a year).
Yet both are substitutes, members of an elite corps of players in the National Basketball Association known as "sixth men," athletes whose skills and personalities are better suited to coming off the bench than to basking in the glow of the starting five-man lineup.
"There was a time," says Pat Riley, coach of the Lakers, "when you sent in a substitute and crossed your fingers, hoping he wouldn't hurt you too much. But the game has changed in the last couple of years. There's so much more talent now you can't afford a letdown when you go to your bench. It's important to have players who can go in and give you a lift."
As this season heads for the playoffs, the Celtics are leading their division, while the Lakers, along with the Milwaukee Bucks, who have another of the league's best sixth men, Junior Bridgeman, are battling for first place in their respective divisions. The current world champion Philadelphia 76ers, with a bench that includes Bobby Jones as their first substitute, are vying for sec- ond place in the Atlantic Division, behind Boston.
The sixth-man idea was introduced in the late 1940's, when Arnold (Red) Auerbach, then coaching the Washington Capitols, felt that bringing one of his best players, Irv Torgoff, off the bench instead of starting him provided his team with an advantage. The Capitols have gone the way of the two-hand set shot and Auerbach has gone on to a long and successful career as coach and general manager of the Boston Celtics. But his idea, which he introduced to the Celtics in the mid-1950's, has been adopted by some of the most successful teams in the N.B.A. Last season, recognizing the special character of the star substitute, the league created an annual Sixth Man Award. The first one went to Jones.
The popularity of the sixth- man concept shows how the game of professional basketball has changed. Today's players are capable of truly startling feats: Just watch Julius Erving of the 76ers go airborne 10 feet from the basket and float in for a looping, one-hand dunk shot or San Antonio's George Gervin slip his razor-thin body through a clutch of defenders and score with a jump shot as soft as a perfectly executed souffle. The game is loaded with talent, and players are bigger and faster than ever. As a consequence, the best teams these days are rich in ability down to the end of the bench. They can no longer rely on the promising rookie or savvy veteran to give the starting five a breather.
Basketball is a team game, complex and continuously fluid, and the teams that win consistently are those with players who eschew personal heroics, preferring to mold their efforts to fit a larger framework. If the N.B.A.'s outstanding sixth men have differing individual strengths - Cooper's defense, McHale's rebounding, Jones's steadiness and Bridgeman's shooting prowess - they all share one important trait: unselfishness.
A pro game is 48 minutes long, and a starting player will average about 35 minutes of playing time. If he gets in early foul trouble, or is simply having a bad night, it may be considerably less than that. Even if all of the starters play their full time, a strong substitute who can fill in at two positions gives his team an obvious advantage.
Boston starts Larry Bird and Cedric Maxwell at forward and Robert Parish at center. Kevin McHale can fill in for any of them. "Having McHale means having instant offense and instant defense," says K.C. Jones, who took over this season as coach of the Celtics. "It's like bringing in an All-Star off the bench."
Despite his awkward appearance, the 26-year-old McHale is a superb all-round player. His incredibly long arms make him a formidable rebounder and shot blocker, and he has a dependable fall- away jump shot and hook that are almost impossible to defend against because of his size.
But McHale's greatest asset is his ability on offense to maneuver close to the basket, where he can pick off missed shots and either put them back up himself or pass to a teammate in the open. In the lexicon of the game, this is known as "playing in the paint" and any knowledgeable fan will tell you that the paint - so-called because the foul lanes on most courts are brightly painted - is where games are won or lost.
"I probably spend as much time in the three-second lane as anybody in the league," McHale said, relaxing one morning after a workout in the gymnasium of Hellenic College in suburban Brookline, Mass., where the Celtics train. "A lot of people laugh. They say, 'You're in there for 10 seconds at a time.' But that's not true. I try to slash in for three seconds, then out, then right back in."
A lot of the Celtics' plays revolve around Larry Bird. "Larry is such a great shooter, you know when he gets the ball he's going to put it up," McHale explained. "That way I can anticipate. I can be moving toward the basket when the ball is being shot."
McHale has been a reliable scorer in each of his three previous seasons with Boston (last year he averaged 14 points a game), but so far this year he is averaging more than 18 points, remarkable for a nonstarter. In a game against Detroit earlier this season, he scored 19 points in the fourth quarter alone to preserve a victory. In close situations, especially near the end of the game, the Celtics have usually gone to Bird. This year in tough spots they are looking for McHale, too.
"Scoring comes and goes," McHale says. "You might get a lot of easy baskets one night and not the next. For me, the difference between a 15-point game and a 23-point game is really no big deal. There've been a lot of games where I have scored only 5 or 6 points but we've won, and I've felt I really contributed a great deal. That's what it's all about."
In an early-season victory against Milwaukee at the Boston Garden, McHale entered the game late in the first quarter, taking over for Parish at center. When Parish returned after a four- minute breather (prolonged by the break between the first and second quarters), Bird went out and McHale moved over to forward.
In the first instance, he was guarded by Milwaukee's center, the stronger but less mobile Bob Lanier. When McHale took Bird's place, he was guarded by the 6-foot- 5-inch Junior Bridgeman, a mismatch that allowed the Celtics to get more rebounds than Milwaukee and speed up the pace of the game, which eventually took its toll on the slower Bucks. In the last few minutes, Boston, its fast break shifting into high gear, broke open a close game and went on to win, 119-105.
In his three and a half seasons as a pro since coming out of the University of Minnesota, McHale has never been a regular starter. "On this team there is so much talent," he said of the Celtics, "it's never bothered me."
The same is not true of Bobby Jones, who was a starter - and an All-Star - with the Denver Nuggets and with Philadelphia before the 76ers' coach, Billy Cunningham, made him a sixth man just before the start of the 1979-80 season. Initially, Jones recalls, the adjustment was difficult. "I just did not feel I was part of the team," he said. "In fact, after starting for so many years, I felt like I was in outer space."
At 6 feet 9 inches and only 205 pounds, the 32-year-old Jones is not heavy enough to match up against most of the N.B.A.'s muscular centers, so he's limited to the forward position. What he might lack in versatility, however, this veteran, now in his 10th season as a pro, more than makes up for in consistency at both ends of the court. Jones is pale and string- bean thin, with dark, bushy eyebrows, a prominent nose and a full mouth. He is one of the smartest players in the game. His sense of the court is uncanny: He seems always to be in the right place at the right time, whether to block a shot, pick up a loose ball, make a pass for a basket or hit on a crucial tip-in. Jones is one of those players who may only score 7 points in a game, but chances are that all 7 will come when the score is close and the pressure most intense.
A typical performance occurred earlier this season at the Byrne Meadowlands Arena, where for most of the game the New Jersey Nets were giving the 76ers all they could handle. Jones entered the game with a little more than four minutes left in the first quarter and the Nets ahead by a point. Early in the second period, when New Jersey widened the margin to six and appeared ripe to break away, he hit a running, left- handed hook shot and followed with a 12-foot jump shot that kept his team close. Just before the half, his jump shot from the foul line helped give the 76ers a 61-60 lead at the half.
As usual, though, his biggest contribution was late in the game. With 39 seconds to play and Philadelphia hanging on to a three-point lead, Buck Williams, the Nets' speedy young forward, took an outlet pass from Darryl Dawkins and streaked into the open, heading for what looked like a sure basket.
But Jones chased him the length of the court and, with exquisite timing, leaped just as his opponent did, looped a skinny arm over Williams's shoulder and neatly blocked the shot from behind. Thirteen seconds later, at the other end of the court, Jones was fouled by Mike Gminski. He calmly sank two free throws to wrap up the victory. Afterward, his teammate Julius Erving said: "Bobby Jones is the kind of guy you want in there at the end. I just love playing with him."
For the last seven years, Jones has been named to the N.B.A.'s All-Defensive Team, which is not only a tribute to his play but an indication of the direction Philadelphia has taken in the last few years.
The 76ers of the late 1970's were perhaps the greatest assemblage of individualists ever put together on a basketball court. Besides Erving, the 1976-77 Philadelphia team included Dawkins, Lloyd (now World B.) Free, George McGinnis, Doug Collins, Steve Mix, Henry Bibby and Caldwell Jones. Both Erving and McGinnis had come over from the American Basketball Association, where they enjoyed spectacular success as scorers. Free was quite capable of shooting the eyes out of the basket from 25 feet out, and whenever someone passed him the ball, that's usually what he tried to do.
The team was a powerhouse on offense but never really jelled as a unit. After it was picked apart by the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1977 championship series, Philadelphia began to make changes. The next season, Billy Cunningham, who as a player in the 1960's and early 1970's typified the hard-working, unselfish style of play that is now the 76ers' stock in trade, replaced Gene Shue as coach - and McGinnis was traded to Denver for Bobby Jones.
In the words of Erving: "We traded a superstar for a role player." That trade began the metamorphosis of a talent-rich also-ran into a world champion. It culminated in 1982 with the acquisition of the 6-foot-10-inch, 255- pound Moses Malone, the ultimate workhorse.
One of the reasons Cunningham converted Jones from starter to sixth man, Jones feels, was his lack of stamina: "When I was playing 30 to 35 minutes a game it was wearing me down pretty badly. By the end of the season, I wouldn't have much left."
There were problems at first. "I remember the first couple of games as a sixth man," Jones recalled. 'I was completely out of it, totally confused. I felt that I was somehow not part of the team.
"But by the third or fourth game I started to tell myself, 'Be aggressive, do something.' So I'd go in and try to make a move immediately - block a shot maybe, or even commit a foul - anything to get myself going."
Now he prefers the role. "I really like being a sixth man for a couple of reasons. One is that I play about 25 minutes a game. But instead of playing 25 minutes out of 48, it's really 25 out of 40, because unless someone gets in early foul trouble there aren't going to be any substitutions for the first seven or eight minutes. I like that better than starting and then coming out and sitting for a long time. You can get cold that way. Now I feel that once I'm in the game, I'm really in ."
Another advantage, he feels, is that "as a starter your preparation for a game is daylong. You have to think, 'Who'll I be matched against tonight, what'll I be doing? As a sixth man there is less pressure because you really can't worry ahead of time.
"For me, preparation starts with the tip-off," he said. "I watch how the game unfolds and try and see where the problems are. You have to fit the situation that exists out there. It might be on defense, in which case my job is obvious. Or it might be moving the ball and scoring. Then I'll try to get the ball to the right people, particularly Moses, Julius and Andrew Toney."
According to Red Auerbach of the Celtics, there are two key requirements for a good sixth man: intelligence and ego, or rather, lack of ego. "Most basketball players want to score a lot of points," says Auerbach, "and they want to be starters. They want their name announced before the game and hear the crowd cheer. But a sixth man has to be someone who thinks about the team before himself. He has to be somebody who wants to do anything necessary to help the ball club win."
If the first sixth man was actually Irv Torgoff, then the first sixth man most people remember was Frank Ramsey, a versatile 6-foot-3-inch guard-forward who played for the great Celtic teams of the late 1950's, which included Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, Bill Sharman, Sam Jones and K.C. Jones. Ramsey was a good jump shooter, was quick on defense and wasn't afraid to challenge bigger men under the basket for rebounds.
In 1963, Ramsey's last regular season, the Celtics' first- round draft choice was a 6-foot-5-inch, 205-pound player from Ohio State. He was the right size to be a swing man - both a guard and a forward - as Ramsey had been, and he had incredible energy. He was also a smart, selfless player.
John Havlicek came into the N.B.A. custom-made for the role of sixth man, and, in the middle and late 1960's, he filled it the way Olivier did Hamlet. During that time, the Celtics won six world championships.
The sight of Havlicek racing up and down the court at full tilt, starting fast breaks or finishing them, cutting in to steal a pass or banking in his jump shot from an angle high on the board, became synonymous with the Celtics themselves, who, in those years, simply ran away from the rest of the league. In his 16 years, Havlicek wound up playing more games (1,270) and scoring more points (26,395) than anyone in Boston's illustrious basketball history. And he accomplished this without anything like the natural talent of many of his teammates - Russell, Sam Jones, Tom Heinsohn, Dave Cowens or JoJo White, to name a few.
Eventually, Havlicek became a starter. A few of the Celtics who took over his sixth-man spot were top-quality players, but in general the concept of a star substitute fell out of favor until several years ago, when the amount of talent in the N.B.A. provided some teams with bench strength to spare.
Someone upon whom Havlicek made a lasting impression was Michael Cooper, whose first season with the Los Angeles Lakers was 1978- 79, the year after Havlicek's retirement. "As a kid I'd sit and watch the Celtics, and I just admired that guy so much," Cooper, now 27, remembers. "I wanted to be just like him. When I was playing in high school and college, I even told my coaches that I'd rather come off the bench than start because that's what Havlicek did."
At Pasadena City College and the University of New Mexico, where he was needed as a starter, Cooper rarely got his wish. But with the Lakers, things have worked out to everyone's satisfaction. Cooper is the sixth man on a club whose roster includes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Jamaal Wilkes, James Worthy and Bob McAdoo. "It's the role I am most comfortable in," he says. "I almost feel that I was meant to do this - it's the way I get into the game best."
His coach, Pat Riley, agrees. "Michael has started for us a few times when players have been hurt," he explains. "But when he starts he worries too much about scoring points, and that's not what we need. I want Michael coming off the bench feeling loose, working those fast hands of his, picking the other guy's pocket, creating situations that get us running."
Running is what the fleet- footed Lakers do best. When their fast break is in high gear, in fact, there is little in this sport more exhilarating to watch: Johnson and Wilkes and Cooper, or Worthy, or McAdoo, flying down the court, the ball whipping back and forth without touching the ground until one of them hurtles in for the layup or stuff shot.
Cooper loves to take chances on defense, to "overplay" his man - often the other team's top scorer - and he has the quickness and reactions to get away with it. This kind of play leads to steals or forced shots, which harass an opposing team out of its natural offensive flow. This allows the Lakers, with 7-foot-2-inch Abdul-Jabbar dominating on defense and
passing to a teammate streaking downcourt, to open up and run.
It is clear from his average last season - just under 8 points a game - that Cooper is not a consistent scoring threat. His best weapon, in fact, is the "alley-oop," which he sets up with a quick fake and then a sudden leap to take a pass high above the rim of the basket. In a single, swift movement, he stuffs the ball in for a score on his way down. Laker fans have dubbed this shot the "Coopaloop."
In the past, Cooper's match-ups with Larry Bird have provided some marvelous subplots to Laker-Celtic games, although, with the loss of Norm Nixon this season, Cooper has been substituting almost exclusively at guard, and Bird is a forward. Cooper on Bird is a natural crowd pleaser: Both are smart and full of guile; Bird, at 6 feet 9 inches and 220 pounds, is two inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than Cooper, but Cooper is faster and can jump higher.
"I have to finesse him," Cooper says. "I can't bump him or body check him, because he's too strong for me. So I circle him. It's cat-and- mouse."
If Cooper's specialty is defense, Junior Bridgeman's is definitely offense. Like Andrew Toney of Philadelphia, World B. Free of Cleveland and Fred Brown of Seattle, Milwaukee's Bridgeman, whose real first name is Ulysses, is an extremely accurate shooter. On nights when he is hot, a hum can be heard from the crowd whenever he gets the ball.
The reason for this is simple. Rebounding and defense may be the heart of basketball, but the jump shot is its soul. Everyone who ever picks up a round ball in earnest attempts to master the shot, so when it's done well, the jump shot is appreciated with a special sort of fondness. Not all players are big enough to be great rebounders, but the small guy who can consistently put in the 15- footer has a great equalizer.
Fifteen feet is the inside edge of Bridgeman's range. In an early-season game against the Celtics, he pumped in five shots in a row, including two from outside the three-point circle, to keep the Bucks close. Both times the ball went cleanly through the hoop, touching nothing but cord.
In a more recent 103-101 triumph against the New York Knicks, Bridgeman scored 16 of his 21 points in the second half, most of them on jump shots from outside the foul circle. Two days later, the Celtics were victimized by his long-range bombs when Bridgeman again scored 16 points in the last two quarters to help pace a 106-87 victory.
A scorer of Bridgeman's ability is usually a starter, because most teams would want to give him as much playing time as possible. Yet in his eight years with the Bucks, during which he has scored about 8,500 points and made about 1,500 assists, he has always been a sixth man.
Why doesn't he start? "Marques Johnson and Sidney Moncrief," says Don Nelson, his coach, naming two Bucks who are among the best all-round players in the N.B.A., and who start ahead of the 30-year-old Bridgeman.
With the retirement of Brian Winters before this season, there was talk of Bridgeman's moving into the starting lineup, but Nelson, a former Celtic player who has learned a few lessons from Red Auerbach, decided against making the change.
"The value of a sixth man is having someone who can immediately have a major impact on a game," he says. "Junior can do that. He can come in, hit three or four in a row and break a game wide open."
Like Bobby Jones, Bridgeman initially found it unsettling to be a substitute. "In my first couple of years, it was an adjustment," he admits. "I didn't want to come off the bench. I don't believe anyone comes into the league wanting to do that, especially when you've been a starter most of the time you've been playing basketball.
"But I think I've matured, and the game has changed," adds Bridgeman, an articulate man who was both a basketball All-American and a dean's-list student at the University of Louisville, where he majored in psychology. "Most teams, especially the good teams, are deeper in talent now. We've got three or four strong players on the bench, not just one.
"When I was a rookie, the sixth-man role wasn't looked upon as being glamorous at all," he continued. "Havlicek and Ramsey had played it, but by the mid-70's no one wanted any part of it. Now everybody knows who the good sixth men are."
Everybody, it seems, has discovered what Auerbach has been saying all along: "It isn't important who's in the game when it starts, what's important is who's in there when it ends."
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