I was alone, the only person watching the NBA playoffs on a 16-foot television. It didn’t last. Soon others entered. Most wore purple, some wore yellow. A few carried boxes. One young lady put tchotchkes on my table. Yellow-and-purple tchotchkes.
I asked what was up.
"We're having a Lakers viewing party," said the woman.
"Who is we?"
"The … Lakers," she said, realizing I didn’t belong.
It made sense. We were in downtown Los Angeles at the ESPN Zone, a sports bar to the nth degree. Staples Center sits next door, and the injury-riddled Lakers were about to play Game 2 of their first-round series in San Antonio, hoping to pull even with the Spurs at 1-1. Fans needed a place to congregate. Why not here?
In came a man who did belong: Michael Cooper.
He dressed simply -- a baby-blue button-up tucked neatly into dark slacks -- but his tailored, freshly pressed clothes stood out. Even those who didn’t notice his sartorial style would recognize his ballplayer gait.
It was clear that someone had entered the room.
He walked my way. I was just a face in the growing crowd, but we made eye contact, and he gave a nod. It was the nod famous people give when they know you know who they are. He was just being friendly. Though I was planted at a long, communal table and Cooper had his own VIP chair, we were next to one another when he took his seat.
The box carriers unpacked, arranging items on a table beneath the giant TV. They arranged purple-and-yellow jerseys and basketball shoes. One sneaker was in a glass case.
At first I couldn’t read the number and signature. Then I made it out.
The jerseys were similarly odd: Shannon Brown, Luke Walton, Andrew Bynum.
Then, one made sense. It had No. 21 on the back. Ahhh. There it is.
The Michael Cooper jersey?
Nope. It was a Kareem Rush throwback.
I wasn’t surprised that someone else had worn Coop’s number. I knew the Lakers hadn’t retired the jerseys of all their greats.
Still, it was off-putting to be sitting next to Cooper, the 1986-87 Defensive Player of the Year and a guy who made eight straight All-Defensive Teams, and see a Kareem Rush jersey.
I looked up, and there was a break in the game action on the big screen. A Crown Royal commercial came on with Julius Erving as the liquor’s pitchman.
As with everything Dr. J-related, the highlight soon showed up.
For the man sitting next to me, I imagine it is the highlight; The Doctor’s breakaway, cradle, “rock the baby to sleep” dunk over Michael Cooper in January 1983 during the Lakers’ regular-season visit to the Spectrum.
I looked over at him.
"What?" Cooper asked me, raising his arms. "You got something to say?"
I did not.
I did manage a question. Holding back laughter -- maybe fear -- I asked him how many times he has seen that highlight. I expected him to shake his head and say, “Thousands, jerk.” Or check my chin.
He didn’t answer. But he did let me in on a little secret.
"The funny part about it -- every time I see that, I get paid,” Cooper said.
I don’t know if he was leading me on or if he actually gets a royalty check each time the ad airs. Crown Royal has to license the footage from somewhere.
But Cooper repeated his claim later in the evening while emceeing the event. He joked with the crowd, saying I tried to clown him. He recounted our exchange, saying that he receives $1,500 every time it airs.
I was taken aback. Twice, Cooper had owned the moment. The Doctor’s butchered patient -- a stopper of the highest order, the guy Larry Bird called the best defender he ever faced -- was embracing his inclusion in maybe the most iconic poster dunk in basketball history.
Some people might be ashamed. Players today are told, “Don’t jump.” Brandon Knight and Jason Terry, victims of the two most heinous facials handed out this season (here and here), probably wish they had taken that advice.
Coop? Thirty years after the dunk, he’s taking it in stride.
As he should.
Michael Cooper is a Lakers icon. To those in the know, he is an NBA legend. But to many casual sports fans, he is just a guy who played with Magic, an afterthought who didn’t make the Showtime “big three” cut behind Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and James Worthy.
Through this dunk, however, he has become immortal. Whenever Dr. J is celebrated, the footage inevitably resurfaces. I must have seen the time Coop got dunked on thousands of times.
He never answered after I asked how many times he has seen it. But I’m guessing the years -- and maybe those $1,500 checks -- allow Cooper to enjoy The Doctor’s most famous dunk more now than he did in 1983, and more than any of us do today.