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Interim coach stresses defense on first day

DENVER -- Michael Cooper began his first day as head coach
of the Denver Nuggets with a team meeting, giving each player a
frank assessment of his role now that Cooper is running the show.

Then he took his players onto the practice court to work on
defense.

If Day 1 is any indication, the Nuggets can expect a lot of
unflinching honesty and demand for hard work -- especially on
defense -- from their new coach.

They can also expect him to push them to be more than just a
little above average, which is pretty much the best the Nuggets
franchise has ever been.

"As Pat Riley once said, 'If you don't talk about being a
champion, you'll never be a champion,' " said the former Lakers
star, who won five NBA titles, four with Riley as his coach.

Most of the discussion will revolve around defense, just as most
of Denver's first practice did Wednesday.

At the end, with Cooper kneeling on one knee, the Nuggets went
through the "Shell Drill," a contest in which points came easier
by making stops on defense than making baskets on offense. Bodies
were flying -- at one point, Bryon Russell, Marcus Camby and Andre
Miller all went down in a heap. Earlier in the workout, guard Greg
Buckner left with a groin strain.

"The first practice was short, but it was competitive,"
Carmelo Anthony said. "It was hard and to the point."

Miller said the Nuggets are still getting used to Cooper on
this, the day after Jeff Bzdelik's midseason firing. The point
guard did, however, say he appreciated Cooper's candor during the
pre-practice meeting.

"Coach let the people know right to their face what he expects
of them," Miller said. "There were no hidden agendas. That's how
it should be."

Cooper figured he probably surprised some players by talking so
much about winning a title, but he'll make no apologies for high
aspirations. That's pretty much all he knows. Besides the five
titles he won on the "Showtime" teams of the 1980s, Cooper also
coached the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA to two championships.

"When I first came here, I pulled Marcus, Carmelo and a few
other guys to the side and started talking championship and they
looked at me like I was foreign," Cooper said. "They understand
what I mean now."

The coach's arrival in Denver last offseason raised eyebrows,
mainly because the Nuggets gave him a three-year contract, while
his boss, Bzdelik, had only one year left on his deal.

General manager Kiki Vandeweghe said the Nuggets had to offer
Cooper a long-term deal to lure him away from the Sparks.
Vandeweghe insisted the plan was never to replace Bzdelik with the
former Lakers star.

But after a 13-15 start, and with 16 of the next 25 games on the
road, Vandeweghe decided now was time for a change. The Nuggets
were expected to be among the better teams in the Western
Conference. If they keep playing the way they started, they won't
even make the playoffs.

"We haven't been running enough," Anthony said. "We need to
get 28, 30 points off our fast break. That starts with defense.
Everybody's got to play defense."