Can Cynthia Cooper again beat the odds and become a NBA coach?

Cynthia Cooper #14
Cynthia Cooper skies to the hoop. | Getty Images

On the most recent episode of the “Knuckleheads Podcast with Darius Miles and Quentin Richardson,” Cynthia Cooper discusses the fiery determination that drove her basketball success, from USC to Italy to Team USA to the WNBA. Will this drive allow her to fulfill her remaining basketball ambition — coaching in the NBA?

When will we see Cynthia Cooper on a NBA sideline?

If it was up to Cooper, the four-time WNBA champion and two-time WNBA MVP, the time would have been yesterday.

On a recent episode of The Players’ Tribune’s the “Knuckleheads Podcast with Darius Miles & Quentin Richardson,” Cooper insists, “What I am absolutely made for is coaching in the NBA.”

Cooper currently is the women’s basketball head coach at Texas Southern, a position she previously held for the 2012-13 season. At the college level, she also has served as the head coach at Prairie View A&M (2005-10), UNC Wilmington (2010-12) and USC (2013-17).

At the WNBA level, Cooper was the head coach of the Phoenix Mercury for the 2001 season and part of the 2002 season.

Yet, it is with an NBA team that Cooper believes she could most make her mark as a coach.

In her conversation with Miles and Richardson, Cooper exudes an intensity — “They have my mentality. They want to be great. They want to learn how to hoop” — and confidence — “And by the way, I brought the Euro step here, not James Harden. I brought it!” — that had Richardson, a well-traveled former NBA player, hyped to go hoop.

Cooper further elaborates on how her combination of ferocity and strategy could reach NBA players:

I get the mentality. Like, I get what they want. The way I think. How to get to the rim, I see pathways to the basket. Or, if you’re a shooter, how to get open. All of those things I want to teach.

Cooper expresses a willingness to begin her NBA journey as an assistant coach, describing the role she believes could serve:

I want to support the head coach. … I should get the kid ready for the head coach. I should get the kid motivated while he’s sitting on the bench so when the coach call [sic] on him, he’s ready. He’s got the right mentality. He’s ready to go. That’s my job as an assistant coach. And, in practice, we’re constantly working, we’re constantly working. So when you’re called on — in the middle of the season, towards the end of the season, after that All-Star Game, during the playoffs — you ready, you ready to go. And that’s what I want to bring to the NBA.

Miles and Richardson reiterated their seal of approval for Cooper’s passionate attitude and approach.

Will we see her join Teresa Weatherspoon on an NBA bench sooner than later?

Based on how Cooper continually has beaten the odds throughout her basketball career, it seems unwise to doubt her.

Here’s more of what she shared about her basketball life with Miles and Richardson:

From the inner city to USC

Although she did not begin playing competitive basketball until her sophomore year of high school, Cooper led Locke High School, located in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, to the city and state championship her senior season, averaging 31 points along the way.

Yet, Cooper received little interest from college programs. “I didn’t get highly recruited. I had one scholarship offer from USC and I took it,” she tells Miles and Richardson.

Cooper further explains:

I was a late bloomer. I started playing late. We were poor. So I didn’t have any money to go play AAU or travel around or go to anybody’s basketball camps….I really didn’t have much visibility.

Cooper also discusses the challenges, both off and on the court, that she faced at USC. Off the court, the culture of USC represented a different world for Cooper. As she puts it:

I was in the inner city all my life. So going to a private university like USC, I had never seen so many rich white people in my life. I’d only seen them on television. That was a huge adjustment for me…It was a huge culture shock.

Her experiences echo those shared by her teammates Pam and Paula McGee in the HBO documentary “The Women of Troy.”

On the court, Cooper had to embrace, even if reluctantly, a new role as sixth woman. She recalls thinking:

I wanna start. I only understood playing, practicing, working to start and be a star and be great. That’s all I understood. So when my role was to come off the bench, that was another adjustment.

As the sixth woman, Cooper spent practices scrimmaging against the USC starting lineup, which featured Cheryl Miller and the McGee twins. “That’s how I was able to get better because I played against the best,” she declares.

From Southern California to overseas

Following a collegiate career that saw her help USC win two national championships, Cooper headed abroad, playing one season in Valencia, Spain before playing 10 seasons in Italy, eight seasons with Parma and two with Alcamo.

Cooper shares why she succeeded as overseas, asserting:

I was set up for success by my time at USC because USC taught me that I could do anything I want. I could learn. I could travel. And I was okay, I was okay being who I was — a kid from the inner city. I was okay in my own skin. USC taught me and gave me that level of confidence.

When overseas, Cooper sought to certify her elite basketball ability. She remembers:

I had to prove that I was a go-to player. I had to prove that I could live in another country and still excel. I had to prove that I could set myself apart when they’re double teaming me, being physical with me, I could still finish….I held myself to a higher standard my first few years overseas and that helped me to build a brand and…build my legacy overseas.

Making the 1988 U.S. Women’s Olympic Basketball Team

Ahead of the 1986 World Championships, Cooper attended an open tryout that featured more than 200 participants.

She was intent upon making the team. In her words, she was an “assassin.” She targeted the other guards, aiming to “put ‘em all down” so she could secure a spot on the team. “It never dawned on me that I wasn’t supposed to make that team,” Cooper recollects.

Once on the team, Cooper again prioritized proving herself. She emphasizes:

I always felt like I had to prove myself. That breeded [sic] hard work….I’d come to work every single day. I’m coming at you every day. Because first I wanna make the team, then I wanna to play on the team and then I wanna start. So I’m constantly looking for ways to get better and better and, really, out do you. Because you in my position and you need to go down.

Cynthia Cooper Opening Jacket to Display Her Gold Medal and Shirt
Getty Images
Cynthia Cooper, 1988 Olympic Games.

Giving buckets as a 34-year-old WNBA rookie

When she arrived in the WNBA, Cooper, once again, was driven to prove herself. With Sheryl Swoopes, the Houston Comets’ expected star, missing the start of the season due to pregnancy and Tina Thompson, the No. 1 pick in the 1997 WNBA Draft, lacking professional experience, Cooper eagerly took the reins of Comets, seemingly coming out of nowhere to take the WNBA by storm.

Here’s how she remembers it:

When I came in the league, I was like, “This is no pressure.” They don’t know about me. They don’t know what I’ve been doing. They don’t know how I’ve been working on my game…They don’t know how I’ve been forming a game that’s complete. They don’t know the hard work that I put into my game — EVERYDAY. Right? They don’t know my mentality, coming to practice and working hard and going hard every single day in practice. They don’t know that. All they know is Rebecca Lobo, Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie and Teresa Weatherspoon. Alright? Cool, no problem. Once again, I have something to prove….Nobody knew how I would play and be able to excel in the WNBA. I did though.

More from Coop

Listen to Cooper’s full conversation with Miles and Richardson to hear about:

  • how she developed her game by playing against guys on the blacktops of Watts
  • her embrace of Italian culture, including the language (in which she is still fluent)
  • her excitement about the opportunity to play in the WNBA
  • making history, and making more history, as a member of the Houston Comets’ dynasty
  • the origins of her signature “raise the roof” celebration
  • being the first WNBA player inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame

Then, give Cooper her “damn respect” by also checking out her personal essay in The Players’ Tribune, “I Want My Damn Respect, Too.”