Interim coach stresses defense on first day

Updated: December 30, 2004, 10:03 AM ET
Associated Press

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.

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. They understand what I mean now.
Michael Cooper

"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."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press