Wanda Juzang Cooper

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In the course of writing and researching my books, I always develop a couple of close relationships.

Truth be told, most people come and go—just as in life. Yet sometimes—every now and then—you form a bond, where certain folks emerge as not merely sources, but friends.

Enter: Wanda Juzang Cooper.

Wanda is both the ex-wife of former Laker star Michael Cooper, as well as one of the coolest people I’ve met in a long time. She’s honest, open and blunt, and when I asked Michael to name people I should speak with for the book, he said—without flinching—”You need to talk to Wanda.” It was a great call.

These days, decades removed from the run ‘n gun ‘n ocean ‘n fun, Wanda is the owner of Juzang Thang, an El Paso, Texas-based catering company that specializes in fusion food (FYI: she’s also on the lookout for a good personal chef situation, and is willing to relocate). She shows up quite frequently in Showtime, and speaks openly here about why women are drawn to athletes, why athletes tend to cheat and why the 1980s Lakers live forever in her heart.

Wanda, welcome to Quazland …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Wanda, we became acquainted during my research for Showtime, the new book. As a former athlete wife, you fascinate me—because athlete wives, as a whole, fascinate me. Lemme ask first: Why do women marry professional athletes? Is there a general reason? Is it the attraction to money? To fame?

WANDA JUZANG COOPER: In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell touches on the concept of 10,000 hours to mastery. There is an allure to those who couple an innate talent with fierce ambition, and while professional athletes represent that, the same can be said of successful doctors, writers, musicians. .. there’s no denying the fact that they exude a warranted confidence that’s downright sexy. Fame, money and celebrity status are obvious attractions, but I also think women want to marry men who are at the top of their game; the desire to be a part of that is intoxicating.

J.P.: I’ve covered professional sports for years, and I’d say—conservatively—80 percent of pro athletes engage in some level of infidelity. Do you think most wives of athletes know this is a part of the turf? Did you? And why is it that athletes seem to have such trouble staying loyal—especially after they, literally, took vows to stay loyal?

W.J.C.: I believe there are a multitude of factors at play: they’re young, at the peak of their physical prowess, they’ve reached the point where they have the pick of the litter, so to speak, and they want to take this newly rich, celebrity dick out for a spin. While I knew that opportunity and temptation were part of the turf, I fooled myself into thinking that because Mike and I married in college, weathered the draft, and his rookie season long injury (among other things), well, I was naïve in thinking that we had an impenetrable bond.

At one of his shows Chris Rock said that men are as faithful as their options …

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J.P.: What was the Showtime era like for you? I know it’s a big, broad question—but it just seems like such a magical, all-engrossing, head-spinning period. What are the memories that stand out? The highs? The excitement?

W.J.C.: One word: indescribable. It was fun, intense, exhilarating, painful, hard work and constant sacrifices, but throughout I felt very fortunate, very blessed to be a part of it. As a family we were either gearing up for a storied rival or gritty series, celebrating the victory or mourning what could have been (as we all know, there was more celebrating than mourning—but I digress). Some notable memories: the strong Laker Wives bond; it was a sisterhood and we celebrated, commiserated and supported each other. I love the memories of our shared times, how it hurt to have someone leave the fold via trades, cuts, retirements, injuries, etc; the rejoicing around births, victories, and the feeling of accomplishment from the successes of the Laker Wives club fundraising and other endeavors. One specific standout memory was going into labor with my daughter Simone during the fourth quarter of the last game in the championship series the year that the 76ers swept the Lakers (1983). Michael was signing autographs on the way to the car and we even stopped at Fatburgers en route to Cedar Sinai! There were the championship parades, Mike pointing at me in the stands following the Coop-a-Loops, my oldest son Michael Cooper II getting to serve as a ball boy and playing basketball on the court during halftime.

J.P.: You were married to Michael Cooper for 33 years. How did you guys meet? How did he propose? And what was it that drew you to him?

W.J.C.: We were both attending the University of New Mexico and Michael is a notorious speed demon on the road; we met when he asked if I could “help” him with a ticket (I worked at the municipal court at the time). About a year later I was marrying the shy guy who pronounced beautiful, “boo-tea-full.” Save for morning breath, there wasn’t anything dynamite about the proposal: he rolled over in bed and said, “Let’s get married!?” Thirty-three years later we divorced, but we spent this past Thanksgiving together with our kids … and he still says “boo-tea-full.”

I liked Mike’s work ethic, for instance he’ll work from beginning to end in the trenches at his camps, which surprises everyone because the norm are players showing up to speak a few words and collect a check. He’s very giving (during the 1985-86 NBA season he received the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award for community service). He also has tenacious ambition; he told me in no uncertain terms that someday he’d play in the NBA and I, along with anybody who watched the sport, found that ridiculous—he weighed about 165 pounds soaking wet with shoes on. I liked the bravado, the confidence.

J.P.: You’ve been around fame. You’ve understood and grasped fame. Is fame beautiful, or bullshit? A builder, or a destroyer of souls? Wonderful in doses, or ultimately damning?

W.J.C.: Fame is a tricky bitch; she’s seductive and dangerous, but I think easier to manage if you’re from a stable background and have genuine self-worth and healthy self-esteem. I think that if a famous person is doing well, living the good life with decency, people will look harder for negativity. I have my celebrity favorites and they are always the ones who use their fame for the good and seem to ignore the peanut gallery’s haterade. I’ve been close enough to the fame flame to never seek it or want it to be part my world again.

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J.P.: What’s your story? I know you’re from New Mexico, know you married Michael. But what was your path? Good childhood? Tough childhood? Upbringing? Etc?

W.J.C.: As a military brat I spent eight of my formative years in Europe, but consider New Mexico my home. I’m from a family of nine children and grew up resenting the stares, but my siblings have always been my best friends and that seems to intensify with age. My parents were no-nonsense disciplinarians and even though I don’t recall a lot of demonstrative affection, I knew I was loved. I had a great childhood, we had a lot more freedoms back then to roam and discover … and I had my best friends (siblings) with me. My parents made our vacations through Europe learning experiences and since being such a large family made it cost prohibitive to stay in hotels, we camped out. What adventures we had! They continued the same vacation theme in the States—we went from coast to coast visiting the tourist attractions and my mom, who was an educator, always took the opportunity to teach. We learned what each state was famous and not so famous for, what was their indigenous crop, things of historical significance, whimsical side notes, even highlighting terrain changes. We packed lunches and had roadside picnics—they even made the segregation policies of the south an opportunity to learn and made us aware by testing it in our travels from New Mexico to their respective birthplaces in Alabama.

I don’t recall ever visiting a theme park, but we did experience the wonders of the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe, the Vatican, Sistine Chapel, Colosseum and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. We took tours down the Rhine River and of Hitler’s Eagel’s Nest. At a campsite in Lucerne Switzerland we had to shower from the water of melted snow … you never forget these things. Stateside we fished in the Klamath Falls River in Oregon and went scrimping down in the Mobile Bay We took in the Hoover Damn, the Grand Canyon and the Alamo. We stood outside the White House, visited the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. I could go on forever, but to say that we had an awesome childhood is an understatement and I appreciate it even more in retrospect. Michael and I bought a RV and traveled extensively with our children to provide them with those types of memories.

J.P.: In the book I write a good amount about Chris Riley, Pat Riley’s wife. I used the word “Stepford” to describe some of the wives’ existences—meaning it seems you, as a collective, were expected to raise the kids, make the meals, cheer—but don’t step out of line. It also seems Chris was an overseer, making sure everyone complied. Am I off on this? On? And did you ever feel trapped by the expectations of being Mrs. Michael Cooper? 

W.J.C.: Looking back I personally wish I’d done things differently, taken a lot more time to further my own interests. At the time though I felt fulfilled being the single parent a significant amount of the time. Mike’s schedule was so random, in and out traveling with the team, and even when he was home, a lot of the time he was in his head prepping for a game. Our children knew to keep it down if he was napping before a game or grumpy following a loss. However, I think it’s a little much to label Chris Riley as heavy-handed overseer and in my case she would have been preaching to the choir … I loved my life and felt comfortable as a nurturer and in a supporting role. I would never categorize the Showtime Laker wives as having a Stepford mentality (even though I get why one could get that impression). There were just too many dynamic women on board to fit that label. I think that most of us realized we were a part of something awesome and we were a necessary and much appreciated facet. The Laker organization had a keen ability to draft players that had the best combination of talent and character, and they would put up with no nonsense from any member of the Laker family, including the Laker wives.

J.P.: You work now as a chef/caterer. How did this happen? Were you trained in the field? And what’s your absolute specialty?

W.J.C.: Throughout our marriage I took cooking classes everywhere … in Los Angeles, Santa Fe, Rome. Cooking is my passion, my bliss. I held team parties throughout Michael’s tenure, and they were well received. When we separated I fell back on this love to start a career. I would describe my food as very eclectic; I grew up with Southern soul food from my mother’s family and Cajun creole cuisine from my father’s side. I embraced New Mexican cuisine when we settled in New Mexico and then added some Italian flavor after living in Rome. My food combines all of these influences. I would say that my absolute specialty is gumbo, but I make some mean enchiladas and I love my roasted rosemary chicken over green chili cheese grits.

J.P.: I have young kids. And I see the parents of many of their friends pushing their kids into sports, with the ultimate dream of landing in the NBA or NFL or Major Leagues. I often wonder whether this is wise; whether it’s a dream that, well, lives up to the dream. What says you?

W.J.C.: Athletics at any age provide healthy life lessons and experiences: team work, how to handle winning and losing graciously, exposure to all walks of life, to name only a few. These are life-enriching experiences. But to push your children into sports for the sole purpose of becoming a “pro” may just be setting them up for disappointment (if only statistically speaking).

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J.P.: My last book was about Walter Payton—and, during research, I started to wonder whether his football career was worth the aftermath. What I mean is—a decade of glory, then a lifetime afterward of having tasted the most delicious wine, but never getting another sip. How rough was it for Michael after the spotlight faded? Hell, how rough was it for you? And why is that adjustment so difficult for so many?

W.J.C.: It was during this period that our marriage faltered and we separated. His retirement presented a huge void that most athletes do not prepare for. All of a sudden there’s no prepping for games, roaring applause, never-ending accolades, intense rivalries … I remember looking up and thinking, “Don’t you have a road trip to take?!”

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• Rank in order (favorite to least): Herschel Walker, Bamm-Bamm Rubble, Real Housewives of Miami, Mike Smrek, Marlboro unfiltered, rainbow trout, Dyan Cannon, Staples Center, Amelia Earhart, San Diego Zoo, Meg Ryan: Rainbow trout, Mike Smrek, San Diego, Dyan Cannon, Staples Center, Amelia Earhart, Herschel Walker, Meg Ryan, Bamm-Bamm Rubble, Marlboro unfiltered … Real Housewives of Miami.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yes, I clinched my butt-cheeks and sent out a cosmic “I love you” to my children and family.

• Five nicest Laker players from the Showtime era?: I liked them all, true story.

• Who wins in a fight between you and the lead singer of the Cranberries? How many rounds?: I eat Cranberries for Thanksgiving … two (helpings).

• Would you rather swallow 17 living maggots or legally change your name to Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor?: Call me Ella.

• Best joke you know: Fox News.

• One question you would ask Sammy Hagar were he here right now?: On the rocks or frozen?

• You’re in Starbucks. You need to use the bathroom. There’s someone in the women’s room, but the men’s room is free. Do you use it, or wait?: Trick question: unisex bathrooms.

• Celine Dion calls. She wants you to become her official caterer. She’ll pay $5 million annually, but you have to work 17 hours per day, have three toes amputated and include vanilla, cabbage and one dollop of her saliva in every meal. You in?: Damn. Fame is a tricky bitch!

• Why do you think more people don’t live in fear of inevitable death?: What’s the point?!