Michael Cooper knows a little something about former LA Laker star Magic Johnson. He helped Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers win five NBA titles over the course of his 12-year career.
Now, Cooper goes into his second season as the head coach of the Atlanta Dream with a second-year player he nicknamed after Magic “Showtime” Johnson: Shoni “Showtime” Schimmel. “Shoni really puts you at awe,” Cooper told ICTMN. “I played with Magic for 12 years, and I’ve been with Shoni for one. She has that same ability Magic had. She sees the floor. She knows what’s going on. She’s a student of the game. Now at this level, she takes what we’re trying to teach, and makes it happen out there on the floor.”
“I think we had the steal of the  draft,” Cooper said. “Knowing what they know now and how she can play at this level, I guarantee you if we had the draft all over again Shoni could have possibly been the No. 1 pick.” As it turned out, Schimmel was the eighth pick overall in the draft, and electrified the WNBA in her first season with the Dream, which won the Eastern Conference before losing in the first round of the playoffs.
Schimmel tied a franchise record with 11 assists in her debut game as a member of the Dream, and had 17 points in her first start. She later had a season high 24 points against Phoenix, and set a new All-Star Game-scoring record with 29 points en route to earning the MVP award.
Michael Cooper played with Magic Johnson and the LA Lakers. He is one of the most successful coaches in the WNBA's history, ranking second in the career winning percentage. (Courtesy Atlanta Dream)
Cooper chuckled when the topic of 25-foot 3-point shots or floor length passes came up; knowing the original Showtime (Magic) must have put legendary Lakers coach Pat Riley through the same feelings on the sidelines. “To see Shoni make some of the passes she does is amazing. She made some passes this past season that made me shake my head,” Cooper said. “She sees things before they happen. She puts the ball where they’re supposed to be and not where they are. That’s a rare ability and not many people can do that.”
Schimmel has a flare for the dramatic. Her don’t take-no-stuff, rez ball game makes it fun to watch her on the floor. But it’s her humility, the way she handles herself and how she represents Indian Country is what has come to impress Cooper most.
“She’s a very humble young lady. Her unique ability is special for this league,” said Cooper. “I think Shoni understands that and she carries a big burden on her shoulders. When Indian people come out to see her, we as an organization want them to see good basketball too. She’s kind of like a rock star coming to town. It’s like our days with the Lakers; people came to see Magic. But after awhile it was like, ‘I’m going to see Cooper,’ ‘I’m going to see Kareem,’ or whomever. They might be coming to see Shoni, but they’re seeing other good players and a good basketball team.”
Last year, more than 4,000 Shoni fans traveled to support the rookie sensation when Atlanta played against the Seattle Storm. It was the first time in three years she had played in an organized game near Portland, Oregon where she grew up on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation. The People came to see one player, and it was the only game that sold out all season: 9,100 Natives were in the house. “Native Americans have never had a player like this, that has achieved the success she has. I love it, and I think that is all part of the lore and what makes Shoni Schimmel so special.”
But, like everyone else in the league, Schimmel still has to prove she deserves her place at the table.
“That no-fear factor in her game is kind of unique because first-year players need time to adjust to this league. But she’s just another rookie and there are areas to improve,” said Cooper, who coached team East in the 2014 All-Star game. “Her conditioning is going to be very important. She just needs to remember this is now a job and her longevity in this league is dependent on how hard she works. I’m not worried about that; sometimes she needs to take a step back and take a breather.”