Lakers Legend Reluctantly Chooses Larry Bird Over LeBron James

It’s always difficult to compare players from different eras, but that doesn’t prevent NBA fans from debating which player is the greatest of all time. 

Today’s generation of NBA fans generally side with Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James as the GOAT, but go back a few decades and the Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Larry Bird fans might have something to say. Go further back, and there are Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell supporters who will put up a fight.

Former Lakers star Michael Cooper was put to the test during an April 2024 episode on his podcast. He had three players to choose from — LeBron, Bird, and Magic Johnson — and had to start one, bench one, and cut one. In a surprising and agonizing decision, Bird survived the cut.

Cooper called it an “unfair question” when CLNS Media’s Nick Gelso posed it during an episode of the “Showtime With Coop” podcast. It’s a little NBA game seen all over social media that features three legends, and one has to start on your make-believe team, one has to be a reserve, and the other gets tossed off the team. 

Gelso’s three players were two Lakers icons, Magic and LeBron, and one Boston legend, Bird. Cooper played a major role in the 1980s for a Lakers team that won five championships and constantly battled the Celtics for NBA supremacy. He’s admitted he’s never liked the Celtics. He’s also admitted how much he respects Bird after having the unenviable task of guarding him throughout his career.

That made Gelso’s question even more difficult to answer. Cooper agonized over the decision, but decided to keep Bird and cut LeBron.

“Now that’s a hard one,” Cooper told Gelso.“I’m going to get myself in trouble here. I gotta go with my boy. I’m starting Magic. I gotta start my boy because Magic’s going to make everybody better.”

Then Cooper paused.

“This is an unfair question, Nick,” he said. “I’m old school. I gotta bench Bird, and I gotta cut LeBron.”

While Magic and Abdul-Jabbar got most of the headlines for the Lakers during the 1980s, Cooper did most of the dirty work. Cooper was a defensive specialist and was always assigned the task of trying to contain Bird. Bird once said that Cooper was the only player who could really shut him down.

In each year of the ’80s, either the Celtics or Lakers played in the NBA Finals. They squared off against each other three times. The Lakers won five titles in the decade, and the Celtics claimed three championships. It was a heated rivalry between the two teams filled with a genuine hatred for each other.

Cooper’s respect for Bird obviously continues these days, choosing him over James.

That hurts,” he said about keeping Bird over LeBron. “It really hurts. I almost cut Larry. LeBron is a beast, man. Listen, you know when coaches have to release a player and stuff like that? I would be crying, ‘LeBron, I am so sorry.’ 

“‘LeBron, I love you to death, but I’ve gotta cut you.’”

Cooper was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2024.

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