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Lakers great Michael Cooper diagnosed with cancer

Jul 21, 2014, 6:22 PM EDT

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Marc Gasol’s 2013 Defensive Player of the Year award has been hailed as a breakthrough for advanced ways of thinking about basketball.

Gasol averaged just 7.8 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and 1.0 steals per game that season – hardly the typical per-game defensive numbers that catch the eye of award voters. But Gasol impressed so much through his subtle contributions, he won the award anyway.

However, Gasol wasn’t actually the first player to win Defensive Player of the Year that way.

In 1987, Michael Cooper averaged even fewer rebounds, blocks and steals per game and took the honor. In an era when traditional stats more accurately predicted award voting, Cooper’s lockdown defense couldn’t be overlooked. His impact on the game was truly special.

Cooper, who won five championships in 12 years with the Lakers, now coaches the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream.

The Dream released a statement:

The WNBA Atlanta Dream announced today that head coach Michael Cooper has been diagnosed with early stage tongue cancer, and will take a temporary leave of absence from the team.

Cooper will undergo a surgical procedure this week at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University in Atlanta. Typical recovery time for the procedure is two weeks. A full recovery is anticipated following the surgical procedure. During Cooper’s absence from the team, assistant coach Karleen Thompson will assume head coaching duties. Per team policy, no further details will be disclosed.

“The doctors and staff at Emory have been tremendous, and I know I’m in good hands,” said Cooper. “I’m fortunate that my condition was diagnosed early, and this episode illustrates the importance of screening and early detection. I know the team will be in good hands with Coach Thompson at the helm during my absence, and I look forward to returning to the court soon.”

Hopefully, Cooper makes a speedy and full recovery.

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