Jerry West, as a player and exec, sustained excellence during a lifetime of emotional struggle

The night his Los Angeles Lakers, finally, would return to their place of glory atop the NBA, Jerry West would not be in attendance.

“Oh, I won’t be there,” he told me on the phone, referring to what was then called Staples Center.

Wait, what?

The 1999-2000 Lakers, the team West had, at the cost of his nerves and health, put together for this very purpose, winning L.A.’s first hoops title in more than a decade, were a game away from conquering the Indiana Pacers in the finals. They would be coronated on their home floor. It would be the franchise’s first championship since 1988. It would be the culmination of West’s singular quest, having moved heaven and earth and most of the existing roster to get both Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant on the same team, and having swallowed his own pride to bring Phil Jackson in to coach. It would be marvelous.

And it would be done without West’s presence.

This wasn’t new for West. Such moments, now that he no longer could bring his prodigious talents to the court and impact winning games as a player, drove him to severe distraction. During Lakers home games, he would often drive around town instead. Sometimes, he’d check in to Chick Hearn’s mellifluous voice to see how things were going. That night, though, he kept the car stereo silent. He drove up the Ventura Freeway to Santa Barbara, a hundred miles north of the city.

“I told my friend Bobby Freedman only to call me if there was good news,” West wrote in his searing autobiography, “West by West.”

It wasn’t because he didn’t care, of course. It was because he cared so very, very much.

West’s death Wednesday at 86 caused more than one person around the league to choke up.

“It’s a very sad day,” said West’s contemporary and fellow Hall of Famer, Oscar Robertson, on the phone Wednesday afternoon.

West was, for decades, the personification of the sport. Few people’s counsel was more courted, so synonymous was he with the dogged, relentless pursuit of excellence. He was part of a dynasty as a player that couldn’t solve the Celtics, and then built dynasties as an executive that finally did. He was a 14-time All-Star and 12-time All-NBA selection. Two Lakers behemoths were built on his watch as the team’s general manager: the Magic Johnson-led squad that captured five titles in the 1980s, then the O’Neal-Bryant squads that laid down a three-peat between 2000 and 2003.

As Red Auerbach did for the Celtics, 3,000 miles east, West constantly was at the center of teardowns and rebirths of the Lakers. Decade after decade, the Lakers continued to matter in the NBA, riding Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic and James Worthy through the ’80s, just as Boston continued to pile up the banners after the end of the Bill Russell Era, through John Havlicek, Jo Jo White and Dave Cowens in the 1970s, then Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson. The Cs are currently hunting their 18th NBA title in their finals series this year with the Dallas Mavericks; the Lakers, their last title coming in the Orlando Bubble in 2020, are tied with the Celtics at 17.

I ranked Auerbach one and West two on my all-time list of NBA executives in 2017 for Nothing’s changed my mind in the intervening years. They were the ultimate architects, with Auerbach’s intimidating tactics and amazing motivational ability serving as the mechanical rabbit at a dog racing track, as West chased after the Celtics for a generation.

“I secretly liked and admire Red’s brazen ways, and he is one of the coaches I would have loved to compete for,” West wrote. “. … Red was the figure everyone loved to hate, and he didn’t mind it one bit. He didn’t mind being the villain. He would be anything you wanted him to be as long as it helped the Celtics win.”

But West doesn’t take a back seat to anyone when it comes to talent evaluation. He was the best ever. No former superstar as a player was in more gyms in more small towns and in more countries than West was, year after year, trying to find the next great talent. He didn’t get stuck in nostalgia; he still got excited about current players. He raved about Terance Mann when Mann was a little-known second-round pick playing for the Clippers in the Vegas Summer League in 2019.

He kept his own counsel about who, and what, he liked.

“It’s not so much trust,” he told me once. “I just think if you ask 10 people, you’re going to get more than one opinion. If you ask five people, you’re going to get more than one opinion. I’d rather not confuse myself by asking 10 people.”

Like Auerbach, West had eternal swag, the way Dr. J and Pat Riley and only a handful of aging luminaries still do. He was still in high demand after he left the Lakers in 2000, moving on to executive roles with the Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors and LA Clippers well into his 80s. It was West’s steadfast refusal to sign off on a proposed trade of Klay Thompson for Kevin Love in 2014 that kept Golden State’s ownership from pulling the trigger, and kept the Splash Brothers from being split up before they went on their franchise-changing championship run.

You still felt his crackling intensity in person, or on the phone. Well into middle age, I’d still get goose bumps when my phone would ring and the caller ID would identify who was on the other line. (He was “TLogo” in my contacts list, for obvious reasons.) He would always answer pleasantly: “David? Jerry West.”

As if it could have been someone else.

He was, given his pedigree, humble and deferential about his own successes. West was venerated for the 60-footer he hit at the end of regulation of Game 3 of the 1970 finals against New York to tie the game and send it into overtime. All West remembered, though, is that the Knicks won 111-108 in OT. He averaged an astounding 46.3 points per game in the Lakers’ Western Division series victory over Baltimore in 1965, which is still the record for highest average in a single postseason series.

He could be caustic and cutting about today’s players, the state of the game, David Stern and anyone else who didn’t measure up to his standards at a given moment. He could be withering about his own team. But if they weren’t winning doing it their way, he had very little patience for them. The portrayal of him in the HBO miniseries “Winning Time” was an ugly caricature of his manic intensity, one that made his friends and colleagues justifiably angry. He wasn’t someone who foamed at the mouth and spent his days trashing the offices at The Forum in some blinding rage. He didn’t big-time people.

And if anyone could have done so without argument, it was him.

But no one wanted to win more than Jerry West, and he spent his whole life proving it.

He won state titles in high school in West Virginia, at East Bank High School – which, every March 24, the day East Bank won the title in 1956, renames itself “West Bank” for a day in his honor. He won at West Virginia University, where he led the Mountaineers to the NCAA national championship game in 1959, which WVU lost by one point to the University of California, 71-70. He won on the celebrated 1960 U.S. Olympic team, a team just as dominant as the Dream Team would be 32 years later. The 1960 team won its eight games in Rome at the Summer Games by an average of 42.4 points per game. West, Robertson, Walt Bellamy, Jerry Lucas and coach Pete Newell all were inducted individually into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, as was the 1960 team itself as a unit, in 2010.

“We just melded right away,” Robertson said. “Pete Newell was the coach, and he put our starting five together. And we knew what was at stake, because we were all there to make the Olympic team. Jerry was a nice guy. Matter of fact, I knew him through Adrian Smith (who also played on the 1960 Olympic team). I met him through Adrian. He was there with the U.S. Army team. I’m sure our backgrounds sort of paralleled each other, because of where Jerry came from and I came from, we didn’t have anything except basketball.”

The word tortured is often used to describe West. Indeed. Demons, which took root during a difficult and lonely childhood in his native West Virginia, where his imagination was his best friend and he shot thousands of shots so that he wouldn’t have to return home, ate at him throughout his life. There was little love in the West home, and physical abuse of the children at the hand of their father. Jerry West was driven, in the best and worst sense of that word, to strive, to chase perfection, to be hollowed out by defeat and only briefly salved by victory.

“I am, if I may say so, an enigma (even to myself, especially to myself), and an obsessive, someone whose mind ranges far and wide and returns to the things that, for better or worse, hold me in their thrall,” West wrote in his book.

West played on the first great L.A. team, after its move from Minneapolis, in 1960, alongside fellow future Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor. They made pro basketball on the West Coast, setting a standard of excellence that was held off only by Auerbach, Bill Russell and the Celtics.

Six times during West’s playing career, the Lakers and Celtics met in the championship series. Six times, Boston defeated L.A. The last time, in 1969, West was named the finals MVP, becoming the only player to ever receive the award while on the losing team. The Lakers also played the Knicks in the finals three times between 1970 and 1973. Only in 1972 did West’s team win, giving him one NBA title in nine tries.

“It was great to compete against Jerry,” Robertson said. “Jerry was a tremendous athlete. I don’t know about other guys, but I love playing against great basketball players. Because you have to improve your basketball yourself. You don’t know where you are until you play against great basketball players. And Jerry was, no doubt about it, one of the best of all. I thought Jerry was a great basketball player, great shooter.”

But West could be as stubborn as he was talented.

When the NBA, with great fanfare and not insignificant calling in of decades-long chits, brought its 50 greatest players of all time to All-Star Weekend in Cleveland in 1997, 47 of the 49 living players attended. (Pete Maravich had died in 1988 while playing a pickup game, at age 40; O’Neal was recovering from knee surgery.) West was the only one who didn’t come. At the time, the reason given was that he had just undergone a recent surgery.

The surgery part was true. But that’s not why he didn’t show up. He didn’t show because he was angry with the Orlando Magic, who had accused him of tampering with O’Neal while he was still under contract with the Magic in order to secure Shaq as a free agent.

West was famously blown away by Bryant’s workout for the Lakers before the 1996 draft, and schemed with his close friend, Bryant’s agent, Arn Tellem, to get Bryant to the West Coast. When West was in your corner, you’d never have a fiercer advocate.

There was the famous story, that Lakers executive Mitch Kupchak re-told many years later, of how the Lakers took Vlade Divac in the 1989 draft, with West the single, lone voice opting for the Serbian center over the objections of everyone else in the front office.

“We all picked the other guy,” Kupchak said. “I think it was (Missouri center) Gary Leonard. We all agree. Then (West) leans down into the mic, which was hooked up to New York so that we can announce our choice. Our guy up there was Hampton Mears. And Jerry says, ‘Hampton’ – he’s looking at us when he says this – he says, ‘Hampton, the Lakers take Divac.’ The three of us were like, ‘Why are we even here?’ And he says, ‘He’s just too damned talented to pass on.’ And he walked out of the room.”

As ever, the Logo was alone, with his thoughts, his doggedness and imagination, once again, having served him well.

Required reading

• What was Jerry West really like? On the phone with him, the NBA universe opened up
Reactions to Jerry West’s death pour in: ‘A basketball genius’
NBA75: West was ‘Mr. Clutch’ and forever will be brutally honest about himself

(Photo of Jerry West and Oscar Robertson: Vernon Biever / NBAE via Getty Images)

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