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Memphis’ Clutch Move

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jerry West is gone for good--that’s twice now, in two years--and the fact is, Mitch Kupchak’s professional life won’t change at all.

Kupchak has managed the Lakers’ basketball operations since the day West could no longer stand it, since the day he walked exhausted and tortured from the job he held and tried to love for 17 years.

After slipping into and out of basketball arenas for the better part of half-a-year, West emerged Tuesday afternoon at a podium in Memphis, Tenn., where he was named president of Michael Heisley’s Grizzlies, a job that promises to be thankless well into West’s multiyear contract.

That means West may no longer serve the Lakers’ organization as a consultant, a part-time job that brought him an annual salary of $1 million. And that means Kupchak may no longer sit beside West in a gym in Portsmouth, Va., and openly discuss which player would earn the right to come to Los Angeles and sit at the end of Phil Jackson’s bench for three years.

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That seems a minor adjustment to a relationship built over more than two decades.

“Two years ago, our relationship changed, because I didn’t get to work with a person I worked with on a daily basis for 14 years,” Kupchak said. “Today, once again, our relationship changes to a degree. As far as being a confidante, I’m not sure how much I can share with him regarding Laker basketball anymore. It was something I felt comfortable doing for many, many years. On a personal level, the last two years, as you know he didn’t have an office. He came in once a month [or so] to pick up his mail. There were times when we spoke twice a week and times we didn’t speak for three or four weeks. In fact, a lot of the deals we’ve done he didn’t know about, or was out of the country when we did them. So, we functioned for two years really without Jerry being intimately involved.

“He was never put in a position of, ‘What would you do if...?’ It was clearly, ‘What do you think of this player? What do you think of that player?’ The feeling was, personally, that decisions were not something he wanted to get involved with. That’s kind of what drove him to the point where he felt he had to retire. That’s the toughest part of this job, making decisions. And, it’s a public decision. That’s really what drove him to the point where he thought he had to get out.”

Kupchak reveres West as a basketball man, as an evaluator and seer and projector of talent, both young and mature. But, while West was highly valued and, as one executive said this week, thought of as “royalty” in an organization whose color is gold, no one’s knees buckled on Tuesday.

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“Mitch can absolutely handle the business that’s going on with this ballclub,” said Kurt Rambis, Kupchak’s assistant until joining Jackson’s staff this season. “It doesn’t cripple the organization. It’s a loss. [West] was a sounding board. [But] he’s left the organization in a pretty good situation. There’s some good ballplayers here right now. The crippling aspect will come when Shaq decides to retire.

“Whatever the perception was about Jerry, Mitch has been running things.”

Said Jackson: “Jerry wasn’t a presence around us. He hasn’t been around for two years, literally [since] when he retired two summers ago. He rode on the team plane one time last year. He’s never been at a practice situation, and he’s never come down to the locker room. We know that he’s at games occasionally ... [but] his direct influence has really not been there since he retired.”

When West decided it was time he returned to the game, the Lakers did not attempt to create a position for him, and he did not ask. West spoke at length recently with team owner Dr. Jerry Buss, at the end of which Buss let him out of his contract. That was all.

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“Actually,” Buss said, “he hasn’t done a great deal in the last couple of years for the Lakers.”

Besides, whatever it was that West left Bel Air for, the Lakers probably could not provide it. For as long as Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant are healthy and interested, the Lakers’ summers will be tune-up jobs and exercises in salary-cap management.

“If you know Jerry, he’s probably happiest when things aren’t going well,” Kupchak said. “I don’t think I’m saying anything people here don’t know. When the team here in Los Angeles was at his peak, he probably was most unhappy. The happiest I’ve seen him is when he was rebuilding this team in the ‘90s, with Eddie Jones, Nick Van Exel, Anthony Peeler, Elden Campbell, [Vlade] Divac, the whole thing of rebuilding.”

West wanted more, an overhaul, a place where there are big decisions to be made and challenges to be had. Running the Lakers again might have meant running himself into the same plot of ground, and that made no sense to anyone.

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“Jerry Buss made it possible for me to be able to leave,” West said. “I never broached that subject with him, because it wasn’t important. The most important thing was for me to be involved and be busy. I would also tell you that I would never put Jerry Buss or Mitch Kupchak in a position where I would go there and say, ‘Look, I want to go to work again.’ That would be the worst thing in the world to have happen. I’m extremely proud of my association with the Lakers. I’m grateful for what they’ve done for me and my family, but I would never put anyone in that position.”

Also, Kupchak, who studied for 14 years under West, has done a sound job.

He is conservative by nature, but acted quickly in acquiring Lindsey Hunter in the hours after Derek Fisher was found to have refractured his foot last summer. He convinced Samaki Walker to accept less money with the Lakers than he might have received with another team, thereby covering the loss of Horace Grant.

Small items, for sure, but nothing major was required.

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“I don’t like to think I contributed anything to Mitch,” West said. “He and I are great friends and he’s going to stand on his own. He’s really, really good. I’m surprised that people haven’t beat the doors down for him, and I have been for years. He’s done a great job. Jerry Buss is the best owner you could have, as far as I’m concerned, because he’s a real partner. He wanted you to be fiscally responsible. That’s what the Lakers have done. Mitch has had some tough areas to get through to get to that point in time.”

Now they’ll stand side by side, but foes for the first time. After an emotional farewell Tuesday morning at LAX, West and Kupchak both will attend an NBA pre-draft workout for Yao Ming, the 7-foot-6 center from China, today in Chicago.

“Nothing really changes,” Kupchak said. “I’ll probably talk to Jerry more now.”


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