Jerry West was brilliant at building championship Laker teams but terrible at calming down long enough to watch them play. Sometimes he’d pace nervously. Other times he’d leave the building, get in his car and drive somewhere. Anywhere.
“One time, in a championship game I didn’t have a good feeling about, I just took off,” he said of his anxious exit before the Lakers clinched a six-game victory over Indiana in 2000. “I’m way past Paso Robles, up there. A friend of mine called me and asked if we had won or lost. I had no idea of the score.”
These days, West is comfortable sitting courtside at Staples Center to enjoy the evolution of another team he has helped shape. He’s a regular presence at Clipper games, regal and straight-backed at 81, still the iconic Logoman but never trapped in the past, always forward-thinking and willing to adapt to a changing game.
In his third season as an advisor to the Clippers’ front-office executives, West is having the time of his life. He respects the basketball-only focus he has seen from Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, praises the dedication of reserves Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, and admires Coach Doc Rivers’ ability to keep players pulling together while they collectively adjust to the arrival of Leonard and George. West likes their assets and, above that, their attitude.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a team like this since I’ve been in the league — we’ve got four guys on the team that are capable of scoring and averaging 20 points a night,” West said recently.
“I see a team that is really talented. It’s got all the ingredients that you would want to have for a team that would be at the top of the mountain, and I think that’s all you can hope for. I’ve been with a lot of teams and had some great bunch of guys and everything. You’re never going to find a nicer group of people than these. Never. Great people. And that in itself is refreshing because there are no side dramas here.”
In praising Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, West bestowed perhaps the highest compliment he’s capable of giving: West compared Ballmer to Jerry Buss, the longtime Lakers owner with whom West had a long and close relationship.
“Steve is a breath of fresh air. He’s like a Jerry Buss: he’s a people person, he’s a man of the people, and he has that enormous success for himself, but the trust he puts in our coaching staff and our staff is amazing,” West said. “And he is just as down to earth, with all the success he’s had, with all the giving he does. I think that’s what sets him apart. He’s just a great guy …
“We have a large staff and everyone has a piece of the action. People are not isolated at all. It’s not secretive. Stuff just rolls off of his back, but he wants to win and he provides enormous encouragement. Risk taking, which you have to do, and I’ve always felt the best risk-takers do the best. And he acquiesces to the final decision maker, and that’s Lawrence [Frank, director of basketball operations], which to me is really positive when you’re working with an owner. It’s a very healthy situation.”
West has had no active tie to the Lakers since his son Ryan left them earlier this year after a decade as a scout and director of player personnel. Ryan is scouting for the Clippers on a contract basis; another son, Jonnie, is the Golden State Warriors’ director of basketball operations. Of course, a statue of West stands outside Staples Center and his retired Lakers No. 44 jersey hangs in the rafters, though it’s covered during Clipper games along with all other reminders that other team shares the building.
West watches the Lakers and has been impressed with their start, along with the early performances of Toronto and Milwaukee. “LeBron James, just watching him play, here’s a player that could possibly play into his 40s if he still has the competitive desire,” West said. “He’s been remarkable this year and it’s been a tribute to him. He takes pride in what he does. He’s a generational player. And they’ve added Anthony Davis, who’s a terrific player himself and even better put on a team with LeBron.”
“I think the Lakers are really good. But I would take our chances against any team in the league,” West said. “When this team is fully put together, when our coaches know our players, I would not bet against this team, period.”
The only negative he has seen related to the Clippers is that George’s recovery from shoulder surgery and Leonard’s carefully managed playing time have delayed players’ adjustment to a new system and to each other. Keeping role players happy and finding effective combinations will take time. But West has no quarrel with using load management to preserve Leonard’s strength.
“There’s a real science to it and unless you know a little bit about it, it’s hard sometimes to understand how and why it might be necessary in today’s game,” West said. “It would have been something to know a little bit more about your body at a little bit earlier age in your life and it probably would have helped a lot of players during our era to have the knowledge of don’t stick a needle in and then go play.”
Asked how long he’d like to continue in his current role, West reacted with his usual lack of ego. He has never been impressed with himself and his Hall of Fame accomplishments, and that’s not about to change. “First of all, someone has to want you,” he said. “I’m not a person, I’ve never been a person, to assume that someone wanted me. Ever. Except when I was a player. I knew they wanted me. And then being involved in the front office with Jerry Buss. He made me feel special.”
What West is doing now with the Clippers, at this stage of his life is special, too. Better still, he’s calm enough to enjoy it as it unfolds in front of him.