Once the finality settled in, the emotions overwhelmed Jerry West.
He labored all season to determine whether he could clear enough cap space to acquire Shaquille O’Neal. Finally, that moment came. West compared the experience to the birth of his children. Securing O’Neal to a seven-year, $120-million deal tilted the NBA’s balance in the Lakers’ favor. West envisioned O’Neal bringing two things that the Lakers value -- a Hollywood personality and NBA championships.
Yet West’s perfectionist nature didn’t allow him to fully enjoy the moment.
“When the fruition of it came, I was exhausted,” West told The Times in the past year. “I had to go to the hospital. I don’t sleep a lot anyway and have a very inquisitive mind. When you’re like that, it creates more problems for you.”
Discussion of West’s efforts to help the Lakers secure O’Neal is timely. It’s been 16 years since Shaq’s arrival in L.A., a move that prompted The Times’ headline “Lakers Hit the Shaqpot.” The Lakers are now in talks to acquire Dwight Howard, another Orlando Magic center nicknamed “Superman.” And both circumstances show how the sausage-making process of trade negotiations can be tiring.
That hardly deterred West from relentlessly pushing forward, thus setting up the Lakers to win three NBA championships.
“Working with Jerry Buss, he was so encouraging in the sense of ‘Let’s do something big,’ ” West said. “We were fortunately in the position to get ourselves in the Shaquille O’Neal derby. But a lot of things had to break right. And they did.”
That required West to make some bold moves.
On June 26, draft day, the Lakers traded starting center Vlade Divac to Charlotte, a move that secured a player named Kobe Bryant and enough room to offer O’Neal a seven-year, $95-million offer. O’Neal recalled in his recent autobiography that he was ready to take the deal, but the Magic immediately topped the offer.
That didn’t deter West. He persuaded the former Vancouver Grizzlies to take Anthony Peeler and George Lynch, enabling the Lakers to offer O’Neal a deal worth $120 million.
“If you’re competitive and you want something, you’re going to try to find a way to get it,” West said. “You realize certain players can make a significant impact on your winning and losing.”
But West believes another team planted the notion that the Lakers somehow tampered at some point during the O’Neal negotiations. West then became aware that the NBA was looking into that notion. That angered him so much that he skipped out on 1997 NBA All-Star weekend, though the event was to include West as one of the league’s 50 greatest players.
Still, West expressed appreciation for Buss’ giving him full support. “You cannot win without players,” West said. “I don’t care if it’s Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Red Auerbach, whoever. If you don’t have players, you’re not going to win. You might be better organized. You might be very competitive. But you’re not going to win. It just doesn’t happen that way. So you’re always trying to attract the very best talent for Los Angeles.”