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    Alexander: Jerry West’s indelible impact on Southern California
    • June 12, 2024

    Jerry West taught multiple generations of Southern Californians various lessons through the years.

    For children of the ’60s, his and the Lakers’ struggles through the decade against the Boston Celtics reminded us that life wasn’t fair, and valiant effort wasn’t necessarily its own reward. What else could you divine from someone who was named MVP twice of postseasons in which his team lost (the 1960 NCAA Tournament and the 1969 NBA Finals)?

    For those who came of age in the ’80s, and then the first decade of this century, watching the teams built by West the executive and the championship celebrations that followed reminded us how much fun winning could be, and it probably spoiled us more than a little bit.

    West, who died early Wednesday morning at the age of 86, was equal parts superstar and tragic figure as a player. Thanks to the late Chick Hearn’s words-eye view, we knew him as “Mr. Clutch,” the guy in whose hands you wanted the ball at the end of a close game. (He hated that nickname, by the way). He became The Logo, the model for the NBA’s insignia.

    He soldiered on despite frequent injuries, including nine broken noses. That year he won MVP of the NBA Finals despite losing? He injured his hamstring and had to be carried off the floor in the waning moments of Game 5 at the Forum. Then he played in Games 6 and 7, with the hamstring heavily taped and after cross-country flights in each case. After what turned out to be a sixth loss to Bill Russell and the Celtics in that decade, even Boston players felt sorry for him.

    And West also showed us that the rewards eventually come if you persevere. West finally won a championship as a player in 1972, the Lakers’ first title in Los Angeles, and the irony is that the player who is fifth in career playoff scoring (29.1 points a game) and No. 1 in all-time Finals points (1,679 to LeBron James’ 1,562) had his worst Finals in that triumphant moment.

    Then, after retiring, he came back as the team’s coach for three seasons in the late ’70s, only to realize he hated the job – and he really wasn’t bad at it, with a 145-101 record, but said during a 1995 interview, “I was in the process of a lot of terrible personal things in my life, and emotionally I couldn’t do it. I was too angry, too immature. It wasn’t something that really excited me. … I didn’t have any fun with it, and I didn’t do the right thing for our players.”

    But West then had a magnificent third act as an executive and talent evaluator.

    He was a scout and consultant for the first two titles of the Showtime era, succeeded Bill Sharman as the Lakers’ general manager in 1982 and augmented the Magic Johnson/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar roster by adding James Worthy, Michael Cooper and A.C. Green and trading for Byron Scott. (And don’t forget that West resisted, vehemently and to the point of risking his job, a proposal from owner Jerry Buss to trade Worthy to Dallas for Mark Aguirre and Roy Tarpley in 1986.)

    He walked away from the Lakers in August of 2000, one year into the Phil Jackson era and four years after bringing Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant to L.A. The pursuit of O’Neal as a free agent in the summer of 1996 forced West to check into the hospital from exhaustion when it was over.

    “Emotionally, every day we were on edge,” he told us on the first day of training camp in Hawaii in 1996, watching O’Neal go through his first Lakers workout. “It’s almost like you’re betting your life that you’re going to be able to get something done.”

    Bottom line? West helped assemble two of the NBA’s great dynasties, and if you want to find the roots of Laker Exceptionalism, there they are.

    Maybe West’s post-playing career was God’s version of a makeup call. He earned nine championship rings overall: Seven with the Lakers (’72 as a player, ’80 and ’82 as a scout/executive, ’85, ’87, 88 and 2000 as general manager), and two more in 2015 and ’17 as a consultant with the Golden State Warriors, before he left that organization to join the Clippers as a consultant.

    Consider that West, already inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 1979, was voted in as a contributor in April and will be honored posthumously for a record third time. Additionally, he was an Olympic gold medal winner, in 1960 in Rome, for which he and the team were inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010.

    He was a 14-time All-Star and a 12-time All-NBA selection. As noted, he’s No. 1 in NBA Finals points, including the memorable 63-foot heave at the end of Game 3 of the 1970 Finals against the Knicks to tie a game that the Lakers, naturally, lost in overtime.

    “He was the Michael Jordan of our day,” said the late Rod Hundley, a former teammate at West Virginia and with the Lakers and later the Utah Jazz play-by-play announcer.

    Amazingly, West won only two NBA Executive of the Year awards, in 1995 with the Lakers and 2004 with the Memphis Grizzlies after leaving the Lakers. And before that ’95 vote, then-Utah Jazz executive Scott Layden paid him the ultimate compliment:

    “I don’t think we should insult Jerry West by giving him executive of the year. I think we should name the award after him.”

    Maybe the league will do so now.

    There was this about Jerry West, as well: Few superstars – indeed, few accomplished people in any profession – were as self-effacing. Maybe it was an outgrowth of his turbulent home life while growing up, and it’s probably no accident that the subtitle of his autobiography was “My Charmed, Tormented Life,” but he often seemed almost embarrassed by praise and honors.

    He talked in a 1995 interview of being a perfectionist – “a horrible burden because you’re not really satisfied with anything” – and about preferring not to dwell on the past or reminisce about his accomplishments or memories. During that interview, in his office in The Forum, he explained the plaques and pictures and framed jersey on the walls this way:

    “When someone walks into your office, they expect you to have some basketball memorabilia up. If you went into my house you’d never know I ever played basketball.”

    Years later, during a speech in 2017, he elaborated.

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    “No matter what people write, no matter what people say, no one knows what goes on inside you. Honestly, it’s sometimes really embarrassing for me. People make a fuss over me over things I’ve been involved in. I didn’t choose to do what I did in my life. It chose me. I had a skill – I didn’t know I had a skill – and I had a mind. I had a heart.

    “There’s a quote from Carl Sandberg that somebody sent me years ago … Nothing happens unless a person dreams. I was a dreamer. Having an opportunity to talk about my life, hopefully it’ll inspire someone, somewhere along the way.”

    That, too, is a lesson.

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    ​ Orange County Register