Never Forget Jerry West. Even If His Team Did.

Another NBA legend has left us before the championship trophy will be awarded.  CBS SPORTS.COM’s Chris Bengel was among the many that broke the news yesterday:

Jerry West, a former NBA champion who was immortalized in the NBA logo, died at the age of 86 … West will go down as one of the largest contributors to the game of basketball after making his mark on the sport for several decades. The Hall of Fame guard won the 1972 NBA title as a player and then won eight more as an executive. West set up the blueprint for the Los Angeles Lakers‘ 10 championship teams in the 1980s and 2000s.  

West leaves behind an iconic legacy when it comes to the sport of basketball. As a result, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, franchise legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, NBA commissioner Adam Silver, and many others paid tribute to the star player and executive on social media.

Those that eulogized West with such eloquence and passion no doubt already knew the impact that he made on the game itself, far beyond even his run with the Lakers that spanned pretty much the first four decades of its existence on the appropriately named West Coast:

Before reaching the NBA, West was a standout in the state of West Virginia as he dominated the high school ranks before landing at the University of West Virginia as a collegiate player. West is the Mountaineers’ all-time leading scorer with 2,309 points and had his No. 44 retired by the school. After a legendary career at the collegiate level, West was selected by the Minneapolis Lakers as the No. 2 pick in the 1960 NBA Draft… West served as the co-captain on the 1960 United States Olympic men’s basketball team, while also appearing in 14 NBA All-Star Games.

But what may have been the summative statement on how beloved and revered West was this one that Bengel also shared:

We are overwhelmed by the love, support, and appreciation we have received from friends, colleagues, and basketball fans around the world,” West’s family said in a statement shared by the Clippers. “Jerry took incredible pride in his life-long association with the NBA. He felt fortunate to have been a player, coach, and executive during a time of explosive growth in the league. Above all else, Jerry cherished the close friendships and mentorships he formed with his teammates, coaches and players throughout his 64-year-career. We want to thank you, basketball fans everywhere, for supporting him. You fueled his burning desire to win — he did it for you.”

That’s right, the Clippers.  The Lakers’ inter-city arch-rivals and his most recent employer.  An ironic reality not lost on the city’s most experienced sports scribe Bill Plaschke, who was compelled to underscore it in this morning’s LOS ANGELES TIMES:

The sadness was compounded by the strangeness. The announcement of the death of the greatest Laker was made by the Clippers

He was their conscience. He was their heartbeat. He was their soul. He was the most important person to ever walk through their gym doors.

But in the end, for a variety of reasons, the basketball genius and his creation were estranged.

West walked away from the Lakers 24 years ago and never returned.

It was always so bizarre, the best executive in the history of sports living down the street from an organization he helped build into the most celebrated in sports … and yet they didn’t talk.

The Lakers struggled after the trade of Shaquille O’Neal while West watched from Memphis. The Lakers were adrift in the final years of Kobe Bryant while West watched from Golden State. The Lakers were buckling in the early years of LeBron James while West watched from the Clippers.

He was so close, yet so far.

The Lakers honored him with a statue in 2011 in an event attended by owner Jerry Buss and all sorts of Lakers royalty. But they continued along separate paths until his death Wednesday poignantly reminded everyone of their divorce.

West cited numerous reasons why that occurred, a number of which Plaschke recounted.  Perhaps the most revealing was this recounting of what was going through West’s mind just as the return to glory was completed, with the brand new then-Staples Center as the de facto House That West Built:

“Everything around here has taken its toll,” he told me at the time. “You see my outside, but you don’t see my inside, and it’s just awful in there. This compulsion with winning, it’s a sickness.”

But it was about more than winning, it was about how they were winning. Coach Phil Jackson was being given more power. He was also dating the owner’s daughter, giving Jackson more perceived stature. West was increasingly uncomfortable with dynamics that seemed to be marginalizing his presence.

When West talked of, “Everything around here … ,” much of that was centered on Jackson and Buss.

West may have been a father figure to many around him, perhaps including Dr. Buss.  He was anything but the buffoonish nut job that was depicted in the recent HBO series WINNING TIME.  He drafted Magic Johnson.  He signed off on Pat Riley.  Dr. Buss consistently relied on West’s counsel and wisdom.  But he wasn’t blood.  He was ultimately the hypotenuse in a triangle of sorts.  And we know how Jackson was with triangles of all kinds.

I recently caught up with an old Bill Simmons podcast dropped shortly after the death of Celtics legend Tommy Heinsohn, who also passed at age 86.  He and his dad, a five-decade Celtics season ticket holder, both marveled at the way Heinsohn connected multiple generations of Celtics, from its first-ever championship team of 1957 where he actually outplayed fellow rookie Bill Russell in leading them to a title, to the 70s era where he replaced Russell as coach and won two of his own, to his most recent stint as a longtime impassioned Celtics announcer, active practically until the end of his life, still capable of calling out both referees and players when they deserved it.  All with the same employer.

West did not enjoy similar loyalty because he was the odd man out, literally and figuratively. It apparently haunted him almost to the end, as Plaschke also shared:

One disappointing thing [about my career] is that my relationship with the Lakers is horrible,” West said in a 2022 interview with The Athletic. “I still don’t know why. And at the end of the day, when I look back, I say, ‘Well, maybe I should have played somewhere else instead of with the Lakers, where someone would have at least appreciated how much you give, how much you cared.'”

Jeanie Buss is now in charge, and she and Jackson are no longer together.  All indications are she reveres her father’s memory.  At a time when the Lakers are sorely in need of some sort of leadership and connection, she can at least take some small step toward posthumously righting the wrongs of others.  Plaschke offered up a couple of very viable suggestions:

The Lakers still have room on their jerseys for a patch, right? Next year they should wear a JW in his honor.

The Lakers have never dedicated their hardwood, right? Next year they could name it, “Jerry West Court.”

But they’d better hurry if they are even contemplating it because this fall the Clippers will be opening a brand new arena, ironically mere steps from the arena that Jerry West’s Lakers called home.  And last I heard they haven’t yet given the court a name of its own.

Consider yourselves on the clock, Jeanie and team.

Courage…

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