Jerry West has always had one direction in basketball: north.
As the Zeke from Cabin Creek, he gunned West Virginia to its only NCAA basketball final appearance, in 1959.
As the Golden Boy, he co-captained Team USA atop the Rome Olympics in 1960.
As Mr. Outside, he nailed a 63-footer at the buzzer to force overtime in Game 3 of the 1970 NBA Finals.
As Mr. Clutch, he shot the Los Angeles Lakers to a historic National Basketball Association season, with 33 straight victories and the 1972 championship. And when his silhouette became part of the NBA’s trademark, he became known as the Logo.
As an executive, his deals kept the Lakers’ Showtime running.
His acquisition of Shaq and Kobe sparked the Lakers’ second dynasty.
These days he’s invigorating the Golden State Warriors — owners of the NBA’s best record again this season — as an executive and minority owner. Not that his position has a name.
“I don’t like titles,” West, 78, told IBD. “When you work with people, the more communication you have, the better the process. It’s not a power thing. Executives in other industries should feel the same way.
“It’s not me. It’s an organizational thing. Owners give you an idea of what they want, and you want to be a huge part of it. I always thought owners should be engaged, but it’s also important to let your people do their job.”
Official title or no, he’s “the most successful talent evaluator in league history,” contends Sports Illustrated’s Chris Ballard.
“Chris is right — the only other guy in the conversation is (former Boston Celtics coach and executive) Red Auerbach,” said Jeff Pearlman, author of “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s.” “West had an ability to dig beneath the surface, see people and prospects for who they were, what they had. Perfect example is (forward) A.C. Green. Laker opinions were very mixed on Green. Could he do anything offensively in the NBA? Would he contribute offensively at all? West saw what others didn’t. It’s his gift. West is probably a top 30 all-time NBA player, and he’s a far better evaluator.”
West’s secret sauce?
“You make the best educated guess when putting together a good team,” he said. “Then when you build a winning team, you can’t keep all the players. It’s economics.”
It’s also people. With the Warriors, he’s with the right ones.
“Joe Lacob, the majority owner, is terrific,” said West. “He’s put the pieces together. His board meetings are open. People are allowed to express their opinions. And Bob Myers, the general manager, and his assistant, Travis Schlenk, are great to be around.”
Lacob convinced West to come out of retirement in 2011 to join him as a consultant for a reported salary of $1 million a year, adding to the Hall of Famer’s fortune of $55 million, according to CelebrityNetWorth.com.
Golden State has that name for a reason. The Warriors once dribbled in San Francisco and now pass in Oakland, making them a Bay Area team. “It’s an incredible sports town,” said West. “That’s what has really made this franchise as great as it is. The fans are fantastic. They support this team at the highest level. And the Warriors are a fun team to watch, with players (such as reigning Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry) who are entertaining and special.”
When West arrived five years ago, the Warriors had just limped through a 36-46 season. They ranked 13th in league attendance and 12th in value, with Forbes putting their price at $363 million.
The Logo went right to work that spring, gearing such moves as drafting Klay Thompson. The Washington State guard turned into an All-Star gem in the 2015 NBA crown, the Warriors’ first in 40 years. They encored with a regular-season record 73 wins and a tight loss in the Finals. The Bay Area raves, vaulting the Warriors to sixth in attendance and value, now $1.9 billion, according to Forbes.
Once upon a time, the Warriors were the Lakers’ top regular-season rivals. And with West directing traffic on the court, L.A. dominated.
After 14 straight seasons as an All-Star, West retired from playing in 1974. Two years later he started a three-season coaching stint with the Lakers — right after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar brought new heights and before Earvin Johnson took his Magic act to Los Angeles.
West coached L.A. to three straight playoff spots, but the job wasn’t for him.
“As a coach, I was such a tightly wound person,” he said. “In my first season, the owner, Jack Kent Cooke, told me to play his favorites. That wasn’t easy. Because of my personality, I shouldn’t have been a coach. Plus I was going through a divorce. I was crazed.”
He sure was sane enough to want Julius Erving, only to get rejected by Cooke, whose disregard for the American Basketball Association blew a chance to land its biggest star.
Building A Dynasty
West then found his calling — the front office. As a scout, he helped engineer Laker titles in 1980 and 1982. The next season he was general manager and oversaw three more championships in the Showtime Decade.
West’s influence on that dynasty “can’t be understated,” said Pearlman. “I mean, if you recall, Jerry Buss wanted West and Pat Riley to split coaching duties. West knew it was bull. … He said, ‘This is your team, Pat. I’ll just help.’ Think about that. He was an important non-egomaniac in a world of egomaniacs. He wanted to win — period. Didn’t need the credit, the attention. Just the W’s. … The only trade Jerry Buss ever approved without West’s involvement was James Worthy to Dallas for Mark Aguirre and Roy Tarpley — and West had a … fit and threatened to quit if it went through. Who was right on that one?”
Worthy soared into the Hall of Fame along with Abdul-Jabbar and Magic.
The Laker alumni lauded West in his memoir, “West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life.”
Riley: “Everything good that happened there Jerry had a hand in.”
Worthy: “Jerry just had this special talent for knowing who and what would fit in.”
Abdul-Jabbar: “He always got the right guy for the team: James Worthy, Mychal Thompson, A.C. Green, even Milt Wagner for the ’87-88 team. When I had a variety of personal troubles — including a fire at my house and death threats and so forth — Jerry was always there for me.”
Magic: “(When I retired) we both just cried like babies. That was probably our greatest moment. Just sitting there, the two of us. It showed me how much he cared about me, and it was just so personal.”
Said West: “Earvin didn’t have just flair, but was also a winning player. He captured the imagination of the city. And what a leader he was on the court. People rallied around him. The team needed a leader, and he was it. It’s amazing how one player can change the course of a team. He also had a support group that was ridiculously good. And the role players knew who the guy was. As for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he might have been the greatest who ever played. Then you had James Worthy and Michael Cooper. It was a stroke of good fortune. Good fortune and good judgment.
“Jerry Buss gave me a lot of latitude to bring in good players. He was a revolutionary. He brought in cheerleaders, started TV’s Prime Ticket. He made the Lakers a happening. The same thing is happening with the Warriors, and it starts with ownership and the basketball people.”
West left the Lakers in 2000, amid their second dynasty, starring Shaq and Kobe, and took his brain to Memphis, Tenn., in 2002. The Grizzlies had never won more than 23 games. With West boosting the roster and hiring coach Hubie Brown, they won 50 by his second season on the way to three straight playoff appearances.
“At the end of the day, I had my best time at Memphis,” said West. “I felt better about myself there than in any year in Los Angeles.”
West has heard rumblings from L.A. — the city he lives in with his wife, Karen, the mother of two of his children (he has three from a first marriage) — to return to the purple and gold. He doesn’t mention the moribund Lakers, but as for the future, “I do love challenges. And you have to be a risk taker. I’ve always been a risk taker.”
The key for the Lakers, he notes, is for them to again find that magical player. Such as West found with Shaq in a megadeal with the Orlando Magic in 1996.
“With Shaquille O’Neal, it wasn’t a risk,” said West. “That was a wish and desire. We had agent after agent telling us we couldn’t get him. But we did. You just have to set your goal.”
Also that year, West traded for Kobe Bryant, who lifted the Lakers to five titles and soon enough will join Shaq in the Hall of Fame.
“That was a no-brainer,” West said of the Kobe grab. “We didn’t miss much making that deal if you kept your eye open. He was so skilled. And the intangibles … his work ethic was ridiculous. When we got him, he was just 17. We had to wait for him to turn 18 to sign him. He turned into a generational player. That’s what Los Angeles needs now.”
As for Shaq, “He might’ve been my favorite player. He was fun to be around. He didn’t take himself too seriously. Kobe was more serious, like me, but with more flair.”
In 2011, the Logo turned into a statue. At the unveiling outside L.A.’s Staples Center, Buss said: “How many people ever get a statue? One in a million? Well, Jerry West is one in a million.”
Hall of Fame guard played 14 seasons with the Lakers, then in the front office helped them win six NBA titles.
Lesson: Set your goal and take the shot.
“Sports draws so much noise, with so many pundits in the regular and social media. Other industries don’t have that. Other businesses care about profit, how stocks are doing. In sports, it’s about wins and losses. Let’s take basketball. You have 82 games in the NBA. If you win 62, that’s a really, really good season. But it still means you lost 20 games. And you hear it, with social media letting everyone participate.”