No one has been involved in more NBA Finals—22—than Jerry West, but last season's Warriors championship was bittersweet for the man in the NBA logo. A vital part of yesterday's Lakers, today's Warriors and now tomorrow's Clippers, West remains, at 79, still the beating heart of California basketball
JUNE 9, 2017
The room is dark at sunset, though no darker than the mood. Jerry West, his wife, Karen, and a visitor are watching the Game 4 broadcast of the 2017 NBA Finals from Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on a large TV in the large living room of their large home in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. So are five yapping dogs, a couple of which are in as bad a mood as Jerry.
A long time ago, when he was on a road trip with the Los Angeles Lakers, West was kept up all night by the incessant barking of dogs in his New York City hotel room. When he complained to the front desk, he was told, "We're sorry, Mr. West, but the dogs are our guests too. They're competing at the Westminster Dog Show." Such was life in the NBA back then.
"The dog who nips belongs to Ryan," says Karen West. (The man who nips belongs to Karen.) The Wests' older son dropped off his two dogs so he could take a yapless birthday trip to the desert.
When Ryan, now the assistant general manager for the Lakers, turned six in 1985, 32 years ago to this day, his father was watching another Finals on TV. As Ryan's birthday party went on, Jerry kept his eyes on his Lakers. To be accurate, he had been keeping his ears on them, since his cable had gone out during the party. West preferred listening to Lakers announcer Chick Hearn anyway, so it was Hearn who brought him the joyful play-by-play during which L.A. beat the Celtics at Boston Garden in Game 6 to win the NBA championship. It remains among West's top memories, perhaps the best memory, for it partially erased (emphasis on partially) the specter of so many defeats on that cursed parquet floor, defeats that scar his soul and, to his mind, define his career.
The 1985 win was so singularly satisfying that one wonders if West regrets, even decades later, not being there to celebrate with the team he had assembled as general manager. For that matter, why isn't he in Cleveland right now? The Warriors, for whom at the moment he is a consultant, part owner and member of the executive board, came into the game with a 3--0 series lead, the opportunity to become the first team to go through the playoffs undefeated and capture their second championship in three seasons. Why not be there to share the love, take a bow for a job well done and spray some champagne?
"Oh, hell, I never wanted to go on the road," says West, squirming in his well-worn spot on the couch. "You feel like you're a distraction when you're around. There's enough going on there that they don't need me. The other thing is, when you're in crowds you get so many people... Look, some are very nice. I understand they want a picture, and I don't like to say no. But, my Gawd! So many. I enjoy being around people. But not that much."
"Dammit, Zaza, why would you foul him?" (Warriors center Zaza Pachulia commits a foul on LeBron James, who then finishes a three-point play.)
When he's out in public, a steady stream of cellphone-holding supplicants does indeed seek out the quite recognizable visage of West, who turned 79 a few days before the Finals began. He's one of those carved-in-granite legends, wide eyes, nine-times-broken nose, his sharp features settled in on themselves, a handsome man, his overall look less haunted than it once was. West does not go anywhere without being recognized, and he invariably complies for a photo, duct-taping a smile to his face as he hunches over to get his still-erect 6'3" frame into the shot.
Over the years West did attend a few postseason games when he was a general manager, but not many and never during a championship series. Pat Riley, a former teammate and fellow Lakers immortal with whom West shares so much NBA history, says there is another reason that he stays home. "Jerry thinks he brings his teams bad luck," says Riley, president of the Miami Heat. "It's from all those painful losses in the '60s."
"Steph, you gotta get up on him!" (Warriors guard Stephen Curry goes under, instead of fighting his way over, a screen, and J. R. Smith gets loose for a three-pointer.)
As West watches at home, he is almost positive that he is a de facto ex-Warrior. There could be a saving phone call over the weekend, but it doesn't look good. He is apparently heading for the Los Angeles Clippers, who are in the process of applying a full-court press on West. The Clips, who despite much promise over recent years have never made it to even a conference final, need West in the same way the Warriors needed him a half dozen years ago; in fact, his position as consultant would be almost identical to the one he holds at Golden State.
But ... West a Clipper? Over a decade ago he went to the Memphis Grizzlies, and while he did a solid job, we kind of forgot that he was there. Then it took a couple of years to come to grips with the fact that West was a Warrior, which we came to understand only when Golden State got good; West is almost always associated with good.
For West, it has been a wrenching ordeal to drift apart from Golden State, an organization that signed him in 2011 when it was looking for the kind of credibility that only he could provide. No one around the NBA believes it was mere coincidence that West was part of the management team when the Warriors rose from the ashes of an undistinguished past. He had been a major part of the Golden State decision-making apparatus as the Warriors added pieces, both by the draft and free agency, to build a team that has become a model in pro sports.
And that success, in effect, speaks largely to why West might be gone. Bob Myers was a general manager in training when West came aboard, Curry was the only major piece then on the roster, and there was no sign that the Warriors would be anything but a fair-to-middling club. But by 2017 Myers had become a two-time NBA Executive of the Year, Curry had become a superstar, and the Warriors had become a smooth-running machine with its major parts (Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala) all signed at least through the '18--19 season. The Warriors seemed to be on automatic pilot, and West's handiwork would not be needed nearly as much as it had been.
In light of that, primary owner Joe Lacob thought it justified to adjust West's compensation downward. Exact figures are hard to come by because West's salary was partly dictated by franchise evaluation and some monies were deferred to enable him to buy a small stake in the team—remember that "small" in this business means as much as $1 million. But the best estimate is that West was asked to take what one source called a "material" pay cut to about $1 million. The best guess on material is about 50%, meaning that West had been making about $2 million. (Neither West nor Lacob would comment directly on dollar figures.)
The apparent separation, however, has done nothing to diminish West's feeling for the Warriors' players, with whom he remains close. And it is killing him that they're getting beaten so badly.
"We just have no energy. Look at our body language. It's whor-a-bull." (The Warriors are behind 29--13 and slump off the court after a timeout.)
This is the 22nd championship series in which West has been personally invested, either as a player, team executive or consultant. Thousands of NBA players, coaches and front-office folk have come and gone without ever knowing the feel of Finals pressure, yet West's heart—the prisoner of arrhythmia, by the way—has been racing in 22. Twenty-two! Red Auerbach, as coach and general overseer of the Celtics, was involved in 18 championship series, and Phil Jackson was involved in 14 as a player and a coach. No one else comes close to West. Were he not the official logo of the league, the NBA would've had to make him the official logo of the Finals.
Ah, but what would that logo look like if it were to truly capture the West essence? Could it show pain as well as joy, agony as well as ecstasy? Could it be ambivalent? Could West be shown as a kind of Janus, looking both forward and backward with downcast expression, past and present mutually unsatisfying? For though West almost always performed brilliantly under championship pressure as a competitor—he remains the only player from a losing team to win a Finals MVP award, which happened in 1969—he lost his first seven Finals appearances and triumphed in only one of nine overall, in the magical season of '71--72. As a player, West was a cross between Job and Sisyphus, heartache upon heartache, disappointment upon disappointment, his championship rock always rolling back down the hill. It was a storied career woven into what he considered a tapestry of failure, his lone championship notwithstanding.
"The pain of losing," he has said over and over, "is so much stronger than the joy of winning."
"You know why he got that rebound, Kevin? Because you didn't block him out." (Durant, West's favorite player on the Warriors and one of his favorite players in the league, along with James and San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard, has indeed allowed Richard Jefferson to secure an offensive rebound.)
Nobody gets away unscathed when West watches a game. No-body.
GOLDEN DAYS, the book from which this excerpt is taken, is a tale of yesterday's Lakers—a historically significant team led by West and Wilt Chamberlain—and today's Warriors, a team that is rapidly building its own legend. The teams share not only a common state, but also shared an uncommon man.
The teams hold a place near each other in the record book for extraordinary displays of sustained excellence in a sport defined by attrition. During the 1971--72 season, the Lakers—considered by many to be too old, too contentious and too scarred by past failures—won 33 games in a row, more than any team in any of the four major pro sports, a record that stands today. West, near the end of a storied career that would have been empty without a championship, was that team's haunted essence.
The Warriors are the ultimate modern streak team. In the 2014--15 season they won 16 in a row early and 12 more consecutively later en route to the NBA championship, only the second in franchise history. They began the '15--16 season with 24 straight victories, which, added to the three straight they had won in the '15 Finals, gave them 27 wins in a row, a mark that ties them with the '12--13 Miami Heat and is second only to the Lakers'. In the '16--17 season Golden State won 14 in a row, from March 14 through April 8 (all but one without an injured Durant), then ripped off 15 wins in a row in the postseason, before falling on this Friday night in Cleveland, as West and his wife and the yapping dogs look on, darkness descending on their home near fabled Sunset Boulevard, where they have lived for the past 38 years.
It's interesting that yesterday's Lakers and today's Warriors intersect across time, because there has rarely been a connection between the franchises in actual time. There is a simple reason for that. Over the past half century the Lakers have been dominant, and the Warriors, aside from one magical season in the mid-1970s, have been somewhere between abysmal and mediocre. Until recently no one battled for the "bragging rights of California pro basketball"; equally disdainful of the Warriors to the north and the Clippers across town—let's not even get into the Sacramento Kings—the Lakers owned both of them lock, stock and barrel.
But not now. Oh, not now.
"I look at Steph Curry and what he's done and the popularity of the Warriors, and I'm envious. Not jealous. Jealous is, I don't want you to have it or anyone else to have it. Envy is, I want what they have." Those words were spoken in 2017 by Jeanie Buss, the controlling owner and president of the Lakers, who even five years ago would never have dreamed about a time when the no-account NoCal Warriors were more glitzy, more admired, more flavor-of-the-day than her so-cool SoCal Lakers.
"You know what I might do now? It sounds crazy. But put Steph on Kyrie. Sometimes when you're going bad offensively, you can wake a guy up that way. Maybe he gets his ass torched, but at least you're trying something."
The West Lakers played in what now seems to be a shadowy Mesozoic Era, arenas lit by candle, cave drawings on the locker-room walls. Teams flew commercial and scrounged for even local TV exposure. In the process of winning every game from Nov. 5, 1971, until Jan. 9, 1972, the Lakers crossed the continent four times, with train rides to Boston and Baltimore thrown in for good measure. On four occasions during the streak they played three nights in a row, and during one hellacious stretch in November they played five times in six nights. For per diem, they received a cool nine bucks a day.
The owner of the Lakers for much of West's career was a Canadian named Jack Kent Cooke, who emerged from central casting as the pretentious, gaseous millionaire, complete with ascot in the pocket. Cooke, who gave his two sons and one daughter the middle name Kent, cranked out orders like a pompous organ-grinder, arrogance his default mode. He had undeniable imagination and a nose for hiring talent, but he was a notorious penny-pincher who, among other things, refused to okay funds for a new projector that was needed for game preparation. Bill Bertka, a Lakers scout who is still with the team, used a pencil to hold the spool of the old projector in place.
Race was a leitmotif in West's era, as the nation's white fans struggled with the reality that African-American athletes were starting to dominate in the major sports, particularly basketball, and black athletes were trying to figure out how many indignities to endure without speaking up. Two of the central figures in that struggle, Elgin Baylor and Chamberlain, played with West.
Debate over the war in Vietnam, scaled down but still raging—2,414 American soldiers died in 1971 and another 759 the following year—continued to divide the country. Los Angeles itself was still reeling from both the '65 Watts riots and the '69 Charles Manson murders. A parade of Manson-related trials, bloody narrative always at the center, served as a grim backdrop to the Lakers' streak season.
How times have changed. Today's Warriors are owned by a deep-pocketed conglomerate headed by venture capitalist Lacob, who in 2010 brought in several of his fellow Silicon Valley heavyweights to steal the franchise away from Larry Ellison, then the CEO of Oracle and the sixth-richest man in the world. The Warriors tilt another way too, toward Hollywood, through the influence of legendary producer and studio head Peter Guber, who is second in command to Lacob. There is no Cooke-style vertical management on a Lacob-Guber team. (No ascots either.) The contemporary Golden State franchise operates nimbly and democratically, a fusion of Silicon Valley and Hollywood.
Then, too, the current Warriors hurl themselves into the social and political issues of the day like divers from a dock. After the 2016 election Kerr emerged as a fervent critic of Donald Trump, part of a vocal NBA pack that took the lead in speaking out, pushing back against the code that sports figures should just play the game. Curry, for his part, weighs in on anything and everything—bullying in schools, violence against women, the policies of Trump.
West seemed to feel the tug of the Warriors' sociopolitical bent. He wants to get out the message that many things away from basketball are important to him, to convey the idea that he is something beyond a dribbling silhouette. West speaks of race and social responsibility and pledges fealty to the notion that an athlete shouldn't surrender his voice just because he plays ball. When he is asked to speak these days, his audience expects stories of Wilt and Oscar [Robertson] and Elgin and the good old days, and, while they get some of those, they're just as likely to get a West who talks about race and personal responsibility and maybe even a little politics. The men with whom he plays golf and gin rummy at Bel-Air Country Club weren't too happy when he supported Barack Obama.
West's desire to speak out seems tied to a minor regret that he remained relatively quiet when he was a player. Chamberlain, for one, held West's anodyne nature against him. But it was a different time, and voicing opinions wasn't West's way back then.
In 2011 he published an autobiography called West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, cowritten with Jonathan Coleman, a book that was extraordinary in its honesty, revealing a man who has struggled with depression and been raked with inner turmoil and rage against an unloving father and the emotional deprivations of his boyhood in West Virginia. He is still trying to work out those demons.
"I'm a lot deeper thinker than most people think I am," says West. "I mean, a lot. I wouldn't hold my tongue so much if I was still playing now."
"Kevin Durant has 22 damn points, and you didn't even know he was out there. Been that kind of game." (West loves efficient scorers, which is what he was. He sees Durant in that light.)
THE PHONE CALL that would keep West with the Warriors doesn't come that weekend, and West is gone by the beginning of Game 5, three nights later, though not everyone in the organization knows it.
Some consider the breakup to have been inevitable. Perhaps West had done all he could with this golden franchise in the Golden State. And won't working for the Clippers be easier for West? Every time he went to the Bay Area, he had to hop on a plane—well, a nice private model belonging to one of the plane-rich Warriors owners—whereas the Clippers' offices in Playa Vista and games at the Staples Center are only a drive away. The Clippers need some fixing, and, even at his age, West is considered a Mr. Fix-it.
In the days that followed the news that West had left, the parties remained civil. Lacob called West "an incredible asset to our organization over the last six years" and insisted that he had wanted West to remain with the franchise, albeit at the lower figure. West called Golden State "the best-run organization I've ever been around." There is no reason to disbelieve either of those sentiments.
But undeniably, West's feelings were hurt, more so because the Warriors are an organization swimming in cash, the franchise value having increased at least sixfold since Lacob and Guber bought it in 2010. If Lacob saw West's relationship with the Warriors as transactional, West saw it as more as a marriage. And now someone was telling him he wasn't wanted, or at least wasn't wanted as much as he once was. Don't tell Jerry West that something is not personal; it's almost always personal.
Down the road, when the endless game of chance that is professional sports starts to turn against the Warriors, when injuries and intrigue build and wholesale changes have to be made, will they miss the man who always seemed to have an answer? Will they ever wonder: Now, why exactly did we let Jerry West get away?
"I DON'T LIKE TO SAY NO," SAYS WEST. "BUT, MY GAWD! I ENJOY BEING AROUND PEOPLE. BUT NOT THAT MUCH."
"THE PAIN OF LOSING," WEST HAS SAID, "IS SO MUCH STRONGER THAN THE JOY OF WINNING."