Hall of Famer West eager to give Golden State a taste of success
SAN FRANCISCO -- The first time Jerry West teamed up with Joe Lacob, he did so quite reluctantly. The basketball legend was helping his friend, Magic Johnson, at his fantasy camp in Hawaii, and even his status as "The Logo" didn't grant him a trump card when it came to picking teams. This was the Magic show, and so West was left to build his roster from the scrap heap up after his former player had taken the little talent that was on hand. Lacob was a leftover, a venture capitalist with a passion for hoops who would quickly be deemed the "mouse in the house" that day when he was matched up against much bigger foes in the frontcourt.
Some 15 years later, their second pairing couldn't be any more different than the first.
The 72-year-old West was elated to join Lacob's Golden State team this week, his return to the game coming four years after he left his front-office post in Memphis. The charity work was fulfilling, the routine rounds of golf enthralling and the late nights hijacking the television from his wife, Karen, to watch NBA action intriguing, but West is back where he belongs with a vow that he has no plans on being the mouse in this Warriors house.
The humblest of icons is also one of the most shrewd, and his addition to the Warriors as an executive board member (with minority ownership interest, no less) not only legitimized the Lacob/Peter Guber era that began in October when the two bought the team for a record $450 million, but also sent a message to the league at large that the days of this sleeping-giant market being underutilized appear to be over. West enters with trademark politeness, having gone to great lengths to ensure that incumbent front-office men Larry Riley, Bob Myers, Travis Schlenk and Lacob's son, Kirk, didn't see him as a threat to their professional existence before agreeing to come. But after they opened the door, West didn't wait long before making the sort of noise that should expedite the cultural change that had already begun.
"It's been a long time since you won a championship up here," said West, the Hall of Famer who made nine trips to the Finals in 14 seasons with the Lakers as a player and won one championship, then won four titles and made eight trips to the Finals during his 18-year run as a Lakers executive. "That is the only goal, and I think there's a process to getting there ... I would be disappointed if this team didn't make the playoffs, because I do think you have progressive, risk-taking owners, and the best risk-takers are the best in this business."
No one was proclaiming a power shift in the Western Conference, nor should they be. West's arrival doesn't change the organization's dreadful history, as they've missed the playoffs in 16 of the last 17 seasons. But he is clearly embracing this blank canvas on which he can now help paint, and his enthusiasm in joining the Warriors combined with the frequent mentions of the Lakers underscored the obvious paradox in place.
His beloved Lakers have been in disarray of late. Their championship run came to an embarrassing end in the Western Conference semifinals sweep to Dallas, with no one more incensed than West at the classless way in which they were undone. The most curious of coaching searches did not involve asking the opinion of franchise centerpiece Kobe Bryant, with the owner's son, Jim Buss, driving that ill-advised ship that led to the expected hiring of Mike Brown.
All the while, fellow Laker legends were adding to the drama. Magic was telling the hoops nation with his ESPN microphone that the Lakers' future would be brighter if they overhauled the roster. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was more worried about the past, complaining publicly that a Staples Center statue had yet to be built in his honor and declaring that he was exiling himself from the organization.
All of it was very anti-West, the antithesis of a man known for his graceful style and incredible substance. In that regard, it should surprise no one that he jumped at this chance.
He has a welcome distraction now, a refreshing challenge in front of him in which he'll be heavily praised for progress and easily absolved if the status quo remains. And unlike that day so long ago in Hawaii, West is thrilled to be joining this team.
• He is, in essence, a high-powered consultant. His voice will be heard on all personnel matters, but the final decisions will be made by Riley and, of course, Lacob. West will still live in Los Angeles, but said he plans to be in Oakland as much as is needed.
• West was asked about the potent-but-undersized Warriors' backcourt of Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis (both 6-foot-3) and whether they can be part of a championship-level team. Trading one of the guards for a badly needed front-court piece this offseason could wind up being the sort of aggressive move West alluded to, and he emphasized the need for more size in his response.
"I look at the Curry kid, for instance, and I see tremendous growth in him as a player -- tremendous growth," West said. "But there's still more room for improvement, and that improvement will come from experience. Monta Ellis [is a] fierce competitor. He competes his fanny off. I love watch to him play. To me, size helps. Size helps."
• West will be heavily involved in the team's ongoing coaching search. After deciding not to retain Keith Smart, Golden State's front-office team has met with Mike Brown (former Cleveland coach who will be the next Lakers coach), Dwane Casey (former Minnesota head coach and current Dallas assistant who is a finalist for the Houston job), Kevin McHale (former Minnesota general manager and coach who is currently a TNT analyst and Rockets finalist), Lakers assistants Brian Shaw and Chuck Person, ESPN/ABC analyst Mark Jackson and New Orleans assistant Mike Malone. Boston assistant Lawrence Frank, who is the third finalist for the Rockets job, is also expected to be considered. No candidates have met with Warriors ownership yet, and West made clear his preference for a fresh face in the role.
"How many recycled coaches do we see in this league?" he asked. "We see a lot of them. I sometimes think that people who have been around winning programs and particularly worked for coaches who had success [do the best].
"Look at the coaches who really produce coaches in this league: Gregg Popovich, Pat Riley and also Larry Brown. They produce more coaches in this league, and so they have to have something unique in terms of how they teach, how they interact with the players."
West singled out first-year New Orleans coach Monty Williams, which could be a good sign for Malone.
"Monty Williams down in New Orleans, I thought he did an unbelievable job," West said. "I thought he should have been Coach of the Year. I really did. Tom [Thibodeau] did a great, incredible job in Chicago, but they had talent there. I thought he did a great job.
"I think people who have been with those types of people, they seem to have something different. I watch the [Erik] Spoelstra kid on the sidelines [in Miami], and he looks so poised ... How he has handled it, and to watch how hard his team plays, I think he has done an amazing job. This guy started as a video coordinator."
West has championship ties with Shaw that certainly can't hurt his candidacy, as the Lakers won it all in what was his final season with the team (1999-2000) and Shaw's first as a Lakers player. West made a passing reference to the tragedy Shaw endured in July of 1993, when his parents and sister were killed in a car accident just outside of Las Vegas.
"I've known Brian for a long time," West said. "He's been through a lot of personal things, and I think personal things make you bigger and stronger.
"For [the Warriors job], I just think it's important that the guy you're hiring, you make a commitment to. I don't care what happens. You're not going to leave here for at least three years. You're going to be here for a minimum of three years ... I've always said that coaches take too much blame and people in the front office don't."
• West was affable as always, but seemed to take exception when a local columnist asked him whether his knowledge of today's NBA was current.
"How current is my knowledge?" he said. "I watch every game. I have people call me. I have agents, I have executives call me all the time asking for opinions. I think I'm well aware what the league is -- very well aware.
"In this business, if you don't change, you're going to fall way behind. To think I live in the Stone Age, you don't know me very well."
• West was certainly watching the Lakers' downfall, and he offered his postmortem analysis.
"It looked like there was so much wear and tear [with the Lakers] -- the mental, emotional part of it, the pressure to win all the time and everyone expecting them to win," he said. "I just didn't see the energy level that's necessary there.
"Now everyone is talking about 'blow the Lakers up.' Well they've got an all-pro player [in Bryant]. They've got a guy on the second team who's Sixth Man of the Year [in Lamar Odom]. They've got a young, promising center in Andrew Bynum. They probably need some athletes, a little bit more shooting, but they're going to be a really, really good team. Maybe losing might have helped them a little bit, to get back and refocus on how hard it is to win."
West was far more impressed with the Dallas team that took the Lakers down and, at the time, was on the brink of downing Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals.
"I watch Dallas play now, and that team really looks like they like each other," he said. "You watch Oklahoma City, and you sense that they're a little bit more edgy, OK? Because they want to win so badly that maybe they won't be able to win because they're trying too hard ... Dallas just looks so confident. Against the Lakers, they looked more confident than the Lakers because they had great chemistry on their team.
"I love basketball. I love the game. I miss it when I'm not around it. When my friends call me, I'm always excited because they call about, 'What would you do here? What do you think about our team? What about this player? Because they know I watch the game."
• During West's time on the stage with Lacob and Guber, he made a passing reference to the statue that was erected in his honor outside Staples Center in February.
"They had a statue of me," West had said to the television cameras and assembled media at the St. Regis hotel in San Francisco. "Frankly, I'm not sure why they'd do that. There are too many statues around."
The Abdul-Jabbar bell started ringing in my head, of course, and I had a chance to ask West away from the cameras later if it was fair to perceive the comment as veiled criticism of the way in which his fellow Laker legend has handled the statue saga.
"He and I are friendly," West began. "I don't know if you know that. He called me to congratulate me [on the Warriors job]. We talked a little bit about it: 'Just be patient. It's going to happen sooner [rather] than later.' And I know it's going to happen,'
"But it's not the Lakers' [decision]. It's more AEG (the company that owns and operates the Staples Center). The Lakers are just tenants there ... I think [Abdul-Jabbar] is well aware that they're going to do a statue of him. I think he's well aware of that."