Pursuit of perfection: Jerry West's fire burns as deep as ever with Warriors
OAKLAND, Calif.—Karen West watches as her husband fidgets inside a suite at Oracle Arena on the first night of the NBA Finals. He laces his fingers together, still able to feel the grip of a basketball on their tips all these years later, like a phantom limb. At 77, Jerry West hasn’t played in 35 years—says he won’t even shoot around in the driveway for fear he won’t live up to his famously high standards. But he cannot give up the game.
These are his 18th Finals. He’s made nine trips as a player and eight as a GM, all with the Lakers. This time, he is an executive board member for Golden State. It’s a position he’s held since the spring of 2011, when Warriors primary owner Joe Lacob lured him out of semi-retirement with the promise of a partial ownership stake and the chance to help rebuild a tattered franchise. In the years since, West has played an important, often behind-the-scenes role in the team’s ascension. He’s been a mentor, counselor and, often, the loudest voice in the room on both trades made (Monta Ellis) and scuttled (Klay Thompson for Kevin Love). Talk to people around the team and they’ll tell you: The Warriors likely wouldn’t be who they are, or where they are, without Jerry’s influence.
And now West is trying to do something he rarely could as Lakers GM, when the stress of big games exiled him to the parking lot to pace, or to his car to zip up 405 in anxious silence, awaiting a phone call with a result: Sit and watch a Finals game. Like a normal person.
Or so he’d planned. The game begins and the Warriors come out cold, missing easy shots. They look jittery, careless. They fall behind early. West frowns. “We should be up eight,” Karen hears him say at the first timeout.
He can see it happening—the season, and a life’s third act, crumbling before him.
Four days earlier, on a warm Sunday afternoon, West welcomes a visitor into his French country-style home in a gated community in Bel Air, where he and Karen have lived for 35 years.
It’s a little after 3 p.m. and they’ve just returned from the driving range. Even in his late 70s, Jerry can hit it 275 yards off the tee and, he notes proudly, shoot his age. And, because he’s Jerry West, and he lives for competition, he plays for stakes, whether it’s golf or cards. Two weeks earlier, he took home a tidy sum playing gin.
West’s arrival sends the family’s four dogs into a frenzy of yapping, yipping and, in the case of Gatsby, a 90-pound, two-year-old English sheepdog, herding. Ignoring the din, Jerry leads the way to a large, high-ceilinged living room. Magazines and a well-thumbed copy of the Los Angeles Times rest on a coffee table. This is where West spends most nights during the season, on a long blue couch, watching games on a flatscreen or, when Karen puts it down for him, a giant projector screen. Sometimes they watch together. Other times, when Jerry starts cursing and screaming, Karen goes to a different room. “He yells about what’s going wrong,” she explains, “and I like to yell about what’s going right.”
West cannot help it, though. He sees everything. Turnovers before they happen, foretold by a player’s body angle and speed. Bad shots moments before they’re jacked up. This sounds like a gift, and it is, but it’s also a burden. “It’s a horrible feeling,” says West. “Knowing something’s going to happen and not being able to do anything about it.”
Now, even as the Finals approach, West is focused on what could be rather than what is. He’s worried about a player’s knee. Concerned that the Warriors desperately need a third scorer to step up, “and it has to be [Harrison] Barnes or [Andre] Iguodala.” All season, he’s argued the team needs another shooter, too, someone to help stretch the floor. He wishes they had one now. Later this night, he will call Warriors GM Bob Myers. They talk so frequently that it feels like one ongoing conversation.
West is driven, as always, by a simple goal. “You get so addicted to winning,” he says, “that you don’t want that feeling to stop.”
The idea sounded bizarre at first: the face of the Lakers working for the Warriors. West was famously opinionated, demanding and proactive. The Warriors were famously inept, lackluster and passive. Wrote Scott Ostler in the San Francisco Chronicle, in May of 2011: “It could work out beautifully; it could blow up like a trick cigar.”
These were not the same Warriors, though. Lacob ran the team like an elite company, hiring the best people, no matter the cost. One of his first priorities was an advisor—"a consigliere” in Lacob’s words—and West topped a list of three candidates (Lacob declines to name the other two). The two met in Los Angeles for a series of dinners. West didn’t want control, and worried that his presence might overshadow management. Lacob provided assurances. After mulling the offer for a month, West signed on.
Immediately, the Warriors gained credibility. To Lacob and co-owner Peter Guber, West provided them, as they called it, “the cover of darkness.” Explains Lacob: “Our feeling was, even if we made some mistakes, at least if we had Jerry West involved, how much of idiots could we be?”
At the same time, Lacob set about building the rest of the franchise foundation. Myers, a personable 36-year-old agent who’d worked under Arn Tellem, was introduced as the GM-in-waiting at the same presser as West. Nearly 10 years earlier, Myers had given West a heads-up before flying to meet clients in Memphis. West, then the Grizzlies GM, not only picked Myers up at the airport—“most of the time your friends don’t even do that,” says Myers—but insisted he stay at his house. (Hospitality is a recurring theme with Jerry).
From the start, Myers leaned on West for advice, especially once elevated to GM, replacing Larry Riley. The Warriors’ unique collaborative process evolved, with decisions undertaken by a team consisting of Lacob, Myers, West and assistant GMs Travis Schlenk and Lacob’s older son, Kirk (and, later, coach Steve Kerr). Strong opinions were expected. Disagreement was encouraged. One rival coach calls it, “one of the healthiest organizations in the NBA.”
West delivered his opinions with equal parts passion and profanity. As anyone who knows West can tell you, his level of certitude can reach gale-force levels. After all, this is a man who traded Vlade Divac for Kobe Bryant because he saw greatness in the lanky teenager. A man who sent off All-Star Norm Nixon for the unknown Byron Scott, causing Jack Nicholson to wear black at the Forum for a week (or so the story goes). A man who subtitled his autobiography, “My Charmed, Tormented Life.” “When Jerry feels strongly about something,” says his son, Ryan, assistant director of scouting for the Lakers, “he feels very strongly.” Adds Jonathan Coleman, West’s co-author and friend: “He’s never, ever not going to offer his opinion.”
Even though they were close, West never went easy on Myers, who Lacob remembers as, “nervous at times because Jerry is so tough on everybody.” Myers says it’s all a matter of perspective. “If you can understand that all Jerry wants to do is win and everything he says and does is geared toward that, then you can have a great relationship with him,” says Myers. “But if you’re not driven in the same capacity, or prone to settling, then you’re probably not going to have a good relationship with Jerry. People might sometimes think he slants negative, but it’s all in pursuit of perfection.”
In the case of the Warriors, there was plenty to perfect. The roster was low on talent and stocked with duplicate players, most prominently guards Ellis and Stephen Curry. Like Lacob and Myers, West was fond of hybrid players who could guard multiple positions. In 2011, he lobbied hard to draft Klay Thompson, whom he’d known since he was a boy (Klay’s father, Mychal, played under West with the Lakers). “We had our pro day and during Klay's workout Jerry pulled me out in the middle of the workout,” says Bill Duffy, Thompson’s agent. “He said, ‘That’s our guy.’”
Next came the March 2012 trade that sent Ellis to the Bucks and returned Andrew Bogut. Ellis was a fan favorite. His wife was close with Lacob’s fiancée, Nicole Curran. The team would catch hell for trading him. None of that mattered, argued West. You’re going to get killed but you need to make the move, West told Lacob. Let Bob be your voice in this. When Lacob was booed a week later by Warriors fans, while retiring Chris Mullin’s jersey, West consoled him on the phone afterward.
In the years that followed, West weighed in often. He advocated for hiring Steve Kerr after things went sour with Mark Jackson. In Kerr, West saw the type of big picture, tempered leader he knew the Warriors needed to make the next step. As he is fond of pointing out, when you don’t have talent, coaching can only do so much. Once you have talent, coaching is everything.
Perhaps West’s biggest contribution came last summer, though, when, along with Kerr, he adamantly opposed a trade centered around Thompson and Love. West argued that trading Thompson would be an enormous mistake. The Warriors were built on defense and Love, while a skilled offensive player, was a subpar defender. What’s more, West was certain Thompson would continue to improve, giving the Warriors a potential Hall of Fame backcourt for the next decade.
West felt so strongly that, according to one person close to the negotiations, he threatened to resign if the team made the trade. Chances are, West wouldn’t have actually done it—that’s just the way he talks—but when the most successful talent evaluator in league history feels that adamantly about something, it’s probably worth listening.
Speak to the principals today and everyone says it was a group decision, none more forcefully than West. As is his nature, he takes great pains to deflect any credit, praising the work of Myers and Lacob and the rest. Myers points out that, “It’s a lot easier to make suggestions than decisions.” As for Lacob, he dismisses the topic. “There was never, ever a time when we were going to consider trading Klay in that deal,” he says. “Jerry was strong on that, but so was everybody else.”
This may be true. Then again, a source with knowledge of the negotiations counters that, “The deal was done. And Jerry put his foot down.”
Now, back in Bel Air, Jerry puts his feet up, dropping into a recliner. One can’t help but notice that, beneath his gray golf slacks, the logo adorns the Logo. “I don’t usually wear NBA socks,” West says by way of apology, glancing down at his own silhouette, hips forever tilting to protect that left-hand dribble. This is West; proud but forever running from fame. Recently, Karen bought him a recliner from the NBA store that included subtle stitching displaying the league logo. “It’s a wonderful chair, very nice,” says Karen. “He was totally embarrassed.” It’s been relegated to the rumpus room in their West Virginia house.
If anyone has earned basketball immortality, though, it is West. The Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four while at West Virginia. Co-captain of the gold-medal-winning Olympic team in 1960. Fourteen-time All-Star. Once named Finals MVP even though his team lost (His 94 points in the first two games in 1969 were the only total higher than LeBron James’s 83 in the first two games of these Finals). Six rings as player and GM. Two Executive of the Year Awards, one in L.A. and one in Memphis, where the Grizzlies jumped from 23 to 50 wins after he resurrected Hubie Brown to coach. When West retired from playing, before his 15th season, he says it was on the verge of becoming the first million-dollar player. But he couldn’t stand to play if he couldn’t live up to his standards.
Today, West marvels at how much the league has changed. A new breed of owners who want to be out in front of their franchises. Advances in science, medicine and nutrition that allow players to prolong their careers and put a premium on work ethic. Players so media-savvy he sometimes wonders, after seeing an interview, “Who scripted that one?” But greatness is still greatness, and West is particularly fond of players who, in their approach and bearing, are reminiscent of, well, him (though he’d never put it that way). He loves Tim Duncan, (“If you were coming into the league and you asked who to model yourself after, it would be Duncan”), and Curry (“There is no better person than him. How grounded, how understated. That really wears well in the locker room”). And then there is Draymond Green. West loves Green. “He represents what a basketball player should truly be,” says West. “He’s got the spirit, the enthusiasm. You’re going to have to kill him to beat him.” West sits up, excited. “If you watch him enough, you’re kind of captivated by what he is on the court. You don’t have to say, help out. He’s there. He anticipates. Then he gets the ball and pushes it. How many guys on our team push the ball?”
At 4 P.M., the phone rings, interrupting West in the middle of a discourse on footwork (West is a footwork aficionado). It’s Jonnie, one of his five sons (he has three from a first marriage and two with Karen). Jonnie is now a Warriors scout and associate GM of the Warriors’ D-League affiliate in Santa Cruz. His picture is everywhere in the house, as are those of the other West kids. Basketball mementos may not be important to West—there are only a few visible—but family ones are. A large table in the living room is covered with framed photos. To hear Jerry talk of Ryan and Jonnie is to hear no negative slant. They are “so smart it’s a joke” and “going to have real opportunities.”
West transfers the call to Karen, who is out by the pool (Jerry can’t swim and neither can any of the dogs, so it gets little use). Inside, West returns to footwork. In this case, the subject is Thompson, the Warriors’ guard. Though West loves Thompson, he hates how he loops off screens, rather than cutting at a right angle. West rises out of the chair to demonstrate. “If you take a dribble here and your feet are here, you go in a circle right?” he says, pretending to curl off the side of a chair. “ But if you turn your foot here"—he moves his inside foot to hug the chair—“you go straight at the basket.”
While with the Lakers and Grizzlies, West used to invite players for individual workouts, most notably Kobe Bryant but also Earl Watson, Dahntay Jones and others. When Warriors forward Harrison Barnes was drafted in 2012, he off-handedly asked West about doing the same. Last summer, two years later, to Barnes’s surprise, West called. “Why don’t you come down to L.A?” he said. Barnes did, expecting to meet at a local gym. Instead West insisted he stay at his house, along with then-Warriors assistant coach Joe Boylan, who was spending the summer working with Barnes. Barnes was prepared for “pomp and circumstance,” as he calls it, expecting a personal chef and a celebrity lifestyle befitting a sports legend. “But he was totally normal. Drove us around. Took us out to lunch. It was nuts.” Every morning, the group ate breakfast together, then headed to the nearby house of Steven Jackson, a sneaker mogul whose property includes a full-size replica of the Staples court. In Bel Air, this is the equivalent of nice landscaping.
Wearing a sweatsuit, West went to work with Barnes. As is his nature, he pulled no punches. Your footwork on the perimeter is atrocious, he told Barnes. You can’t make a f--king right-hand layup at all. Your jumpshot is pretty good but not great.
With Boylan helping, West then led Barnes through a series of drills. He warmed him up with 10 bank shots, in West’s estimation the easiest way to determine if a shooter’s release is drifting left or right. Boylan had never seen this approach—he was always taught to start close, goose-necking the ball with one hand—but as he says, “Jerry said bank shots and he could shoot the s--t out of it, so we listened.” Explains West: “A shot is a lever, it’s all it is. You don’t open a car door differently each time. A car door is efficient—it opens and closes. So is a shot.”
To improve Barnes’s shot, West had him shoot 10 free throws with virtually no arc, then 10 with normal arc, then 10 with exaggerated arc. To encourage innate decisions, West had Boylan close out on Barnes repeatedly, mixing up his angle each time and forcing Barnes to react rather than think. West showed Barnes how to fall away in the post rather than lean in when turning to the middle (“he was making himself smaller”). And, most important in Barnes’s mind, West changed the way he attacked the basket. Rather than gliding in to finish, West harped on Barnes to take shorter, more explosive steps. To finish up, not out. To climb an imaginary ladder. Once Barnes got to the rim, West wanted him shooting the ball underhand. Barnes resisted. “I said, ‘Jerry, I shoot my shots overhand.’ He said that’s why you’re always clanking your layups off the rim. You have no touch. You have to get used to finishing underhanded, with spin on it.”
Boylan was struck by West’s approach. “He used a very different language than most coaching,” says Boylan. “No cones, no special contraptions, nothing that would be an epiphany to the coaching world. But for every mistake, he had a specific correction.” While Boylan took mental notes—“I straight up stole about six drills,” he says with a laugh—Barnes, a reverent, self-critical 23-year-old who grew up in Iowa, soaked it all in. “He’d say to me, ‘Can you believe we’re here?’” says Boylan. These days Barnes will see West after a game and, referring to his finishes, ask, “So what did you think?”
The answer always comes with a caveat. “Good ... but could be better.” Even in players he loves, West can’t help but find room for improvement. What if Curry dribbled with his right hand, rather than his left when he brought the ball up the left wing? He’d be able to see everything behind him and, when he made a pass to a cutter down the middle, it would be a shorter, two-hand pass, rather than a looping lefty one.
At times, West can be blistering in his critiques—though rarely on the record, as he feels that’s unfair. “He’s like a baseball pitcher always in pursuit of the perfect game and how often does that happen?” says Myers. “So he views every NBA game through that lens. That’s allowed him to be who he was as the player, executive. Because it’s never good enough. Some might say that would be hard to deal with. I look at that like you’re always being challenged, you’re always being pushed. And if you’re able to withstand that, it’s a fantastic partnership.
Warriors assistant GM Travis Schlenk agrees. “He’s extremely competitive still,” says Schlenk. “He’ll call me up after we play bad and he’s got to get it all out. Whoever played bad, I’m going to hear that they played poorly. He wants everything he’s associated with to do well. His name is associated with us, so he wants us to do well.” Schlenk pauses. “If I were in his shoes and in L.A. in an advisory role, I don’t know that I’d lose sleep over it, but I hope I’m as starved for that when I’m 77.”
Lacob is also accustomed to the venting. “When I see that number ringing I’ve got to listen for a while,” he says. “We could win 10 in a row and lose one and he'd be so down.” Lacob pauses. “I understand Jerry because he reminds me so much of my own father. When I was growing up, it was never enough. You just got used to it. He’s very similar. Some people can’t deal with it. I told Bob [Myers], listen for the nugget here. Don’t get lost in what can be a dark side.”
As critical as West can be—he prefers to call it “negatively positive”—in the midst of his analysis he will often do something unexpected: ask your opinion. And then he’ll listen. It can be a bizarre experience, having the Logo seek out your thoughts on the NBA. Former Warriors assistant Darren Erman recalls first coming to the team as an unknown coach and being shocked when West came over to talk defense at length. “He has a passion for people who have a passion for the game,” says Erman, now an assistant with the Pelicans. In the case of a visiting reporter, he asks my thoughts on a number of topics, including how Alvin Gentry will fare as the new head coach in New Orleans.
Even now, West’s network remains vast. On this afternoon, in the wake of his birthday, he needs to return 23 messages, including one from Magic (who he calls “Earvin”), who left a voicemail saying, “I just have to talk to you every once in a while.” Even during his theoretical retirement, West was on the phone all the time. Coleman, the author, who helped Jerry write about his upbringing in West Virginia with an abusive father, recalls West frequently counseling various executives during their time together. “I remember him on the phone with [former Grizzlies owner] Michael Heisley, urging him to take Kevin Love in the draft instead of O.J. Mayo, who he considered a selfish player,” says Coleman (alas, Heisley acquired Mayo in a draft-day deal). “He gave advice freely every day. It sure didn’t seem like he’d stopped working.” (It should be noted that, like anyone, not all West’s picks and recommendations panned out. Part of his managerial skill, however, is being able admit a mistake and move on, as when he waived first-round pick Troy Bell in Memphis a year after drafting him).
Now West says he’s relishing the chance to be back in the game. It helps that the team’s moves during his tenure have worked out eerily well. Thompson became an All-Star. Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes, both drafted in 2012, evolved into crucial starters. Kerr finished second in Coach of the Year Voting. Myers won the NBA Executive of the Year Award. In a sense, much of West’s work is now done. The franchise has credibility and a firm foundation. He calls his time with the Warriors a “joy,” and says that being one step removed has allowed him to “mellow a bit.”
It helps that he no longer must carry the burden of expectations by himself. Take one night a couple weeks ago during the Houston series, when Myers called West before Game 5. Normally, Myers watches games in the arena, but the stakes and the stress were getting to him. I don’t know how I’m going to watch, Myers said.
Well, said West, if you gotta leave, you gotta leave.
“It was like I’d been given permission from someone that it was OK,” says Myers. “Don’t worry, you’re not crazy. Like that’s part of the deal.”
West even gave Myers specific advice: if you gotta walk, keep moving, but welcome distractions. He made a larger point, too. “He said I know why you feel that way, it’s because you care,” says Myers. “Because you’re competitive and you care. And you shouldn’t ever trade that.”
So, during the first quarter of Game 5 against the Rockets, Myers headed out to the parking lot. Upon hearing, West felt a small surge of pride. Maybe he was rubbing off after all.
For now, West is signed on through the 2016-17 season, and everyone seems pleased with the arrangement. More and more, the team has relied on him to fill other roles: meet-and-greets with corporate sponsors, consulting on arena and business events. “I’m at the point where you look back on your life and reflect,” West says. “I’ve always been an unbelievable critic of me. If we lost a game, I blamed myself every night. I’m very proud of some of the things I did as an athlete, as an executive. To me this has been honestly one of my greatest joys to watch this happen.”
Karen thinks it’s good for him. “I hope he does it as long as he can, because it really gives him a purpose,” she says. “I just think Jerry needs something to keep his mind going. I think that hitting golf balls and playing cards won’t be enough for him. He has so much to offer.”
Still, there remains one thing left for West. One task outstanding. “For all his success in life, he’s never found happiness,” says Ryan West, who narrated the audio version of his father’s book, a cathartic experience during which he says he occasionally broke down in tears. “And as a son all I want is for my parents to be happy.” He pauses. “If the Warriors can win this, for him to know that he made a difference, it would be the perfect end to his story.”
Not long ago, it looked like it would happen. But then the narrative veered off-track. After winning Game 1 in overtime, the Warriors were heavy favorites going into Game 2. Kyrie Irving was out. The Bay Area was talking sweep. To West, it was just the kind of trap game he fears.
Again, he sat in the suite with the other execs. Again, the Warriors played sloppy. Karen watched as he struggled to stay in his seat. By the second half, he was pacing around the room. When the Warriors lost in OT, a gloom descended.
Two days later, on Tuesday, it got worse. West watched the Game 3 loss at his house with Karen and Ryan and a friend of Ryan’s. The Warriors were out of sync. West’s season-long anxieties were realized. There was no third scorer. No third shooter. Even Green, the heart of the team, was ineffective, suffering from back spasms. By the fourth quarter, Karen, Ryan and Ryan’s friend were watching in the kitchen, with the door closed. Jerry was by himself in the living room, suffering.
Now, Game 4 in Cleveland looms. If the Warriors win—and maybe even if they lose—West plans to come back to Oakland for Game 5 on Sunday. It will no doubt be agonizing. He may need to escape.
So if you happen to be in the parking lot outside Oracle Arena on Sunday, keep your eye out for a tall, white-haired man wandering both aimlessly and with great purpose.
He has spent his life seeking perfection. But for now he’ll take good enough.