As the championship champagne flowed like a river in the Golden State Warriors locker room on Monday night, Jerry West and his wife, Karen, walked slowly out of a back entrance of Oracle Arena. Minutes earlier West had been in the tunnel as the exuberant Warriors ran toward the bubbly. Draymond Green, at full tilt, stepped on the brakes when he came to West. They embraced and talked for a long minute. A few seconds later Kevin Durant came by, and he, too, stopped to talk warmly to the Logo.
Then West turned, took Karen’s hand, and they walked out the back way, no longer—as he and very few people knew at the time—a Golden State Warrior.
“I’m telling you it was one of the saddest, if not the saddest night of my life,” West said on Wednesday night, speaking from his home in Bel-Air. “These were six of my happiest years. To be around a team like this, with these kind of guys … well, I’ve been around a long time, and I can tell you it’s a rare experience.”
In a few weeks West will become a special consultant (exact title to be determined) for the Los Angeles Clippers, more or less the role he had played with the Warriors for six years, which included two championships. West had been in touch with the Clippers, particularly owner Steve Ballmer, over the last couple of months after it started to become evident that he and the Warriors were ending a relationship that had begun in 2011.
Sources say that a strain had developed between West and the ownership group, which is headed by hedge-fund legend Joe Lacob and Hollywood heavyweight Peter Guber. But West said he would not address those reports. One thing is clear: It was his decision to leave.
"Jerry West has been an incredible asset to our organization over the last six years,” said Lacob. "He’s one of the most respected and successful executives in the history of the league and he certainly solidified that reputation during his time with the Warriors. We would have loved for him to remain with our franchise moving forward and conveyed that to him in recent weeks, but we respect his decision. He’s earned that right."
For his part West says: “I feel only gratitude and joy that I got to spend these years in Golden State. The ownership group is top-notch. They have made decisions that have kept this franchise going forward. The personnel, the high-quality people, all of it. When I saw what this championship meant to Kevin Durant, with all the barbs and criticism he had endured for daring to leave one team for another, it choked me up. The fans up there are great, too. When I left that night, those were the things I was thinking about, and that’s why I was sad.”
West would not reveal what Green and Durant said to him. The conversation with Green was particularly lengthy given the chaotic circumstances. But Green is known as a player who felt that West is someone who added value to the franchise just by his presence. Word had gotten around the team by then that West was leaving, and perhaps Green was urging him to stay.
But perhaps it was just time for West, who turned 79 as the Finals began, to find another gig. Some relationships have a life of their own. The Warriors seem to be a team on relative auto-pilot, and the kind of key personnel decisions West helped make over the last half dozen years should not be confronting the team for a while. Those decisions included the trading of Monta Ellis (which freed Curry to become a superstar) and the standing-pat with shooting guard Klay Thompson instead of trading for Kevin Love.
West never had the final say on anything in Golden State and never wanted it. Day-to-day general managing is a younger man’s game, and Warriors GM Bob Myers is recognized as one of the best in the NBA. But West was always a respected voice in the room, and, moreover, furnished in the early days of the new ownership group what Guber colorfully called “the cover of darkness.” What he meant was: Whatever mistakes would be made, fans will cut the new owners some slack because West is there.
With the Clippers, West faces a challenge—the team has no draft picks in 2017 and the looming free agency of its two stars, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. For the first year at least, it’s a solid bet that West will be much more involved than he was at Golden State, if only because the Clippers offices (in Playa Vista) and games (at the downtown Staples Center) are now a car ride away instead of a private plane trip. West loves challenges, including searching out endless surface roads to stay off of the L.A. freeways.
“I’ve told myself time and time again that I would get out of the business when I felt I had nothing to contribute,” West said. “But I just don’t feel that’s the case. I don’t feel like I’m ready to stop. Sometimes I feel ageless.”