Friends remain puzzled by the man's anguish, a public torment that is at once spectacular and unnerving. Over the years it has abated somewhat, and the man's wife reports that so far, as the NBA playoffs near, her husband's stomach has not required its seasonal medical attention. This is a good sign, you don't know how good. Once, when he was still coaching the Los Angeles Lakers, he didn't speak to her for three weeks. It was their first year of marriage, and she was too scared to talk to anyone but her mother about it. Later he told her it was nothing personal. It was playoff time.
Another good sign: It used to be that after a Laker loss, his mood might require her to seek another ride home. But when a division rival pasted the Lakers recently and Magic Johnson went down and out with an ankle injury (that is to say, the world came to an abrupt and fiery end), the family repaired to a movie that he actually remembers seeing. "He even spoke to us," says his wife.
So, good signs all around. Yet—good signs aside—he maintains a strange misery that neither friends nor success can lift, a cultivated gloom that, like his clutch play for 14 Laker seasons, is practically a work of art.
Who wouldn't want to be Jerry West, to achieve all that he has? Who would dare dream the life Jerry West has led? Not even Jerry West—Zeke from Cabin Creek, dribbling a ball on the West Virginia dirt on winter nights 40 years ago, a country boy's solitaire—could have created this life from his imagination.
April 22, 1990
"I was my own best friend," he says of those days. "I was everything, actually. Player, coach, announcer, even the timekeeper. It was amazing to me how many times in those imaginary games there'd be one second left, my team one point down and me with the ball, and I'd miss and—the really amazing part—there would still be time for another shot, or 10." Not that many years later, the timekeeper no longer his best friend, he would make a 60-foot shot at the buzzer to send a 1970 NBA championship game into overtime. Not even his dreams, as fevered as they may have been in the Appalachian twilight, anticipated the glory of real life.
Real life: West became one of the greatest guards to play the game, a perennial All-Star, a rich man, later a winning coach and, after a brief retirement to country-club life and a one handicap, the architect and curator of the 1980s' dominant professional sports franchise. Life's lottery winner. As general manager of the Lakers since 1982, West is the man who risked the 26th pick in the '89 NBA draft on Vlade Divac, strictly a Yugoslavian novelty act (popular opinion), and came up with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's successor for the next decade or so (new popular opinion). After everyone else passed, West took a chance on A.C. Green out of Oregon State and developed a Laker mainstay. He stole Mychal Thompson and Orlando Woolridge to keep Magic surrounded by winners. And now the Lakers are going after NBA title No. 6 in 11 years. Does West have a golden touch? "Well," says Pete Newell, his longtime friend and onetime boss, "he's the only guy I know who went into oil for a tax loss and struck a gusher."
So watch West at a Laker game, enjoying all this success: He covers his eyes, pounds the armrests of his seat near a Forum tunnel—"It feels like an electric chair," he says—jumps up and...leaves.
"I've never followed him," says Mitch Kupchak, West's assistant general manager. Kupchak doesn't dare. "But I think he leaves the building. I think he's out in the parking lot by himself, walking around."
So this is the unnerving part: Sometimes your dreams come true. West considers this as if for the first time and laughs. "Pretty scary, huh?"
The Lakers, taken part by part, are an unlikely dynasty. The owner, Jerry Buss, surrounds himself with celebrities and conducts a life of such apparent hedonism that it would keep the Church Lady in business for many a season. Buss strides about his various holdings in blue jeans held up by a huge cowboy belt, and he has been known to entertain party guests—that is, a tableful of young women—by setting his chest hair on fire. This goofiness is only heightened by strange stabs at dignity. "Dr. Buss returning your call," a secretary will announce. Yet the chemistry Ph.D. from USC has proved to be a genius in real estate and has shrewdly applied the important principles of that business to the operation of an NBA franchise: Identify the market (show-biz rich) for an appropriate property (more and better show biz) and calculate, to the penny, the market's ability to pay (did we mention show-biz rich?). Courtside seats at the Forum cost $350, and they're sold out every year.
The coach, Pat Riley, is an equally unusual component. His hairdo is as well known by now as Don King's. The sheer stylishness of the man gives him a kind of Hollywood sheen. In fact, film director Robert Towne tried to talk his friend Riley into starring in Tequila Sunrise, the idea being that the move from Laker coach to movie star was strictly lateral. Riley declined, so Towne appropriated his character for Kurt Russell to play, slicked-back hair and all. Yet Riley, for all his glamour, had the grit to push his team to back-to-back NBA titles, and almost back-to-back-to-back. Behind locker room doors he is believed to play Joan Crawford more often than Cary Grant.
The team itself is a happy combination of separate and interlocking talents-workaday players like Green alongside improvisational artists like Magic. You can say the Lakers are all Magic, but Buss points out, "Lots of teams have superstars and still don't win." The team isn't just Magic, and it was never just Magic and Abdul-Jabbar. It's a blend that draws as much on the spirited character of Magic as on his no-peek passing, and it has produced not only fast-breaking entertainment but championships, too. With five NBA titles and three other trips to the finals, the Lakers moved well beyond the Boston Celtics in the 1980s. Now the Lakers compare themselves not with the best of the NBA but with the best of the sports world (Edmonton Oilers, four NHL titles in the '80s; San Francisco 49ers, three Super Bowl victories).
But, truly, the man behind this run of NBA titles has been Jerry West, all the while discounting success and envisioning failure, championship ring by championship ring. As the team's special consultant from 1979 to '82, he scouted college players for then general manager Bill Sharman. As G.M. since then, he has picked and signed the talent and kept everyone happy. But with the Lakers, as with any winning team, there are special problems.
West was talking about these problems recently as he set forth from Inglewood to scout the Final Four and the year-end college camps and all-star games. It was basically a fool's errand, frustrating to a man who can really appreciate talent. "What we do," he says, "is identify the 20 best players. And then we cross them off. Just cross them off. Not the most fun thing."
The NBA tries to enforce parity through its draft, giving the high picks to the losers, reserving a pool of leftovers for the winners. The curse of winning every year is to be consistently denied a chance at the top talent, which presumably will turn a winner back into a loser over time. Is seven years time enough? In his tenure as general manager, West has had no draft pick higher than 23, and twice he did not pick until the third round. Do you wonder why he is superstitious, driving the same route to the Forum for 22 years now—off the San Diego Freeway at Manchester, then down a series of side streets he can't name? ("This can be a problem," he admits in all seriousness, "given the traffic of Los Angeles.") This kind of success is fragile enough to collapse of its own weight; better not to disturb it with the slightest deviation from ritual.
West is more likely to attribute the Laker record to his Forum route than to any decisions he has made. His is a near-pathological humility, a refusal to set himself apart from anyone else by his deeds. In his house in Bel Air there is his 1960 Olympic gold medal (which reminds him of the last time basketball was really fun), a painting of him done by former teammate Gene Wiley, and the ball with which he scored his 25,000th point. That ball has scored a few more in his driveway; some of his five sons—three from his first marriage and two from his second—have used it in pickup games. Otherwise, there are no reminders of West's career, no emblems of ego.
"We've been fortunate" is how he begins any discussion of the Lakers' continued success. He lays it all to Magic and the recently retired Abdul-Jabbar. "Two of the greatest players to ever play the game, on one team," he says, "and that rarely happens. Our job is so much easier when those people have been around. The complementary people, which we have been able to get, have helped us. But someday we're going to need more than complementary people, no question. I shudder to think when Earvin's gone. I just shudder." He thinks about it and finds an opportunity to be miserable. "We'll probably have to be real bad before we get good again."
This is pure West. Not only is he incapable of accepting credit, but he is an uncomfortable winner—doesn't even think of himself as a winner. He ends an interview by saying he hopes the story does not end up rubbing any noses in the Lakers' success, because if you want to know the truth, he's just a loser waiting to happen, just like the rest of the guys in the league, just like always.
Tell it to the rest of the guys. The NBA is a clubby organization, a sort of roving fraternity party. The general managers and the scouts set out for some college game and invariably run into each other and settle into a courtside klatch. Even so, West seems especially beloved and respected by the competition, and by the establishment. NBA commissioner David Stern is impressed by West's grasp of such administrative tangles as the salary cap. "Jerry has disproved the notion that you have to be a lawyer to master that," he says, "and the lawyer in me hates to admit that. He's just an excellent executive. He'd be a success in any business."
Even more impressed are his colleagues. Billy McKinney, director of player personnel for the Minnesota Timber-wolves, calls West the "most underrated sports executive in America. People don't understand the mechanics of keeping a team great."
Like McKinney, the rest of the NBA is most appreciative of West's fine eye for talent. Of course, West has been sharpening that eye a long time. When Tommy Hawkins was West's teammate and roommate, the two would show up at an arena well before the other Lakers and, if there was a high school game that preceded theirs, sit through it, comparing notes on what they saw. "He'd say, 'Watch how this kid gets out of a jam,' or 'Check his attitude,' " Hawkins recalls. "These were high school kids."
When Jack Kent Cooke owned the Lakers, he regularly called West in to evaluate talent before a trade or draft. (Today, West calls Magic in for the same reason.) "It was very unusual to do that, to ask a player for advice," says Cooke, whose relations with West were not always so comfortable. "But the passage of time invariably showed him to be right."
For a player it was largely an irrelevant talent, a parlor trick. But West could not help himself. He saw everything and he remembered it. Kupchak thinks back to 1972, when the Lakers were playing the Knicks in the NBA finals. Kupchak was being recruited by Duke out of a Long Island, N.Y., high school and was being led through the Laker dressing room at Madison Square Garden. Duke coach Bucky Waters introduced him to a number of players, including West. Nine years later, having just been signed by the Lakers, Kupchak was boarding the team bus when he bumped into West, then a Laker consultant. Kupchak, jittery in West's presence, made some small talk. "You know, we met way back in...."
"At the Garden—1972," West said. "Bucky Waters brought you by."
That reminds Kupchak of one more story: He and West were driving down a freeway once, and Kupchak noticed some commonplace commotion off to the side. "Did you see that?" he asked. And West said, wearily, "I see everything."
For a general manager, though, this ability is no burden. Rather, it's a marvel. Consider Green, the 6'9" forward who as of mid-April had missed only three games in his five-year NBA career. Green has been the Laker defensive leader while steadily increasing his scoring, season by season. After 22 players had been selected in the 1985 draft, he was still there. "You went to see A.C. Green," says Pat Williams, then the G.M. at Philadelphia, "and you did not see a special player. He was just another forward."
West agrees that there was nothing obvious about Green. "He came out of Oregon State and a system that didn't score many points. He was a player who did not particularly show well in the all-star games, either. Played O.K., not great." But West and Riley both were in the market for a big, dirty-work kind of guy, and to the amazement of some of the Laker players, they plucked him. Abdul-Jabbar remembers somebody telling him that the team had drafted a kid out of Ralph Miller's slow-down offense up north. Kareem covered his eyes. "A kid who passes 17 times before he shoots? How's he going to help the Lakers?" Says West, characteristically, "He could have been a bust."
Not likely. What other general manager takes his 23rd pick onto the floor to share a few moves with him? Or offers advice on where to set up housekeeping, or asks if he has a financial adviser? "He took responsibility for me," says Green, "but not to save face for a draft selection. That's just him." Half a dozen players picked ahead of Green have either left the NBA or been relegated to the bench.
The rest of the Laker roster was put together in similar fashion. When it became apparent that Abdul-Jabbar could play only almost forever, West dealt off two players, two draft picks and some cash for Thompson, an underwhelming center at Portland and then, briefly, San Antonio. The upshot of that is expressed by Magic: "If we don't get Mychal, we don't win."
It's not easy to see what West sees. Of course, there are other general managers who are also good at identifying talent. But West looks for more than just talent. It's evident by the Lakers' luck in this era, when everybody knows that a missed practice can mean something besides the car didn't start, that he checks out character as well. Laker scout Gene Tormohlen says that's why a lot of obvious picks slide right on by the team. "We usually announce it differently," he says.
Not that the Lakers are living in another world. Woolridge has made a nice comeback from drug rehabilitation, but only after West addressed the issue head-on with him. "He doesn't beat around the bush," says Woolridge. But what mainly guides West—better articulated by Abdul-Jabbar—is this: "He takes people he would have liked to play with."
In 1983, West made the Lakers' single most unpopular trade when he gave Norm Nixon to the San Diego Clippers for the rights to Byron Scott. "I hated it," says Magic. Everybody did—even, truth be told, West. He left the Forum with tears in his eyes. "Terrible, absolutely terrible," he says. "Absolutely no fun." But Nixon was 28 years old, Scott 22. Scott has become a high-scoring guard alongside Magic. Nixon is now retired.
There is hardly anybody on the roster besides Magic who is not some kind of steal, one of Jerry's Kids. After last season, Buss sat down with West in the Polo Lounge for one of their regular chats, and both agreed that they needed a backup guard. "So we pick up Larry Drew," Buss says. "Now, why don't other teams pick up guys like Larry Drew? They tried. Both Drew and Orlando Woolridge had offers that exceeded ours. I think they were swayed [to sign with the Lakers] by the prestige of Jerry West."
But these players are examples of petty thievery compared to Divac. He is the Great Train Robbery, the Thomas Crown Affair and the Brink's Job rolled into one. Divac is 7'1", 22 years old, and can run, block shots and score. In addition, the bearded one has become a crowd favorite at the Forum, no small consideration. "Do you understand what Divac is?" asks Kupchak. "He's the equivalent of a top-five pick, the kind of player you've got to lose 50 games to get. What he does is make us set for 10 years."
In fact, Divac was a top-26 pick, the kind of player the Lakers needed to lose just 25 games to get, and Kupchak, like everyone else on the Lakers staff, had doubts about him all the way.
Oh, the NBA knew Divac was a talent, no question. And the Lakers expected him to be one of the first 10 or 15 picked. But as draft day approached, the rest of the league began to cool on Divac. "He scared a number of scouts with a lackluster performance in the European championships, when he was playing down to the competition," says Divac's agent, Marc Fleisher. "But besides that, and the language problem, and the issue of whether he would come at all, there were these rumors. He smoked, he drank, he jumped off the balcony of a girls' dorm."
Meanwhile, West was organizing his own scouting report, though he figured to have no chance at Divac. He called Fleisher for some videotape, since the Lakers, unlike the Celtics and many other NBA teams, did not scout Divac in Europe. He called former Laker Bob McAdoo in Italy for reassurance, which he received.
So when Divac slid to No. 26, the Lakers were presented with an unexpected dilemma. Divac or another seven-footer, Missouri's Gary Leonard. Kupchak and scouts Tormohlen and Ronnie Lester all voted for Leonard. Tormohlen says, "I told Jerry I was scared. Mitch and Ronnie were afraid of the deal. The bottom line is, if every team knew how good Divac was, why was he still there?"
And to solve the dilemma, the Lakers had exactly five minutes. West called Buss in Hawaii to report his choice. "Early on with the Lakers, I made a strong suggestion about a draft choice in the first round," says Buss. "It was the last time I stepped out of line. So when he told me about this seven-foot Yugoslavian and said, 'What do you think?' I said, 'Go ahead. In our position we should gamble.' "
That was what West wanted to hear. Today the rest of the league sniffs that Divac is not much of a risk when you're picking 26th. Says Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach, "In the first 15, you can't take a chance. They had nothing to lose." The Celtics, who ordinarily pick down low with the Lakers, had the 13th pick last year and were so giddy about the comparative availability of talent that they practically expected to develop another Larry Bird. They didn't—their choice, 6'10" forward Michael Smith of BYU, has contributed little—and meanwhile the Lakers get to develop a solid replacement for Abdul-Jabbar.
Once he made the pick, West quickly solved all problems, paying off Divac's former team and settling on a three-year contract worth close to $2 million, which is not exactly No. 26 money. How good was the deal? "Well," says Kupchak, "the tribute to the deal is that you don't read about Kareem anymore, as in, 'If only the Lakers still had Kareem....' " Leonard, by the way, is with the Minnesota Timber-wolves, used sparingly.
It is suggested to West that he must feel pretty proud of having landed Divac. He waves his hands. "Oh, my," he says, "we've done some terrible things here. We drafted Earl Jones [a 23rd pick in 1984] and he didn't do a darn thing, a terrible mistake and all my fault. We traded for Billy Thompson, who was put on the expansion list. We passed on Dennis Rodman. That wasn't the best move we could have made. Now, Vlade's done a real nice job for us, and he's a breath of fresh air, but the measure of any player is after three years, knock on wood...."
Jerry West is naturally distrustful of success, and he is always surprised, but never pleased enough, when it comes his way. He was a two-time All-America at West Virginia, the only college player you could mention in the same breath with Oscar Robertson, but he was astonished when the Lakers, just then picking up to move from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, drafted him in the first round in 1960. "I didn't think I was good enough to play in the NBA," he says. "No, really." Then, after a bad game during the Olympic trials that year, he almost gave up on the Olympics, too. Pete Newell, the U.S. coach, had to explain to him that if West wasn't on the team, neither was he. "But that was Jerry," says Newell.
His career with the Lakers is storybook stuff. But if it was unexpected to West, it was also unsatisfying. This is how it went for the game's greatest guard: He would start every night with his stomach in knots and end every season with a loss. Now 51, he still can't help but hark back to that annual loss. "The albatross around my neck," he says. Of course, West exaggerates—the Lakers finally won an NBA title in 1972—but it did not go unremarked that he was one of sport's beautiful losers. Six times before '72 he helped the Lakers to the NBA championship round, only to lose to Boston. In 1969 he was so heroic in defeat that he was voted MVP. All this, you should know, came after his college team was beaten in the 1959 NCAA finals by the University of California.
He was driven. Hawkins recalls that West never had back-to-back bad nights. West hardly ever had single bad nights, but if he did, he would return to their room and do a stream-of-consciousness replay. "A thorough recapitulation," says Hawkins. "I never thought it silly—maybe a little excessive."
How seriously did West take it all? Hawkins remembers that once during introductions at the Forum, West looked up at the crowd and said he felt just like a Roman gladiator. "He had very grandiose notions about what this thing was, more than an arena, more than a game."
To have this approach and still lose took quite a toll. The NBA championship in 72 was pitiful recompense, though not entirely unappreciated. After the Lakers beat the Knicks, West wandered off by himself and sat in the trainer's room, "I thought how differently we'd be perceived from then on. Instead of a bunch of losers and chokers, suddenly we were champions. It was amazing." But the toll mounted, resuming the strange momentum of defeat that had plagued his career: two more frustrating finishes to seasons, losing to the Knicks in the '73 finals and to the Bucks in the first round of the '74 playoffs. The broken noses and the final stomach pull that led him to retire in '74, way early. He was 36 and still one of the best in the game. "But I didn't want anyone to hit me again, I didn't want another needle stuck in me, and I was tired of losing. I woke up one day and said, I don't like this, and I don't like myself."
His first marriage was unraveling, his life's work was prematurely completed, and he had only one championship to show for it. The NBA wasn't about to forget him: Among the ways he has been immortalized is by the league logo, which depicts West dribbling left handed. But he barely kept track of his old team. The dream career was over, and the payoff was he was essentially lost.
Gary Colson, then basketball coach at Pepperdine, used to run around with West during this period, a time of vigorous bachelor life, by most accounts. "You hear about movie stars who have done it all and just go fruitcake?" says Colson. "Here you go. I had this fear, you know, a Marilyn Monroe type of thing. What else was there? What would he do now that the cheering had stopped? He was searching for something. It was a depression that all great actors and athletes go through."
West, unoccupied and unanchored for the first time in his life, threw himself into golf. Every day, all day. Eddie Merrins, the pro at Bel-Air Country Club, stood back and watched West attack his game. "I think he felt, in his own mind, that he'd just switch from one game to another, play professional golf," says Merrins. "He was a very good club golfer, and he did shoot that 28 on our back nine [in a friendly round in 1974], which nobody else has ever done. Yet he was reluctant to enter competitions. He wasn't perfect, and it was as if he didn't want to embarrass himself with a poor round."
Since a poor round always lurked around the corner, golf ultimately wasn't his game. West rarely plays today, though when he does, he must be somewhat comical to watch. He plays speed golf. "Once," says former teammate Rod Hundley, "we were creeping up on this foursome and they said, 'Why don't you play with the two following you, the ones way back?' I said, 'We were playing with them." "
But the golf was necessary therapy during a strange time, when West seemed frantic to shed his past life, layer by layer. Colson used to help West move from one bachelor pad to another, and West was always giving him stuff, artifacts of an unsatisfying life: jewelry, clothes—"I'm wearing his shorts right now," Colson says, laughing—and belts. "I'd take these belts home, and on the back of one of them is Hickok. You remember the Hickok Award [the S. Rae Hickok Award for professional athlete of the month, won by West in April '69 and January '72]? He gave me two or three All-Star rings."
One day in 1974, Colson invited West to a Pepperdine basketball affair. West was seated next to a Pepperdine cheerleader, Karen Bua, and for reasons she still can't tell you, he blurted out his life story to her. She was slack-jawed. "I had never met the man, and he just basically told me everything," she says. "He was just starting a divorce and was not a happy person. Very famous, had done everything and was just empty. I felt, what a sad human being." Having spilled these astonishing confidences, there was nothing for West to do but marry Karen, which he did four years later.
Civilian life was a struggle. One awful consequence: He now was famous for no reason. He couldn't stand it. He was on a scouting visit to Rutgers in the late '70s when some players noticed him and came up for autographs. "He began perspiring profusely," says Jack McCloskey, then his assistant coach. It was a physical reaction. Karen has watched him sign autographs silently and stone-faced, and has wanted to tell him, smile, talk to these people. But she finally recognized that it was not arrogance but embarrassment.
If unemployment was a problem, what to say of West's coaching stint for Cooke from 1976-77 through 1978-79? It was the most disastrous 145-101, three-time-playolf job ever turned in. Oh, the first year was a dream. West took a team that hadn't been in the playoffs in two years to the best record in the NBA. "In some respects, of all the things I've been involved in, that was the most fun year I've ever had in basketball," he says. But Cooke liked to tinker. "Mr. Cooke was good to me, other than him wanting to be my assistant coach," West says. Championships continued to mock him. And the job quickly turned him into the kind of man who might not speak to his wife for three weeks and then say, "Nothing personal."
Cooke was equally exasperated by his protègè. "I expected nothing like perfection from Jerry, and he didn't fail me," he says. "He was only moderately successful as a coach, because he could never understand why average players couldn't do the things he did so easily."
Another morning dawned with West's waking up and discovering, "I did not like myself. I was absolutely miserable." He quit, and though Buss later got down on his knees—"literally," says Buss—to beg him to return, West never again considered coaching. (In 1981, after firing Paul Westhead, Buss named West and Riley Laker co-coaches. But West said he was only helping Riley and returned to his consultant's role after two weeks.)
West had no reason to think himself qualified for anything but dribbling a ball, or showing others how. So his competence as general manager, a job arranged by his predecessor, Sharman, and Buss, surprises him. "This is a side of me I never knew existed," he says. Lucky again. Because this may be the happiest time in West's life. "His proper niche," says Cooke. His competitive drives and his abilities have, for once, found a healthy outlet in his job. And Karen says he comes home, by whatever strange route, and plays with the kids, and is relatively relaxed, nearly normal.
Not completely, of course. For one thing, he is as quirky as ever. He won't travel with the team. (The last time he did, during the 1983 playoffs, the Lakers were swept by Philadelphia.) And even when the Lakers are home, he maintains his rituals. Game nights, he goes into his office and right back out. No reason. He is, despite recent improvement, surely tormented, always distrustful of his charmed life. It's what happens when your dreams come true, and you realize you shot too low.
The core torment is this: There should have been more, and West knew it all along. "Those winter nights as a kid," he says, "playing until your fingers cracked and bled. Dreaming. Winning the game with a last-second shot, being somebody you could look up to. All those things came true for me, everything happened except one thing, and that's winning a championship. And I thought I had the ability to do something like that. I thought I was gifted with greater skills. I thought I was responsible. I've often wondered what my life would have been like if we'd won."
He means, won all the time. If you remember West at the end of a close game, you remember a man demanding the ball. They called him Mr. Clutch for the way he took charge. It wasn't because he wanted the two points—nobody has ever heard him discuss his scoring—but because he wanted and expected the win. West was enslaved by his own greatness, doomed by his own dreams, haunted by responsibilities nobody else in the game has ever shouldered. He suffers them still, pacing outside in the Forum parking lot, the din of the game now distant, ticking off defeat after defeat, each one his fault. You imagine he promises the California night air, it won't happen again.