Oct. 24, 2011
Oct. 24, 2011

Table of Contents
Oct. 24, 2011

  • Six weeks into the season, the conventional wisdom has been turned on its head— and sometimes back again. Trying to sort the contenders from the pretenders? Beyond Green Bay, it's anyone's guess




This is an article from the Oct. 24, 2011 issue

The stress of acquiring Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal in the summer of 1996 sent me to the hospital with exhaustion for a few days. The elation of one of my greatest accomplishments as general manager of the Lakers simply did not last. When I returned from the press conference in Atlanta that announced the signing of Shaquille, I said that aside from the birth of my children, it was the happiest day of my life. But then I experienced an emotional letdown, and my lifelong depression reared its ugly head once more.

The whole process had been tedious and nerve-racking. In the case of Shaquille, it felt as if we were being teased all the time, that a carrot was being held out that I couldn't quite grab hold of. I was on the phone at all hours of the day and night, trying to clear cap space. Shaquille was upset that Orlando and its citizens didn't think he was worth $100 million (the team took a poll, and the results were overwhelmingly against), and he was aware that Alonzo Mourning had just gotten a new contract for $115 million from Miami. The best the Lakers could offer was $98 million, yet I had the sense that Shaquille wanted to come to us, and also be in Hollywood and get into the entertainment business. Every time we thought we were reaching an accord with his agent, Leonard Armato, another roadblock emerged. Eventually, though, with the full support of Jerry Buss (who essentially told me to do whatever it took) and our 11th-hour success in persuading the Grizzlies to acquire Anthony Peeler and George Lynch from us, we made the deal for seven years and $120 million.

The thing that angered me the most was the suggestion—from Magic executives—that we had tampered with Shaquille. When I learned that the commissioner's office was investigating that possibility, I considered resigning. I was at Armato's Santa Monica office, and he was at my house, only when we were allowed to begin talking, and not one second before. How in the hell is that tampering? If you work for Jerry Buss, you are not going to cheat. I always loved Red Auerbach (hated him too), but I never loved him more than when he said the allegation was sour grapes.

In order to get Kobe, which we had done first, we gave away our starting center, Vlade Divac, a crazy thing to do and a point of personal sadness. I had drafted Vlade in 1989. All of our scouts thought I was nuts, but Vlade turned out to be a terrific player—his hands were like a spider's web—and an even better person. In any event the trade almost didn't go through. Vlade's agent, Mark Fleischer, suddenly announced that Vlade was going to retire. Bob Bass, the general manager of the Hornets (who were going to take Kobe with the 13th pick and swap him for Vlade), phoned to say that he was backing out. "Bob, we have a deal, goddammit," I told him. "Vlade is not going to retire. Trust me." Eventually his wife talked him out of retiring. When he later played for the Kings, he made our lives miserable. But Vlade wasn't Shaquille. Nobody was.

KOBE: Unwilling to Defer

I didn't need to watch too much of Kobe's workout for us, going one-on-one against Michael Cooper, to know that he was someone the Lakers had to have. Earvin Johnson said he had never heard me more excited about a prospect. In fact, I wasn't sure that Kobe wasn't better than the players we had on the team at the time. Even though Kobe was only 17, it was clear that he was a once-in-a-lifetime player. His fierce competitive drive was innate. You need more than a little nastiness to play basketball at the highest level, and Kobe had that in abundance. You need the cold-bloodedness of an assassin, and he possessed it. He clearly modeled himself on Michael Jordan, which was fine. But neither I nor anyone had any idea how long it would take him to mature and develop, and I did worry that it might take him awhile to fit in.

I think it's fair to say that I became a father figure to Kobe. I talked to him about the importance of patience, which is funny because I am the most impatient person I know. I told him that he couldn't impose his will on every situation he faced on the court, that he needed to learn to trust his teammates. (I knew he was going to piss people off, and he did, repeatedly. In the 1998 All-Star Game, in only his second year, he told the veteran Karl Malone to basically move his pick-and-roll ass off to the side so that he could go one-on-one with Jordan.) I also kidded Kobe that he couldn't have beaten me one-on-one in my prime, that he would have been too eager and anxious.

Kobe and Shaquille would need to find a way to coexist—it pained me to see how much of a struggle it was for them, how unwilling Kobe was to defer to Shaquille in any way—and I needed to do my part to make that happen. I would often talk to both of them and try to get them to realize what they had at stake and how much success they could enjoy. I even wrote each of them a letter, which Shaquille apparently still has.

SHAQ: Serious Discussions

Kobe's demeanor couldn't have been more different from Shaquille's. Whereas Shaquille was a big kid, blowing kisses to everyone the way Magic did, Kobe had a bottomless reservoir of drive that fueled him not just to beat you but to embarrass you, even if you were on his own team. Shaquille felt I was too protective of Kobe, and maybe I was. (Shaquille occasionally was too. After Kobe fired three consecutive air balls in the playoffs against Utah in his first season, it was Shaquille who told him to not let it get him down, even complimented him on his courage to take those shots as a rookie.) Shaquille thought I coddled Kobe partly because I would have "serious discussions" with Shaquille if he did something stupid or poorly, which he said he didn't mind because of the strict discipline his father had imposed on him when he was growing up.

One time, after a game we lost to Dallas, Shaquille recalls my coming into the locker room wondering why he would take fadeaways against the Mavericks' reed-thin center, Shawn Bradley, instead of backing him down and powering over him. I said, "What the hell were you thinking?" And then there was the time I came into the locker room after a bitter playoff loss at the Forum and found Shaquille dismantling the place—ripping out the sinks and urinals—and told him that he needed to calm his ass down.

In retrospect, all I can say is that Shaquille and Kobe could really play—and that, ultimately, is what mattered. We were rebuilding a franchise that needed an infusion of star power, because that is what the league is based on and always has been. Yet the whole effort took a big emotional toll on me because in the first few years it did not result in the sort of achievement we had hoped for. When you have a personality like Shaquille's, one that essentially requires you to be the focal point, the Big Diesel, you get frustrated. I know Kobe got frustrated, too, because he wanted to play more and more (I hadn't forgotten how I felt my rookie year), and that was the main reason we eventually traded [shooting guard] Eddie Jones.

PHIL: No Relationship

In June 1999 a press conference was held at the Beverly Hilton, and Phil Jackson, wearing sandals, was anointed the next coach of the Lakers. His salary would be $6 million a year, for five years. He and Jerry Buss had not met in person until Phil arrived in Los Angeles. It was Year 4 of our attempt to win another title, to see if Shaquille and Kobe could lead us back to where we hadn't been for more than a decade, and Buss was clearly getting anxious. He wanted a big-name coach, as, truthfully, did I.

I had always viewed the Lakers as a family and had always tried to instill a family atmosphere in the office. I never sat in my office for more than 15 minutes. I not only had restless energy, I wanted to go and see other people, take everyone's pulse. So one of the first problems I had with Phil was this: His office was right near mine, and when he arrived in the morning he would walk past and never even bother to wave or duck his head in to say hello. He would later say that he felt the need to stake out his territory, that on top of that he was "a wack job," but I am sure it was more than that. He didn't want me around, and he had absolutely no respect for me. (Tex Winter, who created the Triangle Offense and coached with Phil for years, has spoken about this in an oral history of the team.)

In fact, Phil even threw me out of the locker room once. It was customary for me to wait outside the locker room with Mitch Kupchak, my assistant general manager, until the coach was finished talking to the players after a game; then we would go in and I would speak to them individually. On this occasion I honestly thought Phil was finished, so I walked in. As soon as I did, Phil barked, "Jerry, get the f--- out. I'm not finished here yet," and I immediately backed away, red-faced. I have never intruded on a coach's territory in that way, never. I vowed that I would never go in there again, and I didn't. I wasn't going to lower myself and get into a pissing contest with Phil. (His recollection is different, that he didn't know who it was, that he didn't call me out by name, but this is my version—corroborated by Tex, assistant coach Bill Bertka and Mitch—and I am sticking to it.)

LEAVING L.A.: Zero Joy

My decision to leave the Lakers at the end of the 1999--2000 season, the season we won our first championship since 1988, was not about any one thing. I didn't leave because of Phil Jackson and my nonexistent relationship with him (though if I had known the degree to which he didn't want me around, I would have left shortly after he arrived). I didn't leave because of a disastrous meeting that was held in a hotel in Santa Barbara at the beginning of training camp the previous autumn, a meeting involving swingman Glen Rice and his agent that not only revealed a distressing lack of communication between Jerry Buss, Mitch and me, which had never happened before in all my years as an executive, but also crystallized the moment my incredible feeling for the Lakers began to wane. (I was never the same after that.) I didn't leave because of Jerry Buss's detaching himself more and more from the day-to-day operations and allowing his son Jim, whom Jerry had asked me to mentor, to be more involved in running the organization. I didn't leave over not being paid more money and having to negotiate my contract with Jim Perzik instead of with Jerry, as I always had done. All of these things may have created the perfect storm, but I left because the job was not only providing me with zero joy, it was affecting—ruining, really—every aspect of my life.

The worst and most hurtful part was hearing from others during that last year that Jerry may have had some resentment toward me, may have felt that I got—or took—too much of the credit for the success of the organization, that people tended to forget there was another Jerry around. I may be many things, but a braggart I am not.

The death of Wilt Chamberlain in October 1999 hit me particularly hard. Wilt was only two years older than I was, and when I got word that he was dead, I didn't believe it. How could someone that strong and that athletic and that imposing be dead at the age of 63? Wilt's funeral made me think a lot about my own mortality. I was having problems with my racing heart. I was leaving games early or watching at home. One time I left Staples Center and wound up going to see Gladiator, happy to be alone in a dark theater.

I had enjoyed such a close relationship with Jerry Buss, but once we moved to Staples from the Forum in October 1999, he wasn't around as much, and it wasn't as much fun. Not only did I feel underappreciated, but my personal demons, rooted in my childhood, were threatening me. On the morning after we won the 2000 championship, against the Pacers, after not going to the game at all and driving on the Ventura Freeway all the way to Santa Barbara, I was in my office early, staring blankly, wanting to be anywhere but there.

I didn't attend the press conference two months later, in August 2000, that announced my departure. It was too emotional a time for me, and I didn't feel like answering the inevitable, repetitive questions. A large part of me, and this has always been true, just wanted to vanish into thin air, get away from being "Jerry West" and, like Huck Finn, drift lazily along the margins, anonymous in America. So I took out an ad in the Los Angeles Times thanking the team and the fans and headed to Alaska to go fishing.

My successor, Mitch Kupchak, was thrust into a difficult situation. The team went on to win two more championships, but Mitch didn't have the rapport with Shaquille and Kobe that I did. "The hardest thing I had to face," he says now, "was how to deal with guys like Kobe and Shaq on an equal or better-than-equal basis. Jerry was able to do that because he brought them both here. I was O.K. as a player, but how do I relate to Kobe Bryant? I can try to, but I am not Jerry West. He could have worked through most of the issues of those players, and there were lots of issues."

I would like to believe that I could have prevented Shaquille from publicly antagonizing Jerry Buss to the degree that he did. I would have told him that if someone is paying you $120 million, you can't denigrate him in the press. If I could have done that, there is a good chance Shaquille wouldn't have left the Lakers after the 2004 season. But I don't know that—however much others, including Shaquille, might think so.

When the tension between Shaquille and Kobe appeared to be at its worst, I recall thinking that if I were still with the Lakers, I would have appealed to both of them and said, "Hey, look, this does not make either of you look good." If their response had been, "I don't care," I would have said, "No, you should care, because this will affect your future. It will affect your ability to be paid the kind of dollars that you want to be paid. You guys can't make this personal." I would have spoken with each of them individually and then in a room together. I would have bluntly asked them, "What are you guys trying to accomplish here? Tell me what the hell it is. Do you guys really dislike each other? Is this professional jealousy? What's this about?" Players of that magnitude have to be praised and cannot be pitted against each other. They have to be financially rewarded. And as much as possible, this has to be handled behind closed doors.

But that isn't what happened. They continued to snipe at each other through the press, and the result was Shaquille being traded to Miami; Phil not being re-signed and leaving the team (getting his own comeuppance) but returning a year later, having published a book, The Last Season, which was highly critical of Kobe; and Kobe staying on in a quest to prove he could do just fine without Shaquille. I couldn't have done what Kobe did; if I had helped my team win three straight titles, I couldn't have played for a coach who vilified me in his book. I knew as well as (if not better than) anyone that Kobe could be a handful, but why Phil would do that is beyond me.

During the time Shaquille and Kobe played together, Phil would talk about the Lakers being Shaquille's team and Kobe having to adhere to that, and then he would start talking (as would Kobe) about how big and out of shape Shaquille was. Phil likes to needle people, he likes to stir the pot a little bit. Some of that is fine, but with two strong personalities like Kobe and Shaquille, I am not sure that was the best approach.

PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESPHOTOPHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESPHIL'S WAY In West's view needling by Jackson (right) did little to cool the simmering animosity between O'Neal (left) and Bryant.