"If we are in disagreement, we'll do what Jerry (West) says, but that doesn't mean we won't argue the matter constantly. I want to be free to speak my mind."
Laker Coach Pat Riley spent five years of his playing career guarding West during Laker practices ("I kid him that when they retired his jersey, they retired me with it," Riley says). He sees the same qualities of leadership "and hatred of losing" in West, the general manager. "We don't lean on each other. It's 'You get 'em, and I'll coach 'em, and you have to fire 'em, too.' "
"I was very much against" the Nixon-Scott trade, Riley says. "It was my second year. I hated to change, and I felt tremendous loyalty to the group we had. But Jerry was a step ahead of me. He saw . . . that Nixon was personally unhappy at no longer being the solo point guard. He finally convinced me the deal had to be done.
"I'm not going to fight him. It's voluntary cooperation here. When you've got four or five strong-minded people who have a vote in these things, there's got to be compromise, and you can't feel like you got beat, then come back and say, 'I told you so' a year later. I would never want to hear that."
West agrees. "If I felt I was somebody's boss, I wouldn't like it. I think we have six or seven general managers." Like a team? "Yes, absolutely."
It was Bill Sharman who made the key trade that gave the Lakers the opportunity to draft James Worthy in 1982. When voice problems forced Sharman to curtail his work that year, Buss hired him as president of the club. Now 61 and planning to retire when the playoffs are over, Sharman still consults with West almost every day. "I believe the Lakers' front office does benefit a great deal by having personnel with long-term experience in pro ball," says Sharman. "People who have actually played and coached in the NBA have a tremendous advantage over those who came up through college or other programs."
Indeed, the deals by Sharman and West that brought Scott, Johnson and Worthy to the Lakers were made with teams saddled with financial problems, inexperienced executives or capricious owners. "The Lakers jumped on franchises that were reeling," Pat Williams says. "The (other) teams panicked, felt they needed instant help, and it turned out to be disastrous for them."
But the financial prosperity of the league in recent years has also tended to shore up its weak sisters, and one-sided deals have become rarer. Toss in the salary cap rules, West believes, and trying to make a trade today "is like going to the dentist."
"Trades aren't supposed to be one-sided, because then you can't deal with anyone," West says. "But look at the Dodgers; they went out and restructured their team, because there aren't a lot of restrictions on those people moving around. We're lucky if we can make one trade a year." When it's suggested that the Dodgers needed considerably more restructuring than the Lakers, West answers by noting that "the rules in this league aren't designed for teams to stay good, they're designed for parity. And \o7 parity\f7 , in my vocabulary at least, is not a very good word."
GOOD TIMES ARE NOT TO BE TAKEN FOR GRANTED
FOR WEST, THE WORST part of the year falls between Christmas and the inter-league trading deadline in late February. After that, he says, "I have basketball burnout. I'm worn out; I need a break. It seems to happen every year about (that) time. It's a fun job, but it's very wearying. It's like war fatigue, and you just try and fight it until you get your second wind.
"Trading deadlines, the health of the team, the uncertainty of how things will go--these are the kind of things that wear you out," he says. "We're worrying now about what we'd like to do in the draft."Where we're positioned every year, you just can't get the quality of player you need to keep winning in this league. We have to move up in the draft. You need stars to win, and you can't win with old players. It would be a lot of fun, keeping 10 players for 10 years," he says. "But after that, you've got nothin'. Somewhere down the line, we have to make a trade."
Meanwhile the Lakers roll on, achieving the best record in the league this season and winning 60 games for the fourth consecutive year, an NBA record. But whether or not they go on to win their fifth championship of the decade, Jerry West will be watching, quietly conjuring ways to make the magic last.
"Other players on other teams, I wish them well. I do. I hope they all prosper--but we'd like to beat 'em. That's the challenge," says West, a gleam in his West Virginia sharpshooter's eye. "I like a good challenge."
; styling by Claude Deloffre