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It Won't Be the Same With Only One Jerry

April 18, 1998|MARK HEISLER

Say it ain't so, Jerry.

Either Jerry, West or Buss. Say the Lakers' most valuable player isn't walking out of their life, the real MVP, the one who brought Shaquille O'Neal here and Kobe Bryant and all the others, who shaped Showtime in the '80s and rebuilt the franchise in the '90s, the one and only Mr. Clutch.

No one should be surprised to hear that West has been talking of leaving, since he has been doing that, almost from the day he arrived. He's a peculiarly haunted artist, insisting on greatness, torturing himself along the way, laying off the fear and anguish by telling anyone who'll listen he can leave whenever he wants and might.

Of course, he never before came up with a specific date. Now he's telling friends he's gone, as of Aug. 31.

This time, they fear, he really means it.

"You know how emotional Jerry is," says one. "He says things and changes his mind. That's what I'm hoping this is."

West, wrung out in the best of times, began giving off more distress signals in the summer of 1997 when he landed O'Neal after months of high-stakes maneuvering. In one of the first chronicled cases of NBA combat fatigue, West compared the signing to the birth of his children, then slid into a funk, saying he didn't feel like doing this anymore.

Playing nursemaid to the modern athlete didn't add anything to the experience, not with Cedric Ceballos going boating on him and Nick Van Exel tangling with Del Harris until West had to sit them down in his office and order them to get along. Nor did the team's swoon after the All-Star game. Buss held Harris accountable, leaving the loyal West between the owner he serves, his own frustration with the team and the coach he hired.

While they lasted, which looked as though it would be as long as they were in the business, the L.A. Jerries were a great team, the owner's go-for-broke style and abiding trust letting the general manager fulfill his vision.

Knowing their fans demanded marquee stars, a pleasing style and titles, they went boldly where few dared, sending away the last prop of their respectability, Sam Perkins, to start rebuilding in the early '90s, trading Vlade Divac for a high school kid.

However, the job might not be finished, not with the possibility of another disappointment this spring and a shake-up this summer. West has groomed Mitch Kupchak personally, but the bottom line is, on Sept. 1, Mitch will be a rookie general manager, walking in the footsteps of a giant.

West is known to have noticed the growing difference in his pay and top scale over the years but has been insisting to friends this isn't about money. Nevertheless, he was a bargain at $1.25 million long before the current wave of coaches masquerading as general managers, such as Rick Pitino, who never so much as put a player on waivers in their lives, began accepting their annual packages in the range of $3 million to $5 million.

Not since Red Auerbach dominated a league in which some teams drafted out of Street & Smith's Yearbook has one executive been so respected. Indiana Pacer President Donnie Walsh once asked, if O'Neal was worth $12 million a year to the Lakers, what was West worth? Utah's Scott Layden said they should name the executive award after West. Players, who usually don't know the general manager from a salesman in men's suits at Nordstrom, revere him and cite him as a factor in their decisions to come, starting with O'Neal.

"Shaq loves Jerry West," says O'Neal's agent, Leonard Armato. "He's almost like family. Jerry is the reason he came. He wanted to play for an organization that was headed by the best in the business and one of the greatest players ever."

Oh yeah, O'Neal has an out in his contract after next season.

Did the Jerries split at the end? West is telling friends they didn't, that he had a wonderful relationship with his boss, that he simply needs a rest--but might return, after a year off or so.

Not to be too suspicious, but isn't that when the Clippers would enter the Staples Center, in a year?

You want to see the earth move under basketball in Southern California? What if Donald T. Sterling gives West 20% of his franchise to run his club? This would be a novelty, Donald giving up a piece of his team and letting someone else actually run it.

And what if O'Neal went with West? Who would be the No. 1 tenant and the No. 2 tenant in the Staples Center then?

But that's a whirlwind for another day. Right now, all there is to know is, the greatest Laker of them all has a cab waiting out in front of the Forum.

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