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West Gives It a Rest | THE NBA

West Has Been One of a Kind From the Start

August 08, 2000|MARK HEISLER

A Jerry West story:

In 1990, when I was The Times' beat writer on the Lakers, I telephoned West before the season. The team had just left Hawaii where the new starting center, Vlade Divac, had had his usual underwhelming camp.

"We're not going to do anything this year the way our centers are playing," West grumbled.

"Jerry," I asked, "do you want to say that on the record?"

Replied West: "Who is this again?"

No, it wasn't like dealing with the ordinary GM, but then nothing was ever ordinary about West, not as a player, coach or an administrator, not now that he's trying retirement.

Strung like a violin string, so tight a puff of air could produce a high C, easily hurt but embarrassed by praise, charming, insecure, bold, zany, lucid, happy, tortured, eternally planning his escape from the enormous pressure he placed on himself but attributed to the press or fans . . . we've seen it all since he showed up as a Laker rookie in the team's first season here in the fall of 1960.

If his profile became the NBA's logo, what did he mean to the Lakers?

More.

Even in a new day, having brought them full circle so successfully they no longer need him to purloin superstars, his departure will be felt throughout the organization he embodied.

No one can replace him and no one will get the opportunity.

West presided over a family operation as first among equals, but he was always Jerry West and everyone deferred to him. With rookie GM Mitch Kupchak, it'll be more of a committee with owner Jerry Buss, Coach Phil Jackson, new assistant GM Kurt Rambis, and perhaps even the old assistant GM, Jim Buss, the owner's fun-loving son, who has supposedly been learning the business.

It's an open question how many members of the committee they can even get to a meeting.

Buss, the owner, is ever more detached. Jackson lives the coach's life, going all-out during the season, then withdrawing to his summer refuge in Montana, communicating with the outside world by e-mail, although Kupchak says he talks to him daily by telephone.

Fortunately for the Lakers, their personnel needs aren't dire. In a time when there is a lot of hype but few real stars, they have two of the biggest just entering their primes and learning to complement each other.

Now they just need role players and you can find those. They're reportedly close to landing Chris Mullin (whom West, ironically, long pursued). Mullin is 37 and spent last season buried in Indiana, but his ballhandling and shooting should work in the triangle. The Lakers have O'Neal to cover for him on defense and Shaq and Kobe Bryant to draw the defense at the other end. In a system like this, Mullin might last for years.

The Lakers won with stop gaps platooning at two positions and bad outside shooting (at 32.9%, they were No. 24 in the league on three-point shots). They still have a perennial all-star (well, he was until he got here) to trade. If Glen Rice goes to Charlotte in the speculated deal for P.J. Brown, the Lakers will start the season looking a lot stronger than they did when the last one ended.

The long run looks more uncertain. Jackson is the man of the moment because the central challenge is keeping O'Neal and Bryant tracking upward and working together, but Jackson doesn't look like a Laker lifer.

Even if he was from West Virginia, West was Mr. Southern California. Jackson is essentially a solitary guy from the Western outback, who prefers quiet and open spaces. Despite feverish speculation about his relationship with Jeanie Buss, they've only dated for a few months.

Jackson has already speculated about leaving before his five-year contract is up. It's already a brave new Laker world, and if Phil splits too, it'll even braver and newer.

IS THIS REALLY THE END OF MR. CLUTCH?

As always, in West's history of hysteria, we can only wait . . . and wait . . . and see.

One remembers him in his final days as a player in the '70s . . . with his nose flattened over and over, his chronically-pulled hamstrings wrapped bulkily, getting injections to numb the pain in the thumb on his shooting hand . . . sitting in the dressing room long after games, telling writers he wasn't sure he could keep playing . . . so admired by peers that Boston's Bill Russell once told a Forum crowd that if he had one wish, it was that Jerry would always be happy . . . Jerry winning his only title in 1972, taking only a sip of champagne and then going home . . . retiring two years later.

Not that leisure seemed more fun for him. A close friend, then-Pepperdine coach Gary Colson, told Sports Illustrated's Richard Hoffer that West looked so bad in his few years away from the game, he was afraid they'd find him dead one morning.

Nor did returning to coach the Lakers do the trick, West being given to questions about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's work ethic that got into the press, and observations like, "If Lou Hudson was a horse, we'd have to shoot him."

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