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The Inside Track | J.A. Adande

This Team Wasn't Big Enough for Both of 'Em

April 30, 2002|J.A. Adande

They say it's done, or all but done. I still won't believe Jerry West is running the Memphis Grizzlies until I see him standing in front of the microphone, his shadow falling across the Grizzlies' logos on the backdrop at a news conference.

They say that's supposed to happen today.

And part of me wonders if this day hasn't been in the works since a memorable news conference three years ago, when West stood at a podium in a Beverly Hills hotel and introduced Phil Jackson as the new coach of the Lakers.

It's as good a place to start as any, because this isn't a simple story. It never is with West.

Why would West leave L.A. for Memphis? Why would he give up a part-time gig collecting rings with the best team in the NBA for a team that was only two victories better than Chicago and Golden State, the worst the association could put out there? Don't look for rational explanations, because greatness isn't always easily explained.

The great ones think differently from you and me. It's almost a requirement of genius--no matter what the field--that there's a little eccentricity thrown in the mix. If West has his quirks, just be glad they aren't truly whacked out, like cutting off his ear.

I don't think anyone in the front office was philosophically opposed to the idea of West coming back to the Lakers.

His successor, Mitch Kupchak, would have handed the reins back to West--because he sure wouldn't want to be known as the guy who blocked Jerry's return.

Partial ownership and financial compensation might be a different story.

But why did West have to come back to the Lakers? If he couldn't enjoy the championship meals he cooked, if he couldn't even bring himself to watch the crowning games, then what was the point?

What more could he do? How could he measure progress? Why not take on the challenge of rebuilding a team from practically the beginning?

You can only compare the greats with the greats. I see West coming back to the NBA and I think of Michael Jordan. Then I think of the common figure between them: Phil Jackson.

Why would Jordan, the greatest winner of his era, want to associate himself with the Washington Wizards, a franchise that trails even the Clippers in playoff victories (two to zero) since 1989? Yet he cut any remaining ties with the Chicago Bulls and hooked up with the Wizards because they made the right pitch to him to be team president and join the ownership group two years ago. He had to prove himself all over again.

These guys like that. They need that.

Jordan's days as a Chicago Bull came to a halt because they didn't bring back Jackson to coach after the team's 1998 championship, their sixth in eight years together. Jackson was gone and so was Jordan.

But did Jackson's arrival in Los Angeles a year later pave the way for West to leave?

It had to hurt him to see Jerry Buss write the big checks to Jackson with such ease after West had to go through the retirement game to wring some extra dollars out of him. Later, he felt threatened that Jackson's relationship with Jeanie Buss created a conflict of interest and could disrupt the organization.

Pile those onto the notorious worrier's health issues and it was too much. He went off into semiretirement, popping in from time to time as a consultant.

Jackson or West? That's a difficult choice for any franchise. It's also tough to imagine any franchise handing out $5 million apiece to two guys in suits, and that is Jackson's going rate and the rumored amount for West to head to Memphis. Jerry Buss couldn't give each his fair due.

The Lakers wouldn't be where they are today without both. And if gaining Jackson meant losing West, it was worth it in the short term.

West is the single most valuable person to the franchise since it moved to Los Angeles. He established a standard of playing excellence, starring for the L.A. Lakers' first championship team, then helped assemble the next seven champions. He managed the transition from the Showtime era to the current squad with minimal downtime, by bringing Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant into town in one glorious summer six years ago, building the foundation for this current mini-dynasty.

But Jackson brought stability to this group. That's one thing not even West could do--not with his annual threats to retire.

The five-year, $30-million commitment Jerry Buss made to Jackson meant the players couldn't depose him and couldn't dump the blame on him if things didn't pan out. He wasn't going anywhere. The six championship rings he brought from Chicago meant his words carried weight.

He brought out inspired play--particularly from O'Neal--in his first season, then they all somehow managed to endure the 2000-01 season. He forced the Lakers to trust one another, rely on each other, and that's how they've arrived at their current state, winners of 19 of their last 20 postseason games.

West still made contributions from beyond the office--including a chat with Bryant that helped him get with the program and play a more team-oriented game.

But this hasn't been about only two people. No one achieves success by himself in the NBA. So just as some of the credit has to go to Jackson's assistant coaches, we must stop and acknowledge the role West's underlings have played in talent acquisition. Kupchak and Ronnie Lester have made their contributions--and have benefited from years at West's side. They're part of West's legacy to this team.

And for West's next act? It's not that bad of a base. Two members of the Grizzlies were just named to the NBA's all-rookie team: Shane Battier and Pau Gasol, the rookie of the year.

And Memphis just got the basketball executive of the century.

*

J.A. Adande can be reached at his e-mail address: j.a.adande@latimes.com.

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