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Wizard of Griz

If Jerry West was looking for a challenge after building a dynasty in Los Angeles, he came to the right place

October 28, 2002|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Memphis?

East is still East and West is still West, but now Jerry West is East, if not in the NBA where he's still in his old conference, at least in real life, running a team based on the eastern side of the Mississippi River.

Talk about your breaks with the past. The last time he went to camp with anyone but the Lakers, he was a West Virginia senior, Dwight Eisenhower was president and the Lakers were still in Minneapolis, a year from their 1960 move into the state-of-the-art arena going up in downtown Los Angeles, the Sports Arena.

How can we imagine Lakerdom, suddenly without West, without Chick Hearn?

West arrived in Los Angeles as a rookie in the fall of 1960. Chick came on to call the playoffs the next spring (until then the new team couldn't get its games on radio and didn't have an announcer) and stayed the rest of his life.

With Elgin Baylor, they were the Laker trinity that provided the glamour that would become part of team lore. More to the point, it came in handy to sell the game to Angelenos, who barely knew they had arrived, or cared.

This wasn't like the Dodgers' arrival in 1958, which was front-page news and required great civic initiatives to procure the downtown land for the new stadium. Minneapolis barely noticed the Lakers had left; nor was Los Angeles at a fever pitch. Attendance at their first game was 4,044.

As Baylor's knees went, West became their beating heart as a player in the '60s and '70s, then their brain as general manager in the '80s and '90s. Before his nervous system went, he retired in 2001.

So what's he doing here?

Jerry West of the ... Memphis Grizzlies?

"The weird part," he says, sitting in the stands in the Pyramid (local arena in Memphis) as the Grizzlies (whoever they are) practice, "yesterday I talked to [Laker GM] Mitch Kupchak and we talked about Laker players.

"I wished him well, told him I thought they had the team to beat. Obviously, you feel that incredible loyalty and sense of what that franchise has meant in my life. At times, it's sad to think that I'm not there, but I really believe I did the right thing for me.

"The bottom line, maybe sometimes you have to do selfish things in life. This is kind of, from my perspective, a selfish thing because I left a lot of wonderful friends, a situation with the people and the coaching staff they have in place.

"That franchise is going to be really successful, particularly for as long as Shaquille [O'Neal] plays. That was the difficult part of it. But the other thing was that, it didn't bring me the same good feeling, even when we were winning. It just didn't do it."

Of course. That was Our Jerry. We came to know his moods and foibles as if they were part of the landscape, like the weather. In June, the marine layer hangs over the beach in the morning and burns off in the afternoon. In June, West considers retiring from whatever he's doing.

It was ever thus. So two Junes after he finally did retire, he again grew restless with what he was doing and came back to start all over, at age 64, from the very bottom.

In Lakerdom, the heavy lifting was over, which made him almost ornamental, but it's not like that here. The Grizzlies, formerly of Vancouver, have never won more than 23 games and he's a reason to hope. Actually, because they've had clueless owners and GMs, he's the first reason for hope they've had.

"It's exciting for me to come to work, knowing he's the captain of the ship," second-year forward Shane Battier said. "Everyone from the PR staff to the medical staff to the players feel energized by his presence....

"It starts at the top, and getting Mr. West just sends a signal throughout the organization."

In that case, get ready for lots of signals.

"We would get [to games] early and he would be upset about something, frustrated about something -- or happy about something," Magic Johnson said recently, reminiscing about all his years with West.

"Even when he was happy, he was mad. I tell you, the organization, the city, as well as us as former players, are going to miss him....

"And those guys better get ready," Johnson added, laughing, "because they don't know what's about to come."

Bad Times,

Worse Times

What thrill of victory? With West, winning seemed to bring a special agony of its own.

Nor was it hard to tell, because he wore his hyper-critical emotions on his sleeve. It was one reason people cared so deeply for him -- fans, media, even bitter rivals.

The Boston Celtics' John Havlicek once told him on the floor, "I love you." Bill Russell flew out for the ceremony marking Jerry's retirement as a player and announced: "If I could have one wish in life granted, it would be that you would always be happy."

It wasn't that West was never happy. He had a nice family, a lot of friends, was often out of the Laker offices by noon on his way to the golf course and was generally considered fun to be around by the Lakers' little people.

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