I saw Jerry West do something nobody has seen for 30 years.
West was perhaps the best shooter in the world in the 1960s and '70s. He blistered the nets, silencing talkative defenders at the game's highest level. His Lakers were perennial finalists, and years of heartbreak at the hands of the Boston Celtics were finally assuaged when West's Lakers won the NBA title in 1972, beating the New York Knicks in the Finals.
West has been affiliated with the NBA for more than 45 years. He averaged 27 points a game years before the three-point line and was named first-team All-NBA 10 times.
Later, he coached the Lakers for three successful seasons, then moved into the team's front-office, where he assembled an empire on the shoulders of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. Burnout, or a mysterious falling-out, led to a retirement from the Lakers in 2000. It was a brief vacation: 20 months later the Grizzlies offered him enough money to fill a Memphis FedEx truck to head the team's basketball operations. In July, after five years with the Grizzlies, West retired.
So this season will mark the end of an era in the NBA: no Jerry West, although his image is still the league's logo. He's on every uniform, sock, headband, poster and towel.
West is legendary not just for his classic jump shot, but also for his reclusive and private nature. If you spot him at a pre-draft camp or summer league game, he invariably has his back to the wall in the last row.
West likes his privacy.
Who can blame him? After several million autographs and pictures, the former small-town West Virginia kid has had enough. Still, West will sign autographs -- he has a smile for the kids, but is businesslike with the adults. He's grown up, and he probably wishes the other grown-ups would grow up too.
In the spring 2004, I got a call from Dick Versace, then the Grizzlies' general manager. Back when he was Coach Versace, and his Bradley Braves were terrorizing the Missouri Valley Conference, he had brought me to campus to work with his players on my ballhandling drills. I had been the worst player in North Park College history, and couldn't make my high school team, but as a neurotically obsessed teenager I practiced my ballhandling drills whenever I could -- and especially at my summer job, guarding the college tennis courts that nobody used. The tennis courts became my private practice place for dribbling drills. I got quite good, although I found this out: Your jump shot won't improve much at the tennis courts.
Because I practiced in private for years, Versace saw something that few others had. After Bradley, he connected me with guard Vern Fleming of the Indiana Pacers, then coached by Versace. Word of mouth led to lessons with Nancy Lieberman. I was an assistant at Texas El Paso by then, and when UTEP's Tim Hardaway became an instant NBA sensation, my rep as a dribbling guru was intact -- although Hardaway was self-taught, somebody had to get credit for his killer crossover.
The Grizzlies, Versace said, wanted me to connect with forward Shane Battier in Memphis. If that went well, they'd want me to go to Los Angeles to work with former UCLA guard Earl Watson, who still summered there.
"There's a high school kid who we'd like you to work with too," Versace said. "His name is Jonnie West."
"Sounds like a country and western singer," I said.
Versace told me it was Jerry West's youngest son. When I hung up, I noticed my palms were sweaty.
This was going to be pressure. The only thing that might be more pressure would be teaching Jerry West's son to shoot. Or maybe being Jerry West's son and trying to find your way as a player.
Battier is genuinely a nice guy, but he's as stubborn as cement. He wouldn't even attempt the next drill until he could come close on the previous one. But Battier did fine, and Jonnie West did nearly as well -- although he was just 15 at the time, you could see his loose-jointed athleticism, and his body learned fast. (Jonnie West is now a point guard for his dad's alma mater, West Virginia.)
Battier or Jonnie West must have said something good to somebody. My e-ticket to Los Angeles came the next week, along with directions to Jerry West's home.
You might think that after 40-some years in the NBA, Jerry West's house would be like Trump Tower West. You'd be wrong. It's unassuming, understated, tidy and tasteful. Also, Jerry West reads the paper. The headline in his L.A. Times that morning addressed the crumbling of the Lakers dynasty: Shaq was gone.
Once Earl Watson arrived, Jerry West told me where we'd be practicing: their neighbor had built a state-of-the-art gym behind his house. So Jonnie and I piled into Earl's Mercedes, and we drove 200 yards up the street.