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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

One-of-a-kind Jerry West gets a statue

With an aura that hasn't dimmed since he came to Los Angeles five decades ago, West will be honored outside Staples Center.

February 05, 2011|Mark Heisler
  • Jerry West became a legend with his all-around play and enhanced that legend as an NBA executive.
Jerry West became a legend with his all-around play and enhanced that legend… (Focus on Sport / Getty Images )

Fittingly, if belatedly, Jerry West's statue will be unveiled outside Staples Center next week alongside Wayne Gretzky's (2002), Magic Johnson's (2004), Oscar De La Hoya's (2008) and Chick Hearn's (2010)....

Even if they're drawing names out of a hat to determine the order.

Star Plaza has only five greats, compared to the Hollywood Walk of Fame's 2,431 movie stars ... and theater owners, costume designers, makeup artists and cartoon characters Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Shrek and the Simpsons.

"I really don't know what to make of it," said West, pleased and embarrassed, as usual.

"I really, honestly did not play basketball to have a statue. I loved to compete. Days of games were probably the most special times in my life....

"I did the same thing every day because of the excitement of having the opportunity and what it felt like sitting in the locker room, antsy, nervous....

"It was really, really different. We were so close as teammates.

"It's unbelievably flattering that somebody would want to do this, unbelievably — but candidly, I wish Elgin Baylor would be right there beside me."

If West is special to young people, it's because of the glow he never lost ... and because in 1969, some bumpkin in the low-wattage NBA office took an old action picture, reversed it so West was driving left into the middle of the design and used the silhouette for a new logo.

Had anyone given any thought to who it was, using a white player to represent an ever-more African American league would have set off a furor.

The NBA now insists it doesn't know who the player is.

West was more than a trademark silhouette or a hero for white fans with his heart-on-his-sleeve game and personality in addition to his feats that made him as beloved by peers as fans.

The NBA no longer has nights like the one for West at the Forum in 1972, when retired, unapproachable Bill Russell flew in and announced: "If I had could have one wish granted, it would be that you would always be happy."

And now, Mr. Clutch in winter, at 72, at peace, in bronze, on the sidewalk.

If West remains close to owner Jerry Buss and protege-as-GM Mitch Kupchak, he has no formal connection to the team.

Forget sentiment, this is Jerry West, whose whirling mind remains one of the NBA's keenest.

Seeing things in degrees of horror, West could never win enough, never thought he was home free ... and wasn't even invited back as $1-a-year consultant after retiring as Memphis GM in 2007.

West would never ask, they knew he didn't need a job or money ... and Jerry and Jim Buss liked it the way it was.

Thus the Feb. 17 unveiling follows the unveiling of West's unsparing views on the Lakers' age, inability to defend and day of reckoning.

Players didn't like it and fans were dismayed but Magic Johnson added his voice ("We're looking old and playing old.")

Meanwhile, Coach Phil Jackson now plays three guards at the end with Steve Blake in and Ron Artest out.

Unfortunately for the Lakers, the new reality just dawned on them:

Their days of being so good they could mop up the West and win a title at 75% of their potential are over.

Minimally athletic before, they're less so since Trevor Ariza's agent, David Lee, messed up a slam-dunk deal in 2009.

Stunned at hearing they had to pay more — because Ariza was from here — the Lakers jumped on Artest as if it was a coup.

Actually, it was like dropping a cannon ball on a puzzle with one piece missing.

They almost lost Lamar Odom that summer when Jerry Buss withdrew his three-year $27-million offer — $54 million, including luxury tax — before yielding to pleas to bring him back.

More failure to understand where they were has continued this season.

With the Lakers 13-2 and Theo Ratliff out, Jackson couldn't get the Jake Voskuhl-level backup he wanted at a cost of $70,000 a week in salary and tax.

With courtside seats at $2,600, the Lakers make $70K every game from 27 of their total of 136.

Pau Gasol wilted playing heavy minutes and has yet to un-wilt as they went 21-14.

On Dec. 15, they gave New Jersey a No. 1 pick to take Sasha Vujacic's $5.4-million salary, which looked good until Lakers' fortunes and energy levels sank.

If Sasha looks better in retrospect, that pick, which could have brought a young athlete, looks better still.

But that was then and this is now, after a week of running around in circles, debating Artest's desire to stay.

Actually, with Artest, at 32, having two seasons left worth $14 million, West may not go out as a Laker, but Ronnie will.

If someone like Washington's Kirk Hinrich is possible, salvation must come from within.

Bryant — who singed teammates after the Miami rout ("I'm going to kick some ... in practice") and invited a press rip after the Memphis rout ("It builds great tension for us and you sell a lot of papers") — issued a different invitation to critics.

Of course, the line to accommodate Bryant would include West, Johnson and, of course, Kobe.

Bryant, the angriest, most invested critic, is now sticking up for his teammates, the right thing to do, no matter how many faces he has.

If he's scorching them privately, he'd better get it under control, because it'll be a long, hard slog to April.

Even if he's supportive, no one does it like Bryant, as when ESPN's Colleen Dominguez asked the mandatory lost-to-all-the-good-teams question.

"You heard what I said," said Bryant, staring the other way. "My feelings haven't changed."

Actually, for someone concerned with his legacy, withdrawing from public life might be better than presenting yourself as a bigger and bigger jerk.

Ask West, who brought Bryant here: Everything is really, really different.

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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