He’s the master of smooth jump shooting. He’s a shrewd passer and disruptive long-armed defender. He’s the player who hits shots when it matters. He’s Mr. Clutch, Jerry West, man in the NBA logo.
He’s also the legend whose 1960s Los Angeles Lakers lose several times in the finals to the Boston Celtics of supernatural winner Bill Russell. He’s still thrilled to earn a title in 1972, when the Lakers also roll through thirty-three straight opponents in regular season. Later, he’s only a fair head coach but as general manager surrounds Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar with fitting co-stars, and the Showtime Lakers, with dashing Pat Riley on the bench, consume five titles in the 1980s.
From the next generation Jerry West drafts Kobe Bryant out of high school and brings in Shaquille O’Neal as a free agent. Future titles seem assured, if the right coach is installed. Phil Jackson arrives wearing six rings after guiding Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and significant others to victories in the 1990s.
Jerry West wants to be a colleague. Phil Jackson prefers to walk silently by West and, on occasion, order Mr. Laker out of the locker room, now the fiefdom of the Zen Master. West believes things are about to get ugly, so he leaves town and goes to Memphis. He does pretty well there, makes the Grizzlies competitive, but accepts he’s unlikely to build a champion, and returns to the links and luxury of Bel Air.
A few years later the Golden State Warriors, seeking a winning vibe, hire Jerry West. He doesn’t need to make the last shot anymore. He’s a distinguished advisor, still trim at age seventy-five, and willing to travel. In July he’s in Las Vegas for the NBA summer league. From a courtside seat he watches players who generally won’t make the team. One who will, Kent Bazemore, waiting to pass the ball in, turns and shakes West’s hand. After the game, as West in healthy stride moves off the court, several players and young fans greet him. They weren’t around when he was Mr. Clutch, or the shrewdest personnel manager, but they’ve heard. Some accomplishments endure.