Jerry West is still cool. Both the man, who turns 75 in two months, and the logo, age 43. Lifted from a photograph that appeared in Sport magazine in the late 1960s, the silhouette of a dashing, slashing West was adopted by the league, much to dismay of the man who modeled it, who to this day still refuses to embrace the logo because he's not that into himself.
The simplistic and lovable logo will likely stand the test of time and has never been altered or enhanced. It serves as a reminder that West once played the game, and played it well. Unless you born early in the boom, you only know him as the best general manager there ever was. And that's quite a double pulled off by West. How many athletes in any sport were Hall of Fame-worthy both during and after their playing career? West is a former state champion, two-time collegiate All-American, MVP of the NCAA title game (despite his team losing that game), Olympic gold medalist, 14-time All-Star, NBA champion as a player, seven-time NBA champion as a GM. Go ahead and find someone who can run with that. We'll wait.
Well, actually, we won't. There's a story to tell.
West has lived a full and robust basketball life, starting in the sticks of West Virginia where he became a schoolboy legend, through today, where he's the chief consultant of the up-and-coming Warriors. He's been involved in basketball for a sixth decade now, never holding a job outside the sport, never straying from a game he helped popularize.
As a player, West was a 6-2 hybrid guard with all-around skills and could beat you different ways. His jumper was pure textbook, his defense claustrophobic, his passion evident every time he tightened his laces. He averaged 27 points, 6.7 assists and 5.8 rebounds for his career. As an executive, West found talent through all channels: draft, trades, free agency. He once said he'd sign anyone but a murderer if it meant winning. Other general managers soon became too nervous to take his calls, not because he was dishonest or tried to fleece them, but because they knew he'd make out better than them. Yet West was an emotional puddle during games and couldn't even bear to watch even if the Lakers (and later his Memphis and Golden State teams) were up by 25 late in the fourth.
Those who played for West and dealt with West swear by his basketball instincts. Kobe. Magic. Kareem. Shaq. Riles. Hubie Brown. And on and on. His presence spans generations and in this short-attention-span world, that's pretty remarkable.
West has done all this, but he'll acknowledge little of it. He refuses to discuss his glory or live in the past. There is very little basketball memorabilia in his Southern California home; you'd never know Mr. Clutch lived there (and by the way, he cringes at that well-deserved nickname).
That said, West did deliver a heartfelt, painful, best-selling memoir ("West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life") last year that allowed more than a sneak peek into a man tortured by his insecurities and personal failures and how he dealt with depression. It was therapeutic, he said, to release those emotions and share that journey with strangers. Today, West seems at peace and much more comfortable opening up.
On a lazy first Sunday in March, West answered the home phone and sounded cheerful. A dog barked in the background. The TV was turned to the Knicks and Heat. Another day of possibilities in L.A. beckoned for one of its favorite citizens, giving the impression that it must be wonderful being Jerry West.
"Sorry I missed your call a few minutes ago," I began. "I was … "
West cut me off.
"Don't apologize," he said. "It's not a problem, really, it isn't. I'm happy to give you all the time you need. I'm happy you called. What's on your mind?"
Um, actually, this is about what's on Jerry West's mind.
Q: The Warriors, the team you helped become one of the early surprises, have hit a brick wall. They were 30-17 then suffered two long losing streaks. Part of that is the schedule, and 16 of the final 22 games are at home , so that'll help. But does it concern you how this might end?
A: It does, it does. You would think that this time of year we'd be consistent in everything. We've had a difficult schedule. It does not make for the best of circumstances particularly when you're so young. Things are starting to get tight for us. Hopefully we'll get the confidence back that we had early in the year. I don't think it's alarming but a concern, definitely.
Q: Everybody thinks Steph Curry was shortchanged out of an All-Star spot. When he dropped 54 on the Knicks it kinda confirmed as much. We all see the terrific shooting. Is there something else that you see?
A: He's very clever. I see a player who's really starting to blossom and is going to play at a high level every night. He's quicker than you think he is and I'm impressed by how competitive he is. But yes, he's a shooter first. When he shoots you fully expect him to make it. You don't see a lot of guys who can shoot like him. His ability to make different kind of shots. And he's starting to develop a midrange game that'll make him really dangerous. Shooters can make a name for themselves if they can get into that key area, the mid-range. It's a gift that certain shooters have and others don't.
Q: Was Curry being held back by Monta Ellis and is that why the Warriors traded him?
A: Listen, I love Monta because he really competes. But there's no question Curry has blossomed more than what he would have, had Monta been here.
Q: Like some, I questioned the hire of Mark Jackson, a smart guy who never served as a head or assistant coach at any level, even church league. There's precedent for that: Pat Riley, whom you recommended for the Lakers, Doc Rivers, Don Nelson all turned out well. But they're exceptions. Why did the Warriors take a shot on Jackson?
A: I talked to him for an hour during the interview process. I said, 'Mark, does it concern you at all that you haven't had any experience?' I asked him would he even know how to organize a practice. And he gave me one of the best answers I ever heard. He said he learned more as an analyst talking to other coaches than if he had been an assistant somewhere. He took mental notes from the best coaches in the game. The calmness I see from him on the bench is reassuring. I might want to kill someone with all the unforced turnovers I see. Mark is almost like a grandfather, putting his arm around the kids. He has such a wonderful way with the players. That's a strength. And they play for him.
Q: The Sixers are being squeezed by Andrew Bynum and his time-bomb knees. He's a free agent this summer and could walk and leave Philly holding an empty bag. Even if he signs in Philly, he could be a disaster. You guys have a similar situation with Andrew Bogut, although he has another year left on his deal. First it was his ankle, now his back. After missing last season, he has only played 12 games. Fans hated the deal, too. Has this been a disaster for the Warriors?
A: When we traded for Andrew we were well aware a lot of people were not for the trade. For a coach to have a good player just for bits and pieces, the way he's adjusted to patching up holes says a lot for Mark. Our front office has also done a good job giving us depth. It's amazing how we've hung in there without him. He's a good player who makes it so much easier for the other players, but the problem is he's not out there. It does hurt us. We're hopeful that somewhere along the way he'll contribute for us.
Q: How would you describe your philosophy when it comes to finding players? You know something we don't?
A: I've always been a risk taker in my life. There's a difference between a risk taker and a gambler. I've taken some good risks that paid off. The higher the risk, the better the reward. I've never been afraid to do something that I truly believed would help.
Q: After 50 years in the game, you've seen just about everyone. Are you ready to call LeBron James the greatest after Jordan? Or maybe he trumps Jordan? Or is this all too silly?
A: I'll say Lebron is in another world right now. He's a player for the decade. You watch him and you can tell his teammates love him. What you can't do is judge him by the championships right now. Just his all-around play and skills. He's a superstar who's very unselfish. You don't find that too often. He could lead the league in scoring every year if he wanted. But he'd rather find any way to beat you even if it meant giving up the ball. To watch his growth as a player and person has been pretty special. I would have enjoyed having him as a teammate.
Q: Miami has made it work by combining three All-Stars. But weren't you, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain the original Big Three?
A: Oh, I don't know. That's just a label. The difference between us and them is they're in their prime. Elgin battled injury and wasn't the same player when we came together. I wasn't the same player because I battled knee injuries and we didn't have the medical advancements then as we do now. I was almost constantly in pain. Wilt wasn't the same, either; he was at the end of his career. And we didn't win together because Elgin retired before the championship. I know people didn't like what Miami did by teaming them up, but I thought it was fantastic. LeBron is special, Dwyane Wade is right behind him and Chris Bosh is a very good player. They'll win championships or be right there as long as they're healthy and on the same team. People should enjoy and respect what they're seeing right now.
Q: Meanwhile, your old team has struggled with Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash although to be fair, Howard and Nash haven't been healthy from the jump. Will they get it together? Or will this be basketball's Titanic?
A: What people don't understand is the enormous adjustment you have to make as a player in those situations. I was a scorer, Elgin was a scorer and Wilt, even then, liked the ball. We all had to put everything else aside. The Lakers are playing better now, especially defensively, and I think they'll make the playoffs. I think the worst is behind them.
Q: How would a young Jerry West, naïve but extremely talented, cope in today's NBA with all the money and fame but also the trappings?
A: The social media and the press today would be very tough for me to deal with because when I was young I was so shy and backward that I probably would've said something that would've been blown out of context. As for the other stuff, well that's where being shy and backward would've helped me. I see players walking around today with bodyguards. Maybe they need them, but I would never have a bodyguard.
Q: Are you a fan of the modern-day player, or hopelessly old school when it comes to certain aspects of today's culture?
A: When I played I never thought I was better than anyone. Now you have guys running down the floor, making three-point shots and then holding up three fingers. I have no idea where that comes from. It's not me. I don't like it. I don't like players who have to promote themselves. A guy running around beating himself on the chest. I don't know what that's about. If you're good enough you are promoted. I see guys sitting on the bench laughing and they're down 20. That would never happen with the Lakers. I wouldn't put up with it. Nor would anyone else on the team. Wilt wouldn't and neither would Elgin. And I wouldn't put up with it as a general manager. I would hope I'd have the support of ownership to do my job in that situation. I guess I like the Yankees, no name on the back of the uniform, the tradition that goes with that. We're all different and we all react differently to situations. I could care less about the tattoos and haircuts. That never bothered me. And I don't care that players today make more money than I did. I just wish there was better conduct and professionalism at times.
Q: You put Kobe and Shaquille O'Neal together in LA and then left after they won three championships. While you were in Memphis you certainly watched in horror when the Kobe-Shaq dynamic went up in flames. How crazy was that?
A: To me, basketball is all about winning. Nothing else matters. Nothing else should matter. Does your teammate help you win? Then fine. I don't see how you can dislike a teammate. I can honestly say I liked every teammate I ever had. To me it was about winning. I watched what happened at a distance with Kobe and Shaq and could never understand it. It really bothered me that two guys who were really good guys could no longer do it together. I could never figure that out. It was a major disappointment to me. Just sad.
Q: You knew Jerry Buss as well as anyone, maybe even better. Got a favorite Dr. Buss story you could share?
A: Well, because of the personality he had, I couldn't tell you any of the best ones for print. But everything you heard about him as an owner was true. He always did what was in the best interest of the game, from a Lakers perspective and a league perspective. I wish all owners were like him. He was a real innovator. He wasn't afraid to make a decision. You liked him and cared about him. He was a good guy who was able to buy something and become an incredible steward of a historic franchise. I was lucky to have known him. Working for him wasn't even work, it was fun. I never saw it as a job. Not for one day. I miss him already.