NBA icon Jerry West, dead at 86, had impact that endures, resonates with Heat, Arison; leaves Riley with 'a waterfall of tears'

Ira Winderman, South Florida Sun-Sentinel on

Published in Basketball

MIAMI — His silhouette the logo for the NBA, Jerry West’s reach extended beyond the franchise he played for and those he oversaw in the front office. That certainly stood as the case with the Miami Heat and those within the franchise he touched before Wednesday’s passing at the age of 86.

Shortly after the Los Angeles Clippers confirmed the death of the NBA icon, Heat owner Micky Arison posted on social media, “Jerry West is one of my favorite people that I had the honor to get to know in the NBA. He welcomed me to the league, offered advice from the first day, and asked nothing in return. He will be missed. Rest in peace.”

West most recently was working as a Clippers front-office consultant, with the team announcing Wednesday morning, “Jerry West, the personification of basketball excellence and a friend to all who knew him, passed away peacefully this morning at the age of 86. His wife, Karen, was by his side.”

In 1981-82, with West working in the Los Angeles Lakers’ front office after his Hall of Fame playing career with the team, West had been introduced as co-coach of the Lakers along with current Heat president Pat Riley. West immediately announced he only would assist Riley, launching Riley’s career as one of the game’s preeminent sideline and front-office presences.

Riley issued a heartfelt statement in the wake of West’s death.

“I loved Jerry West! We loved being Lakers together; it was sacred ground. We grew in life with each other and shared the best and worst of times together. We can only hope there is someone we meet during a crucial time in our lives that will change you in ways you could dream about. Jerry was that person for me.

“Today’s sad, sad news about his passing brought back many of those special moments with Jerry. Those beautiful memories came in a waterfall of tears; all coming so fast, so vivid, so etched in my mind. It was like yesterday after a shootaround at The Forum that we’d hustle to Hollis Johnson’s drugstore in Westwood to eat the best burgers, drink milkshakes and savor a great custard pudding with fresh whipped cream before we headed home to nap. Then it was game time and Jerry would kick ass in a way that was so skilled and relentless. I was so proud to be there in his presence. I watched, I learned. He made me believe. Being in that aura of greatness was mesmerizing.”

Riley’s statement continued, “I was told, ‘Pat, Just watch him and model yourself after Jerry.’ He was smart, committed, opinionated, fearless, generous, ultra-competitive, stubborn, but with great grace. These were just some of the characteristics he embedded in my psyche. They emerged at the right time, honed by many years of self-talking Jerry reminders. Jerry kicked down that coaching door for me and said, you can do this, but it has to be now. He knew, then he let me coach. I thank him forever and always for giving me that opportunity.

“Chris and I pray the Good Lord will look after Karen and his family during this most difficult time. May peace be with them. And Jerry, one day, my good friend, we will meet again. Just save me a burger, milkshake and custard with whipped cream. The best lunch I ever had. Until then, Rest in Peace.”

Through the years, West, even as he moved on to front offices with the Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors and Clippers, kept close tabs on Riley’s work with the Heat.


A year ago, during the Heat’s run through the 2023 NBA Finals, West told USA Today of Riley’s stewardship of the Heat, “Just look at what he’s done in his career, and it’s damn remarkable. You can see his fingerprints over all the stuff they’re doing down there. I mean, they’re never going to quit, and they’re never going to die.”

West also was a professed fan of Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and Heat center Bam Adebayo.

On Sirius/XM radio last July, shortly after the Heat fell 4-1 to the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Finals, West said of Spoelstra, “Erik Spoelstra, I’ve never seen a better coach than him, I have not. He’s just an unbelievable coach. He and Pat, I think they have a good working relationship there. And he can take players that are pretty good and make them better. They have a system there and they believe in it.”

Also last summer, West, during a radio appearance on the Rich Eisen Show, said of Adebayo, “He plays every night. He competes every night. He gets numbers every night. Even if, say, he doesn’t score on some nights, he’s still gonna help them win because of his value to his team.”

From the Heat’s 1988 inception, there was direct impact from West on an executive level.

In June 1988, during the expansion draft, West, in his executive role with the Lakers, worked out an agreement for the Heat to bypass selecting Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had been left exposed in the process, in exchange for a Lakers second-round pick the Heat would utilize in 1992 to draft Matt Geiger.

Then, in August 2005, while West led the Grizzlies’ front office, he approved the massive five-team trade that allowed the Heat to acquire Jason Williams, James Posey and Antoine Walker, among others, in the deal that sent guard Eddie Jones from Miami to Memphis. With that rebuilt roster, the Heat would go on to win the ensuing NBA championship in 2006, the first of three for the franchise.

In the wake of West’s death, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver released a statement that included, “Jerry West was a basketball genius and a defining figure in our league for more than 60 years. He distinguished himself not only as an NBA champion and an All-Star in all 14 of his playing seasons, but also as a consummate competitor who embraced the biggest moments. He was the league’s first Finals MVP and made rising to the occasion his signature quality, earning him the nickname ‘Mr. Clutch.’ “

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