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Bill Plaschke: Laker legend Jerry West's final legacy sadly includes estrangement from Lakers

Bill Plaschke, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Basketball

The sadness was compounded by the strangeness.

The announcement of the death of the greatest Laker was made by the Clippers.

"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," read the Wednesday morning release from the Clippers' communications department.

The Clippers loved Jerry West, and were loved by him, and he was treated with the utmost dignity and respect during his seven years as their adviser.

But he will forever be a Laker.

He built the Lakers into a Southern California institution as a player. He constructed and nurtured the Lakers' greatness as a general manager.

He was their conscience. He was their heartbeat. He was their soul. He was the most important person to ever walk through their gym doors.

But in the end, for a variety of reasons, the basketball genius and his creation were estranged.

West walked away from the Lakers 24 years ago and never returned.

It was always so bizarre, the best executive in the history of sports living down the street from an organization he helped build into the most celebrated in sports … and yet they didn't talk.

The Lakers struggled after the trade of Shaquille O'Neal while West watched from Memphis. The Lakers were adrift in the final years of Kobe Bryant while West watched from Golden State. The Lakers were buckling in the early years of LeBron James while West watched from the Clippers.

He was so close, yet so far.

The Lakers honored him with a statue in 2011 in an event attended by owner Jerry Buss and all sorts of Lakers royalty. But they continued along separate paths until his death Wednesday poignantly reminded everyone of their divorce.

The Clippers were the first to issue a statement early Wednesday morning, reading, "The Clippers have lost a mentor, a confidant and a friend."

At the same time, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer issued his own statement, writing, "From the first day I met Jerry seven years ago, he inspired me with his intellect, honesty and enthusiasm. He never stopped. I spent a lot of time with him, some of the best times of my life. He always lent an ear, and he always had a quip. He always left me laughing. I will miss him."

The Lakers' statement came later, reading, in part, "Jerry West is forever a basketball icon … Jerry West will always be a Lakers legend."

It was nice, but it was four sentences and there was no personalized tribute from a Lakers official until Jeanie Buss issued a short statement on Instagram in the early afternoon.

"Today is a difficult day for all Laker fans. I know that if my father were here, he would say that Jerry West was at the heart of all that made the Lakers great. He was an icon to all — but he was also a hero to our family. We all send our sympathies to Karen and the West family."

Again, it was nice, but compared to past Lakers' tributes for fallen stars such as Elgin Baylor and Tex Winter, the team's response was underwhelming for a man who deserved so much more.

Jerry West was essentially the first Los Angeles Lakers draft pick, as he was the first-round selection of the Minnesota Lakers shortly before they moved to Los Angeles.

It was West and Elgin Baylor who became this city's first professional basketball stars. It was West's 63-foot overtime-forcing basket in the 1970 Finals against the New York Knicks that became one of this city's first great sports moments.

He had this city's first great sports nickname — "Mr. Clutch." He garnered arguably the highest honor of any athlete in this city's history — his silhouette is the NBA logo.

Then, after 15 years as a star Lakers player, he became this city's first dynasty builder, nurturing the "Showtime" era, then personally building the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant era by signing Shaq and trading for Kobe.

Tweeted Byron Scott: "It's because of Jerry West that there was even 'Showtime.'"

 

Tweeted Magic Johnson: "Laker Nation, the only reason we have 17 championships is because of Jerry West and his expertise drafting players, trading for players, and hiring the right coaches."

That expertise has been sorely missing from the Lakers in recent years. In fact, it is one of two occurrences that have led to the current struggles of the once-strong front office.

One could say the slow slide began with the departure of Jerry West and the death of Jerry Buss.

When West abruptly left the organization after the 2000 championship, he said his body could no longer take the stress.

"Everything around here has taken its toll," he told me at the time. "You see my outside, but you don't see my inside, and it's just awful in there. This compulsion with winning, it's a sickness."

But it was about more than winning, it was about how they were winning. Coach Phil Jackson was being given more power. He was also dating the owner's daughter, giving Jackson more perceived stature. West was increasingly uncomfortable with dynamics that seemed to be marginalizing his presence.

When West talked of, "Everything around here … ," much of that was centered on Jackson and Buss.

As the years passed, West became more bitter, and the Lakers became more resentful of his bitterness, and, once Jerry Buss died in 2013, West's connections to the club were seemingly gone forever.

One of the final breaking points occurred in 2017, when Jeanie Buss cleared out the front office and hired Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson to run the team. West had publicly said he would be interested in returning home to join them, but nothing was offered, and so he joined the Clippers.

In his introductory Clippers news conference, he took a veiled shot at the Lakers, saying, "My last stop along the way, [I want] to be associated with people who are really basketball people, people I have respect for and, more importantly, I think, an incredible owner."

Four years later, the relationship was ruined forever when, on a podcast, Jeanie Buss named her five most important Lakers ever.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, LeBron James and Phil Jackson.

West, unarguably the most important Laker ever, wasn't even on the list, and he was furious. He was so insulted, he told one media organization that he sometimes wished he had never even played with the Lakers.

"One disappointing thing [about my career] is that my relationship with the Lakers is horrible," West said in a 2022 interview with The Athletic. "I still don't know why. And at the end of the day, when I look back, I say, 'Well, maybe I should have played somewhere else instead of with the Lakers, where someone would have at least appreciated how much you give, how much you cared.'"

To all this animosity, add the fact that in 2019, the Lakers parted ways with West's son Ryan, who was their director of player personnel. Then there was Jerry West's claim that the Lakers took away his season tickets, further annoying him.

Amid Wednesday's gloom, it was inspirational to see how the Clippers supported Jerry West, with lengthy tributes not only from Ballmer, but also team president Lawrence Frank and Coach Tyronn Lue.

But it was equally sad to see how detached West appeared from the organization he built.

The Lakers still have room on their jerseys for a patch, right? Next year they should wear a JW in his honor.

The Lakers have never dedicated their hardwood, right? Next year they could name it, "Jerry West Court."

The greatest Laker is gone, but his legacy must not be forgotten.

Especially by the Lakers.

____


©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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