Jerry West leaves an irreplaceable hole in the basketball world

ByAdrian Wojnarowski ESPN logo
Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Until his final days, one of the remarkable lessons Jerry West taught was his pursuit of the present. He had an American life and stories like no one else, but he did not care for nostalgia.

I sent him a text of well-wishes on his 86th birthday in late May. His health had been deteriorating, his time was short. He acknowledged that in his response, and then requested: "Give me some NBA news regarding players leaving or signing elsewhere please...."

Free agency. The draft. Trades. His appetite was insatiable for the next episode in an NBA that he had constructed with his talent and vision and sheer ferocity. He still worked as an adviser for the LA Clippers and spent so many of his nights sharing his ideas on the games and players to the franchise's president of basketball operations, Lawrence Frank.

"He never stopped," Clippers owner Steve Ballmer said Wednesday. From Cabin Creek, West Virginia, to running with Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor as a Laker, to orchestrating the LA story of a teenage Kobe Bryant, to coaching, to his silhouette as the league's logo, no one else ever touched greatness in so many sectors of the sport. West will go into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame this summer -- for an unprecedented third time.

From the immortals to the fringe draft prospect he met in the team's practice facility, West had time for everyone -- forever free of pretense and platitudes. To watch men and women of a certain age approach him was something to see, as though he had walked down from Olympus and reached out to shake their hand.

In many ways, West was a tortured soul. He described in painful detail how a childhood with an abusive father and the loss of his older brother in the Korean war seared a level of lifelong despair into him.

His autobiography was called, "West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life."

West was not a particularly joyous man, but he was loving and loyal and generous with his time and resources to those in his orbit and those he barely knew.

Two summers ago, he insisted on driving to Las Vegas summer league on his own. His beloved son Ryan, a Pistons executive, followed closely behind to monitor him. He ended up with a flat, and there was an 84-year-old Jerry West contemplating changing the tire himself on a desolate strip of highway between LA and Vegas. Imagine driving past and seeing that mirage. Telling the story later, his son just laughed and shook his head. That was his father, that was Jerry West.

He loved to be in the employ of a team, so he could strategize and tinker and consider the possibilities of what could be -- not what was. He had unyielding respect and admiration for the modern players, and often used his own NBA Finals shortcomings to come to the defense of those currently under siege for failing to win as many championships as people thought they should.

As player empowerment started to move stars around the league, West once told me that he would've absolutely considered joining the Celtics had free agency been available to him in the 1960s and '70s. Even so, he still loathed landing in Boston and feeling all those old championship hardships. "It makes me physically ill," he told me once.

The disappointments cut him to the core, and West often bristled when presented with praise or awards. He leaves an unparalleled basketball and American life, the kid out of Cabin Creek, responsible for narrating generations of Lakers and NBA lore -- from Wilt and Elgin, to Kobe and Shaq. When I called to congratulate him on his third enshrinement into the Naismith Hall of Fame this winter -- as a player, a member of the 1960 USA Olympic team and now as a contributor to the game -- West sounded typically embarrassed and exasperated over the fawning and attention born of his yesteryear.

"Give it to the next guy," he grumbled. "Hey, what are you hearing out there?"

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