Jerry West and the Burden of Being the Logo (2024)

I first met Jerry West in the summer of 1997, as a young, sorta shy, possibly in-over-my-head rookie beat writer assigned to cover the Lakers for the L.A. Daily News. I knew his résumé, the championships won (and lost), the clutch shots he’d hit, the contenders he’d constructed. But I don’t think I really understood the man until three summers later.

It was June 20, 2000, the morning after Kobe Bryant had leaped into Shaquille O’Neal’s arms, purple and gold confetti fluttering around them, in celebration of their first NBA championship. It had been 12 years since the franchise raised a banner. Four years since West brought the two stars to L.A., at considerable risk. Now his vision of a Lakers renaissance was a reality. The whole city was giddy, aglow, euphoric. Everyone except the architect who made it all possible.

I found West in his dimly lit office at Lakers headquarters, sitting at his desk. He welcomed me in and agreed to answer a few questions. I opened with the most obvious: Did you enjoy the night?

“No,” he said flatly, “I didn’t. I didn’t watch.”

West wasn’t even there. He’d spent the Game 6 clincher in his car, driving around Los Angeles, getting periodic updates by phone. The thought of watching in person was too stressful, too overwhelming. He told me he’d view the whole series on tape, eventually. Over the next 20 minutes, West would say he “felt happy” for the fans, for Shaq and Kobe, for Phil Jackson, for owner Jerry Buss, and even for the team’s scouts, citing all of them by name (because, he said, they don’t get enough credit). But he didn’t seem happy at all. So I pressed again: What about you? After all you’ve endured, all the second-guessing, all the criticism, all the doubts, is there a sense of gratification?

“Not for me,” he said.

Until that point, I knew West as a basketball savant, a living legend, an avatar of Lakers excellence, the rare superstar player who’d become a superstar executive, universally respected and admired. He was Mr. Clutch. He was the Logo, as in the actual NBA logo (even if the league has denied it for decades). I knew he could be passionate, intimidating, generous, thoughtful, empathetic, gossipy, sweet, cantankerous, sometimes defensive, and oddly insecure. But the burden of being Jerry West never really struck me until that moment.

West, who died Wednesday at age 86, enjoyed more success than 99 percent of the players, coaches, and executives who have ever passed through the NBA. It was the enjoyment part that seemed hardest, though. No number of victories or banners or free-agent coups would ever sate him. He heard criticism more loudly than he heard praise. It was as if being the Logo required a level of perfection he could never attain. It was as if all the heartbreak he endured as a player—one title against eight defeats in the Finals—left him so scarred that he forever expected the worst.

So no, West couldn’t bear to watch any of the 2000 Finals in person, and eventually couldn’t bear to be around at all.

Two months after the Lakers won that title, West would leave the franchise—without a press conference or formal farewell or any specific explanation. But as his longtime friend (and Lakers broadcaster) Chick Hearn would say that day, “He feels the pressures are tearing him down physically as well as mentally.” We would hear he felt underappreciated. We would hear he was upset about Jackson dating Buss’s daughter Jeanie, then a team executive. We would find out later about a heart issue.

West was the epitome of the tortured genius, an intensively competitive and obsessive perfectionist whose every achievement seemed clouded by his own impossible expectations. We knew the basics: nine Finals as a player, but just one championship (in 1972). The only man to win Finals MVP while losing the title (in 1969). Twelve appearances on the All-NBA team (10 first team). Five selections to the All-Defensive team. A scoring title. An assist title. A place on the NBA’s 35th anniversary team. And the 50th anniversary team. And the 75th. And that was just as a player.

As an executive, West presided over the Showtime era, then built a new dynasty around Shaq and Kobe. Though he left before they could win their second and third titles, all those banners bear his fingerprints. He would revive a moribund Memphis Grizzlies franchise, then serve as a key behind-the-scenes figure in the building of the Golden State Warriors dynasty. He’s one of the greatest team execs in the history of sports. It’s fair to say West took a certain pride in it all; it was hard to know how much he truly enjoyed any of it.

Which is not to say that West didn’t love the game itself. The man was the consummate gym rat, attending predraft workouts and NBA summer leagues right into his 80s. He was a quiet confidant to dozens of young superstars over the past 20 years—including many who never played for any of the teams that employed him. Rivals might call it tampering. But it was the stars who sought out West. And West forever felt an obligation to the game, and to the generations who followed him, to provide whatever counsel he could.

He was just as quick to take calls from reporters, also seeking his wisdom and insights, or sometimes just to share the latest scuttlebutt. Officially, West told me back in 1997, he was not someone who would speak off the record. Unofficially? West was an irrepressible gossip and a delightfully candid truth teller. He’d tell you immediately if a purported star was overrated (and he was usually right). He’d admonish you for describing a player as “great,” insisting the word is too liberally used (he was right about that, too).

And yes—despite his protestations at his portrayal in the HBO show Winning Time—West had a fierce temper and an affinity for F-bombs. “Let me tell you something!” was a common, biting refrain that would preface a feisty Jerry West lecture. “You f*cking people,” was another, usually preceding a broadside about the media.

When he was running the Grizzlies, West once left a prolonged, profanity-laced complaint on a beat writer’s voicemail … then cheerfully signed off by saying, “You can call me back in the office, tomorrow. Bye-bye.” “He was incredibly sweet,” said the reporter, Ron Tillery, who covered the Grizzlies for The Commercial Appeal. Tillery said the two still spoke at least twice a year, right up until the end.

The point isn’t that West was needlessly mean or intimidating, just intensely proud and passionate about the league he’d help to build.

West loved the game so much that he took the Memphis job at a time when the Grizzlies were considered one of the worst franchises in pro sports. He arguably put that franchise on the map, shepherding the Grizz to their first three playoff appearances—and chafed when local media celebrated that modest achievement.

But West forever remained a Laker, a friend and adviser to Kobe and (separately) to Shaq, long after he left. On one visit to Memphis, early in West’s tenure there, he made sure to show me his wristwatch: It was still set to Pacific time.

Tensions with the Buss family, and Jeanie in particular, probably kept West from ever rejoining the franchise that defined him (and that he helped define). He would instead lend his wisdom to the Warriors (where he helped recruit Kevin Durant) and finally the Clippers (where he helped recruit Kawhi Leonard), as a consultant. The game kept evolving, but West endured as an oracle of basketball wisdom because he embraced the change.

It wasn’t until 2011, with the release of his autobiography, West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, that we would truly understand the extent of his personal torment, his trauma. Of the physical abuse he suffered at the hands of his father as a child. The devastation of losing a beloved older brother in the Korean War. The poverty. The paralyzing depression. West divulged it all in his book, then spent his final decade speaking as openly as any former athlete has about mental health—a contribution as enduring as anything he ever did on the court.

“There’s sometimes things you keep hidden forever, that you don’t want people to know about you,” West told a group of 125 students last July, at the Sports Business Classroom, an offshoot of the NBA’s summer league. And then he proceeded to tell them about those things, in an hour-long discussion that was raw, at times difficult, and intensely emotional. “I’m flawed,” West said then, “because of the things I saw growing up.”

It was the last day I would see or speak to West. He seemed more frail, but no less feisty or intimidating than the first time I met him. I joked about the quote he’d given a day earlier, about the idea that he was, in his time, a “wolf” on the court, in contrast to the mere “dogs” that today’s players sometimes describe themselves as. “It’s not funny,” West scolded me. “I wasn’t kidding.”

Toward the end of his conversation with the students, West came back to the thought.

“People laugh at what I said. It is the truth,” he said. “Have you ever heard a wolf [howl]? How haunting is that sound? Haunting, right? … It’s what you think about going to those games. I was going to kill that dog. I was going to make him respect me as a player, but also know that there’s no way that I was going to give in. … I have been a wolf all my life. And I’ve had to be, to in my own way, survive.”

The world celebrated Jerry West, for all he achieved and all he represented across the decades, even when West couldn’t bring himself to do the same. Maybe West never felt worthy of all the praise. Maybe his trauma wouldn’t allow any outward acknowledgment. But the wolf within knew better.

Jerry West and the Burden of Being the Logo (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Laurine Ryan

Last Updated:

Views: 6019

Rating: 4.7 / 5 (77 voted)

Reviews: 92% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Laurine Ryan

Birthday: 1994-12-23

Address: Suite 751 871 Lissette Throughway, West Kittie, NH 41603

Phone: +2366831109631

Job: Sales Producer

Hobby: Creative writing, Motor sports, Do it yourself, Skateboarding, Coffee roasting, Calligraphy, Stand-up comedy

Introduction: My name is Laurine Ryan, I am a adorable, fair, graceful, spotless, gorgeous, homely, cooperative person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.