Lou Mohs enjoys—he truly enjoys—a reputation for being the tightest general manager in the business ("Ask anybody around here, they'll tell you how tight I am"). His goal is to make the Lakers the first NBA team to draw a million dollars in a season—"tickets sold, not people in the stands," he says. The Lakers average 7,000 fans a night, and they are up 13% at the box office this year. There is a story going around that Owner Short turned down a $2� million offer for the club. It isn't always this way in the NBA, of course, and a fellow wonders how some of the clubs can afford the salaries they muster to keep their stars happy. "The salaries you pay the Jerry Wests and Elgin Baylors don't hurt at all," says Mohs. "If it's your last breath, you can pay for a good doctor. These are the guys that make you a success." This incisive allusion to NBA reality will not prevent Mohs from dickering over contracts, of course, because he takes esthetic pleasure in his abilities as a dickerer, but he says it with more than a trace of pride when he complains that he had to subscribe to the
Wall Street Journal
to keep up with West's investments.
It is altogether possible that if West could not get the ball into Lake Tahoe on a windless day people would still queue up to sing his praises. Fred Schaus has been his coach nine years—four at West Virginia, five with the Lakers—and is an unswerving admirer: "I've said it all along—I've got two sons, and if they both grew up to be like Jerry West I'd be satisfied." Mohs says West is the only player he ever knew that he would adopt. Jim Krebs, an ex-Laker now in business in Los Angeles, says West was accepted by the team "five minutes after he arrived. Right away Baylor was after him to show the fellows where he kept his pet pig." Ed Barrett, sports publicist at West Virginia, says unequivocally that "West is the most popular athlete in West Virginia sports history." And on March 24 of every year since 1956, East Bank Consolidated High changes its name to West Bank in honor of the day the kid from Chelyan led the team to the state school championship.
But do not be fooled, says Krebs Beneath that sugar coating beats the heart of a red-hot, no-nonsense competitor, whatever the game. ("The killer instinct" is what Publicist Barrett calls it, aptly if not originally.) "I saw Jerry get so mad at himself he walked right off the course in a celebrity golf tournament one year," says Krebs. "He barely knew one club from another when he came out here and now he's shooting in the 70s.
"But when it comes to serious conversation, you never saw a more opinionated guy than Jerry. Once he reached the fantastic conclusion that Willie Mays was not a very good baseball player. And before a game, nothing's right. The air conditioning is too high, the TV's too loud. 'Dammit,' he'll say, 'Can't you smoke somewhere else?' He's great."
West's regular fishing partner, Hollis Johnson, runs the fountain at a Beverly Hills drugstore. "I've probably got more reels than anybody in the U.S.," says Johnson. "But when it comes to passion for fishing you have got to see Jerry to believe him." Every year Johnson and West make four or five trips to Lake Crowley in the High Sierras and spend as long as a week at a time fishing for trout. "One time Jerry drove 330 miles in a snowstorm just so he could be there when the season opened. Twice he was stopped, one time when his windshield wiper broke and then again when the cops said he couldn't go any further. He finally straggled in, and before you knew it he was out there in the snow cleaning fish and telling me, 'Hollis, you're hotter than jailhouse coffee,' and 'Hollis, you're my man.' " The only fault Hollis can find with West as a fisherman is that he sometimes gets so carried away that he fishes right past the limit, "and we've got one of the meanest game wardens up there you'd ever want to meet. He spies on people with binoculars."
The thing about Jerry West, of course, is that he can put the ball in Lake Tahoe on a windless day; he could do it in a hurricane, and Schaus admits—declares—that he would not have taken the Laker job in 1960 if he had not been assured that West would also become a Laker. "I offered Freddy a three-year contract at $5,000 more than he was making at West Virginia, no matter what that was," says Mohs, "but it was like talking to a polar bear until we made it clear we had West. I suppressed the urge to tell him Jerry had carried him for three years at West Virginia."
Schaus became a regular on the Wests' front-porch swing in Chelyan from the day he saw West, as a lean 6-foot-2 forward at East Bank High, blocking shots and grabbing 28 rebounds in a single game. Mrs. West took to the elegantly mannered West Virginia coach immediately and soon was shooing away all the other scouts as if they were chickens on the back stoop. "Jerry's going to West Virginia," she said, and that, says Jerry, was that.
Jerry West's heroics since then would fill the six or eight scrapbooks he never kept. He was voted the outstanding player in the 1959 NCAA tournament (in which West Virginia lost to California in the finals). He scored 160 points in five games, and one of the tournament players he beat in the voting was Oscar Robertson. Schaus remembers a time at Kentucky when Jerry's nose was broken in the first half. Gulping air through his mouth, his nose packed with gauze, he scored 19 points in the second half, and West Virginia upset Kentucky 79-70. The nose bled for three days.
Since becoming a Laker, West has averaged 26 points a game; he and Baylor have been the most prolific two-man scoring combination in the league. The Lakers, however, have not had the supporting cast necessary to replace the Boston Celtics as league champions, though they came within a basket of doing it in 1962 when Frank Selvy's last-second shot rimmed and went out. It was in the third game of that playoff series with Boston that West made a play nobody ever quite believed. With three seconds left and the score tied, Boston was about to bring the ball in from out of bounds at mid-court. West anticipated, charged in front of Sam Jones's pass, picked it off, dribbled three times at full speed and flipped in the winning basket. Boston players, writers and supporters immediately set to howling: How could West possibly have done it in three seconds? A TV-taped replay made by a Boston station revealed that he actually did it in 2.7 seconds.
Intensity and purposefulness are not just words with West. When he was a kid in Chelyan his mother used to threaten to punish him for sloshing around for hours in the rain at his make-do backyard court. His diet at West Virginia during the season was reduced to bananas and steak. Before a game he often retched into a towel, and afterward he would bolt down sleeping pills like an addict, then lie awake all night. He lunged and tumbled after every loose ball, and people used to say that Schaus's assistant, George King, was under strict orders to dive under West any time it looked as if he might fall.