In Los Angeles last March 19 it was Jerry West Night, and The Forum was packed. The place was bathed in an excess of emotion because a couple of weeks before West had torn the ligaments in his right knee, and he was still on crutches. He stood there with his wife Jane and the three boys.
Bill Russell waited in the wings while others made their speeches. He was not listed on the program. West did not know he was there. Two months before, Jim Brochu, then the Laker P.R. man, had thought to ask Russell if he might attend. "I'll be there," Russell said, and he paid his own way to fly across the country. When he was announced and strode out toward West, the people rose in delight and cheered.
Russell walked up to West and hugged him. Many people were beginning to cry even before he spoke.
Then Russell picked up the microphone, and the place fell silent. He said: "Jerry, I once wrote that success is a journey, and that the greatest honor a man can have is the respect and friendship of his peers. You have that more than any man I know.
"Jerry, you are, in every sense of the word, truly a champion." He paused, and The Forum was utterly still. Russell looked at West and said: "If I could have one wish granted, it would be that you would always be happy."
Of all the sports stars of our time, West is the most appealing. In his victories, which come often, he is reliable and accessible and humble. In his defeats, which are not many (except that one of them each year lasts all summer long), he is never tragic, only vulnerable. In his life, he appears as he is, quite human.
West has so far outstripped even the wildest dreams of his boyhood that he is no longer capable of comprehending what he represents to others. For himself, any appreciation of his own status is blurred because he is, pound for pound, a better sports fan than he is a sports star. He marvels so guilelessly at the Jerry West of the basketball record books that he has developed a faculty for referring to himself in the second person except in moments of doubt or self-deprecation. For instance:
"All this really is not supposed to be happening to you. You know, I'm still kind of uncomfortable that someone wants your autograph. When I sign, I look around to see if anybody I know is watching me.... You watch some of these games on television, and you just wonder how in the world some of these players can do the things they do. I'm telling you, I think I look awful on TV. I would love to be more exciting as a player, to be someone like [Joe] Caldwell or [Rick] Barry or [Dick] Barnett, but I've just never been a press agent's dream.... I'm really anxious to see these new kids come in every year, the ones I've read so much about. Of course, it kind of shakes you up when one of them tells you that you've been their idol since they were in 10th grade or something."
As gee whiz as that sort of thing sounds, West is perfectly aware of how good he is and how much he is worth. It is just that he is surprised that it is him. There have been occasions in the heart of a season, when he has been healthy and in top shape, when he has been jumping straight up, with every move in rhythm and every shot sprinkled with touch, that West has confided to friends: "I don't believe I can miss a shot out there now. I think I can score every time I get the ball." He makes these remarks idly, with as much bravado as someone else might employ in reporting that he had mastered the operation of an electric can opener.
Yet all the achievement, all the glory has been strangely, even pathetically, transcended by the few calamities that West has suffered. The distillation of his career is defeat and frustration. If everything he has meant to the Lakers and every wound and pressure that has been visited on him could be telescoped into one game, it would be the one he played the night of May 5,1969, the seventh game of the sixth championship series between Boston and Los Angeles.