West has endured Tatum's wild rookie mistakes, the kind he himself never made in 14 years as "Mr. Clutch," without screaming or throwing Tatum off the nearest Disneyland ride. In addition, he is the only coach in the league to get past midseason without a technical foul.
"Can you believe this?" Albeck says. "Jerry believes the refs aren't out to get us. What a dreamer." Says West, "My patience has really surprised me."
In like manner, the L.A. depth has stunned the NBA. Washington is a terror as a sixth man. Backup Center C. J. Kupec has turned a brilliant shooting touch into Laker insurance when Abdul-Jabbar takes a break. Then there is Johnny (Be Good) Neumann, another Laker who was rescued from the scrap heap and who impressed right away with his irreverent manner.
After an errant ball hit Abdul-Jabbar on the head in practice, Neumann shattered the eerie silence with, "Maybe that'll wake him up."
Waking up is something West wishes he could do more of. An insomniac, he appears to have aged several years since training camp. Large circles under the eyes and hands glistening with sweat in airline terminals partly justify friends' opinions that West is worn down and unable to enjoy his new life.
Of Bossman Cooke's infamous, Finleyesque meddling, West simply says, "If you know me, you know I'm stubborn. I am the Laker coach. No problems." Yet it is known that Cooke had promised West expensive new personnel and that West was livid when all those high-priced forwards changed teams early in the season and Los Angeles didn't get one.
The two haven't spoken in weeks, but from his absentee headquarters in Vegas, Cooke recently came up with a solution to Neumann's weight problems. Cooke suggested to the front office that the Lakers tie a six-pound roast beef to Neumann's waist during practice. When the workout was over and Neumann untied the roast, he would know what losing six pounds felt like. Naturally, Cooke also suggested the Lakers keep the meat and have dinner on him.
"This is a silly business," West says. "The travel exhausts me more than when I played. The pressure is no fun. I won't stay in it for long. It's a kids' game and all a coach does is organize, condition and communicate. Other than that, you're at the mercy of your players. If a coach takes himself seriously, he's a fool. I don't take myself seriously."
But if the rest of the NBA doesn't take Los Angeles seriously, they too will be at the mercy of the Lakers. And, of course, the biggest fools of all.