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The coach, Pat Riley, is an equally unusual component. His hairdo is as well known by now as Don King's. The sheer stylishness of the man gives him a kind of Hollywood sheen. In fact, film director Robert Towne tried to talk his friend Riley into starring in Tequila Sunrise, the idea being that the move from Laker coach to movie star was strictly lateral. Riley declined, so Towne appropriated his character for Kurt Russell to play, slicked-back hair and all. Yet Riley, for all his glamour, had the grit to push his team to back-to-back NBA titles, and almost back-to-back-to-back. Behind locker room doors he is believed to play Joan Crawford more often than Cary Grant.
The team itself is a happy combination of separate and interlocking talents-workaday players like Green alongside improvisational artists like Magic. You can say the Lakers are all Magic, but Buss points out, "Lots of teams have superstars and still don't win." The team isn't just Magic, and it was never just Magic and Abdul-Jabbar. It's a blend that draws as much on the spirited character of Magic as on his no-peek passing, and it has produced not only fast-breaking entertainment but championships, too. With five NBA titles and three other trips to the finals, the Lakers moved well beyond the Boston Celtics in the 1980s. Now the Lakers compare themselves not with the best of the NBA but with the best of the sports world (Edmonton Oilers, four NHL titles in the '80s; San Francisco 49ers, three Super Bowl victories).
But, truly, the man behind this run of NBA titles has been Jerry West, all the while discounting success and envisioning failure, championship ring by championship ring. As the team's special consultant from 1979 to '82, he scouted college players for then general manager Bill Sharman. As G.M. since then, he has picked and signed the talent and kept everyone happy. But with the Lakers, as with any winning team, there are special problems.
West was talking about these problems recently as he set forth from Inglewood to scout the Final Four and the year-end college camps and all-star games. It was basically a fool's errand, frustrating to a man who can really appreciate talent. "What we do," he says, "is identify the 20 best players. And then we cross them off. Just cross them off. Not the most fun thing."
The NBA tries to enforce parity through its draft, giving the high picks to the losers, reserving a pool of leftovers for the winners. The curse of winning every year is to be consistently denied a chance at the top talent, which presumably will turn a winner back into a loser over time. Is seven years time enough? In his tenure as general manager, West has had no draft pick higher than 23, and twice he did not pick until the third round. Do you wonder why he is superstitious, driving the same route to the Forum for 22 years now—off the San Diego Freeway at Manchester, then down a series of side streets he can't name? ("This can be a problem," he admits in all seriousness, "given the traffic of Los Angeles.") This kind of success is fragile enough to collapse of its own weight; better not to disturb it with the slightest deviation from ritual.
West is more likely to attribute the Laker record to his Forum route than to any decisions he has made. His is a near-pathological humility, a refusal to set himself apart from anyone else by his deeds. In his house in Bel Air there is his 1960 Olympic gold medal (which reminds him of the last time basketball was really fun), a painting of him done by former teammate Gene Wiley, and the ball with which he scored his 25,000th point. That ball has scored a few more in his driveway; some of his five sons—three from his first marriage and two from his second—have used it in pickup games. Otherwise, there are no reminders of West's career, no emblems of ego.
"We've been fortunate" is how he begins any discussion of the Lakers' continued success. He lays it all to Magic and the recently retired Abdul-Jabbar. "Two of the greatest players to ever play the game, on one team," he says, "and that rarely happens. Our job is so much easier when those people have been around. The complementary people, which we have been able to get, have helped us. But someday we're going to need more than complementary people, no question. I shudder to think when Earvin's gone. I just shudder." He thinks about it and finds an opportunity to be miserable. "We'll probably have to be real bad before we get good again."
This is pure West. Not only is he incapable of accepting credit, but he is an uncomfortable winner—doesn't even think of himself as a winner. He ends an interview by saying he hopes the story does not end up rubbing any noses in the Lakers' success, because if you want to know the truth, he's just a loser waiting to happen, just like the rest of the guys in the league, just like always.
Tell it to the rest of the guys. The NBA is a clubby organization, a sort of roving fraternity party. The general managers and the scouts set out for some college game and invariably run into each other and settle into a courtside klatch. Even so, West seems especially beloved and respected by the competition, and by the establishment. NBA commissioner David Stern is impressed by West's grasp of such administrative tangles as the salary cap. "Jerry has disproved the notion that you have to be a lawyer to master that," he says, "and the lawyer in me hates to admit that. He's just an excellent executive. He'd be a success in any business."
Even more impressed are his colleagues. Billy McKinney, director of player personnel for the Minnesota Timber-wolves, calls West the "most underrated sports executive in America. People don't understand the mechanics of keeping a team great."