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Like McKinney, the rest of the NBA is most appreciative of West's fine eye for talent. Of course, West has been sharpening that eye a long time. When Tommy Hawkins was West's teammate and roommate, the two would show up at an arena well before the other Lakers and, if there was a high school game that preceded theirs, sit through it, comparing notes on what they saw. "He'd say, 'Watch how this kid gets out of a jam,' or 'Check his attitude,' " Hawkins recalls. "These were high school kids."
When Jack Kent Cooke owned the Lakers, he regularly called West in to evaluate talent before a trade or draft. (Today, West calls Magic in for the same reason.) "It was very unusual to do that, to ask a player for advice," says Cooke, whose relations with West were not always so comfortable. "But the passage of time invariably showed him to be right."
For a player it was largely an irrelevant talent, a parlor trick. But West could not help himself. He saw everything and he remembered it. Kupchak thinks back to 1972, when the Lakers were playing the Knicks in the NBA finals. Kupchak was being recruited by Duke out of a Long Island, N.Y., high school and was being led through the Laker dressing room at Madison Square Garden. Duke coach Bucky Waters introduced him to a number of players, including West. Nine years later, having just been signed by the Lakers, Kupchak was boarding the team bus when he bumped into West, then a Laker consultant. Kupchak, jittery in West's presence, made some small talk. "You know, we met way back in...."
"At the Garden—1972," West said. "Bucky Waters brought you by."
That reminds Kupchak of one more story: He and West were driving down a freeway once, and Kupchak noticed some commonplace commotion off to the side. "Did you see that?" he asked. And West said, wearily, "I see everything."
For a general manager, though, this ability is no burden. Rather, it's a marvel. Consider Green, the 6'9" forward who as of mid-April had missed only three games in his five-year NBA career. Green has been the Laker defensive leader while steadily increasing his scoring, season by season. After 22 players had been selected in the 1985 draft, he was still there. "You went to see A.C. Green," says Pat Williams, then the G.M. at Philadelphia, "and you did not see a special player. He was just another forward."
West agrees that there was nothing obvious about Green. "He came out of Oregon State and a system that didn't score many points. He was a player who did not particularly show well in the all-star games, either. Played O.K., not great." But West and Riley both were in the market for a big, dirty-work kind of guy, and to the amazement of some of the Laker players, they plucked him. Abdul-Jabbar remembers somebody telling him that the team had drafted a kid out of Ralph Miller's slow-down offense up north. Kareem covered his eyes. "A kid who passes 17 times before he shoots? How's he going to help the Lakers?" Says West, characteristically, "He could have been a bust."
Not likely. What other general manager takes his 23rd pick onto the floor to share a few moves with him? Or offers advice on where to set up housekeeping, or asks if he has a financial adviser? "He took responsibility for me," says Green, "but not to save face for a draft selection. That's just him." Half a dozen players picked ahead of Green have either left the NBA or been relegated to the bench.
The rest of the Laker roster was put together in similar fashion. When it became apparent that Abdul-Jabbar could play only almost forever, West dealt off two players, two draft picks and some cash for Thompson, an underwhelming center at Portland and then, briefly, San Antonio. The upshot of that is expressed by Magic: "If we don't get Mychal, we don't win."
It's not easy to see what West sees. Of course, there are other general managers who are also good at identifying talent. But West looks for more than just talent. It's evident by the Lakers' luck in this era, when everybody knows that a missed practice can mean something besides the car didn't start, that he checks out character as well. Laker scout Gene Tormohlen says that's why a lot of obvious picks slide right on by the team. "We usually announce it differently," he says.