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Mister Clutch, Master Builder
Richard Hoffer
April 23, 1990
JERRY WEST WON ONLY ONE NBA TITLE AS A PLAYER, BUT AS GENERAL MANAGER HE HAS WROUGHT A LAKER DYNASTY
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April 23, 1990

Mister Clutch, Master Builder

JERRY WEST WON ONLY ONE NBA TITLE AS A PLAYER, BUT AS GENERAL MANAGER HE HAS WROUGHT A LAKER DYNASTY

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West, unoccupied and unanchored for the first time in his life, threw himself into golf. Every day, all day. Eddie Merrins, the pro at Bel-Air Country Club, stood back and watched West attack his game. "I think he felt, in his own mind, that he'd just switch from one game to another, play professional golf," says Merrins. "He was a very good club golfer, and he did shoot that 28 on our back nine [in a friendly round in 1974], which nobody else has ever done. Yet he was reluctant to enter competitions. He wasn't perfect, and it was as if he didn't want to embarrass himself with a poor round."

Since a poor round always lurked around the corner, golf ultimately wasn't his game. West rarely plays today, though when he does, he must be somewhat comical to watch. He plays speed golf. "Once," says former teammate Rod Hundley, "we were creeping up on this foursome and they said, 'Why don't you play with the two following you, the ones way back?' I said, 'We were playing with them." "

But the golf was necessary therapy during a strange time, when West seemed frantic to shed his past life, layer by layer. Colson used to help West move from one bachelor pad to another, and West was always giving him stuff, artifacts of an unsatisfying life: jewelry, clothes—"I'm wearing his shorts right now," Colson says, laughing—and belts. "I'd take these belts home, and on the back of one of them is Hickok. You remember the Hickok Award [the S. Rae Hickok Award for professional athlete of the month, won by West in April '69 and January '72]? He gave me two or three All-Star rings."

One day in 1974, Colson invited West to a Pepperdine basketball affair. West was seated next to a Pepperdine cheerleader, Karen Bua, and for reasons she still can't tell you, he blurted out his life story to her. She was slack-jawed. "I had never met the man, and he just basically told me everything," she says. "He was just starting a divorce and was not a happy person. Very famous, had done everything and was just empty. I felt, what a sad human being." Having spilled these astonishing confidences, there was nothing for West to do but marry Karen, which he did four years later.

Civilian life was a struggle. One awful consequence: He now was famous for no reason. He couldn't stand it. He was on a scouting visit to Rutgers in the late '70s when some players noticed him and came up for autographs. "He began perspiring profusely," says Jack McCloskey, then his assistant coach. It was a physical reaction. Karen has watched him sign autographs silently and stone-faced, and has wanted to tell him, smile, talk to these people. But she finally recognized that it was not arrogance but embarrassment.

If unemployment was a problem, what to say of West's coaching stint for Cooke from 1976-77 through 1978-79? It was the most disastrous 145-101, three-time-playolf job ever turned in. Oh, the first year was a dream. West took a team that hadn't been in the playoffs in two years to the best record in the NBA. "In some respects, of all the things I've been involved in, that was the most fun year I've ever had in basketball," he says. But Cooke liked to tinker. "Mr. Cooke was good to me, other than him wanting to be my assistant coach," West says. Championships continued to mock him. And the job quickly turned him into the kind of man who might not speak to his wife for three weeks and then say, "Nothing personal."

Cooke was equally exasperated by his protégé. "I expected nothing like perfection from Jerry, and he didn't fail me," he says. "He was only moderately successful as a coach, because he could never understand why average players couldn't do the things he did so easily."

Another morning dawned with West's waking up and discovering, "I did not like myself. I was absolutely miserable." He quit, and though Buss later got down on his knees—"literally," says Buss—to beg him to return, West never again considered coaching. (In 1981, after firing Paul Westhead, Buss named West and Riley Laker co-coaches. But West said he was only helping Riley and returned to his consultant's role after two weeks.)

West had no reason to think himself qualified for anything but dribbling a ball, or showing others how. So his competence as general manager, a job arranged by his predecessor, Sharman, and Buss, surprises him. "This is a side of me I never knew existed," he says. Lucky again. Because this may be the happiest time in West's life. "His proper niche," says Cooke. His competitive drives and his abilities have, for once, found a healthy outlet in his job. And Karen says he comes home, by whatever strange route, and plays with the kids, and is relatively relaxed, nearly normal.

Not completely, of course. For one thing, he is as quirky as ever. He won't travel with the team. (The last time he did, during the 1983 playoffs, the Lakers were swept by Philadelphia.) And even when the Lakers are home, he maintains his rituals. Game nights, he goes into his office and right back out. No reason. He is, despite recent improvement, surely tormented, always distrustful of his charmed life. It's what happens when your dreams come true, and you realize you shot too low.

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