Jerry West has left the building. Vanished. When the Memphis Grizzlies began their game against the New Orleans Hornets earlier this evening, West was in his usual perch, a corporate suite in the Pyramid, high above court level. At every Grizzlies home game he sits by himself in the dark—where no one can witness his agony or hear his fusillades of profanity—as he watches the team he is charged with rebuilding. Tonight the Grizzlies improbably sprinted to a 31-point lead. If you looked hard and caught the light penetrating the suite at just the right angle, you could make out traces of a smile on West's face.
But this being the NBA—and the inexperienced Grizzlies being the inexperienced Grizzlies—New Orleans whittled Memphis's lead to single digits by the fourth quarter. West, a nervous wreck even in the best of times, averted his eyes from the collapse. He walked stealthily out of the suite, keeping his head down as he cruised past oblivious fans on the concourse, and exited the arena through a back door. As he folded his 6'5" frame into his Lexus, he cranked up some jazz and started to drive home. By the time he reached his doge's palace in the Southwind section of town, the Grizzlies somehow had held on to win 106-102.
"Jerry sitting through an entire game without getting so tense he has to leave?" asks Gary Colson, West's longtime friend and his assistant in Memphis. "Come on! Some things don't change."
The last time he ran a basketball team, West was the custodian of the Los Angeles Lakers, perhaps the most charmed franchise in sports. The stars that played for him had names like Kareem, Magic, Kobe and Shaquille. West, who was a player, a coach and finally an executive for the Lakers, spent 42 years in L.A., and he traveled in the right circles. He lived in Bel Air, was a member of its eponymous country club and had a table at the best steak house in town.
Today, West is president of the Grizzlies, a team that in its grim seven-year history has never won more than 23 games in a season. Its two best players are Pau Gasol, the dipstick-thin "power" forward from Spain, and Jason Williams, the point guard whose name always rides tandem with the adjective volatile. From West's spartan third-floor office in downtown Memphis, a universe removed from El Segundo, he can hear the flatulence of foghorns on barges along the muddy Mississippi.
The biggest difference between now and then? West says, "I can't remember the last time I was this—well, I don't want to say happy, but I do feel energized."
It was the middle of last spring when West made the stunning announcement that he was considering an offer to run the Grizzlies. On its face it made no sense. The famous half-court shot that West hit in the 1970 NBA Finals? It would be a layup compared with rebuilding this team. The Grizzlies were a laughingstock franchise that had moved to Tennessee in 2001 after failing spectacularly in Vancouver.
The team's front office had compiled a striking collection of personnel blunders. In 1997 the Grizzlies gave up a No. 1 draft pick for doddering forward Otis Thorpe, who played all of 47 games for the franchise. That same year, die team used the fourth pick of the draft to select Antonio Daniels, who couldn't crack the starting lineup and was traded for table scraps after one season. Steve Francis, you'll recall, cried when the Grizzlies drafted him with the second pick in 1999; he then extorted a trade to Houston.
A bone-deep malaise had settled over the players, who'd grown inured to losing. West, meanwhile, was retired and living a country squire's life. As a Los Angeles Times columnist put it when the rumor surfaced, "I believe Jerry West is going to Memphis. I also believe that muttonchopped fat guys moonlighting in satin suits are Elvis." West, however, is legendary for spotting value and opportunity where no one else sees them. Within a week he had accepted the job.
Even though he was laboring under inherited salary-cap restrictions, West almost immediately put his imprint on the Grizzlies. He snookered Cleveland out of veteran scorer Wes Person, giving up only Nick Anderson and draft pick Matt Barnes, neither of whom would make the Cavaliers' roster. West made a solid if undaring draft choice—Kansas forward Drew Gooden with the fourth pick—and then, in exchange for a second-rounder in 2004, picked up San Antonio's Gordan Giricek, a Croatian shooting guard who is now starting for Memphis. West also found a pet project in Cezary Trybanski, a 7'2" Polish center who, West is convinced, "will be a real player."