It Never Rains On Jerry West

Once upon a time, Jerry West was the General Manager of a 39 win Lakers team. He had plans….

This is how you build. You take one piece at a time. You risk that piece because you are a tough man. You are a courageous man. You have a long and short memory. You marry that piece to others. You build up and out and to the side. You use up your chances, all of them, and then you wait with your heart in your stomach. If you are Jerry West, this is how it goes. This is the script. Showtime is over. The beautiful, exhilarating, world of five titles is buried, stabbed in the heart. The corpse is cold. The unimaginable has transformed into the horrific. It is time to begin again. In 1993, that was Jerry West’s reality. It was time to start over.

No one was thanking Jerry West for anything anymore.

In 1993, Elden Campbell and Vlade Divac were the Lakers best players. They were competent but not what you build around long term, still they kept the bleeding to a minimum. Both were first round draft picks. Campbell was a local kid out of Inglewood, a thin, athletic 6-11 big man who was expected, for some reason, to have the toughness of a dog, to have grit and spit nails. But, that wasn’t his nature. He had a restful, low motor.

A seven footer from Serbia who survived the war and was now trying to survive the Lakers rebuilding project, Vlade Divac was a tremendous teammate, a loyal friend, skilled with the basketball, a natural passer and scorer. Preternaturally happy and warm with gentle eyes and a lopsided smile, Divac introduced flopping into NBA. But this American world was his refuge, a way to set aside war atrocities and and war crimes and friends becoming enemies.

Elden Campbell and Valde Divac had been to the playoffs the year before. Their mediocre Lakers team won 39 games, shook off the dust, and almost stunned a Phoenix Suns team. The Lakers hung in there and lost in 5 games. In the offseason, it was Jerry West’s job to create something around Campbell and Divac. He was expected to make a miracle out of a pile of dust.

West went the unconventional route, bringing in a self-identified rage seeping from the pores, quick as lightening guard who could run circles around anyone. But, he had all of this animus inside of him, all of this torture. Nick Van Exel joined the team in the 1993-94 season, drafted in the second round, even though he had first round star talent. Van Exel was a clutch scorer and a quality playmaker with a huge chip on his shoulder created from a tough background that Van Exel could not forget nor forgive.

Van Exel was an 18 point, 5 assist player his senior year at the University of Cincinnati and they won 27 games with Van Exel leading them. He was a finalist for the Wooden Award but he also slept in his car. When it was time for the pre-draft beauty pageant, Van Exel went out of his way to annoy general managers, taunting them to not draft him. His behavior was borderline reckless, the kind of childish stunts that no one who had never been abandoned would understand. Instead of running sprints, he jogged. He canceled some workouts altogether. G.M’s and head coaches shied away from his erratic behavior, fearing it would inhibit team chemistry and that he was uncoachable.

But, Jerry West overlooked all of the Van Exel stunts. West had baggage himself, a rough childhood that nurtured an internal rage he kept beneath the surface, for the most part. He wasn’t going to hold that against Van Exel. Besides, West knew the purity of a scorer. Sometimes rage is your biggest weapon. (And sometimes it’s your downfall.)

Van Exel didn’t let West down. On opening night, November 5th, he had 23 points, 8 assists, 3 rebounds, shooting 69%. Divac poured in 18 points, 5 assists, 3 steals and 8 rebounds and the Lakers beat the same Suns team that had eliminated them from the playoffs a few months earlier, a team with Charles Barkley, Dan Majerle, Danny Ainge and Kevin Johnson. It was an encouraging start to what West hoped was the beginning of the Lakers rebuild, a few pieces here, a few pieces there.

Except, that Lakers win was an illusion. As the season continued, they were not very good. When they were 3-9 and losers of 5 in a row, it was obvious they were going nowhere. They were one of the worst shooting teams in the NBA. They didn’t get to the free throw line and they were a dismal rebounding team. Wins were hard to come by, losses piled up, the blood of the team was cold, the fans were resigned.

In March of 1994, impatient for this rebuilding thing to kick in, Dr. Jerry Buss fired Lakers coach Randy Pfund and asked Magic Johnson to take his place, something Buss had been pining for since 1992-93, his favorite son in charge of his favorite team. Greatness is as greatness does was the lie Buss wanted to believe to confirm a truth that was mostly fiction. The talented are just better. No. The talented have their lines in the sand too. They only understand people like them, gym rats, workaholics, the compulsive willing to sacrifice.

With Magic holding the whip, the Lakers won a home game against Milwaukee, giving him coaching win number one. Vlade Divac, a familiar face, delivered, 18 points and 19 rebounds, 7 assists and 4 steals. After winning 5 out of 6 games, the Lakers settled into their predictable narrative. They lost 10 games in a row to end the season.

So much for Magic, the savior. Magic was now the unemployed, unable to bridge the gap between his era of selflessness and the hip-hop era’s personal anthem: look at me. What was broken he could not fix with his fiery enthusiasm and work ethic and desire.

In one year, the Lakers had achieved absolutely nothing, except usher Magic Johnson into a final retirement. For the first time in their history, the Lakers were in the Draft Lottery.

Failure is an event, not a person. Yesterday ended last night (Zig Ziglar)

Eddie Jones was a tough kid developed by a tough coach (John Chaney) in a tough program (Temple). He had a solemn face and large round eyes. He was quiet. He spoke with a quiet hush. He played with a quiet intensity. He defended with a quiet strength.

Jones was a small forward who could score on the inside and outside, but more importantly, he was a skilled defender. He became a Laker in July 1994 to a considerable amount of criticism. The Lakers needed big men.

Jerry West explained: “We wanted the best pure athlete available and Eddie was too good to pass up.”

In September, Jerry West traded a first round pick to the Phoenix Suns for a pure scorer, Cedric Ceballos. The Lakers suddenly had two things they had been missing. They had an extroverted player who wanted the ball in his hands, who could create off the dribble and finish, who could get to the line. And they had a talented rookie, skilled in defense, but one who could also make plays on offense with his athleticism.

Jerry West hired Del Harris to coach the team. Harris coached the Houston Rockets when they went to the Finals in 1981, losing to the Boston Celtics in four games. Moses Malone was on that team for three years until he left in free agency. Harris was fired the next season and became an assistant coach to George Karl in Milwaukee and then the head coach and Vice President of Basketball Operations, once Karl left for Seattle.

No one expected much out of the Lakers in 1994-95, certainly not a winning record. But, in their first 20 games they were 13-7. Ceballos was a gifted scorer and a limelight seeker. 20 point games were natural for him and he loved the attention and the Lakers atmosphere. He embraced the Lakers bubble, the distractions, the media, the pressure. He averaged 22 points and 8 rebounds his first year with the Lakers. Nick Van Exel averaged 17 points and 8 assists. Vlade Divac pulled down 10 rebounds a game and scored 16 points. They were the foundation of the Jerry West rebuild: scoring, rebounding, ball movement.

A lottery team the year before, the Lakers won 48 games in 1994-95. They played in the second round of the playoffs. Del Harris won Coach of the Year. Jerry West was Executive of the Year as he pulled off a miracle.

But, even Jerry West, as skilled and as successful as he was as an architect, as sagacious as he was at assessing talent, as sharp as his intellect was in leading him to players everyone disregarded, Jerry West was totally oblivious about one particular thing. He couldn’t see around the corner of his own life. He didn’t know the future of the franchise he loved like his own mother. He didn’t anticipate what was coming down the road. Jerry West, the brilliant one, could never had dreamed it up, In thirteen months, everything about his life and his franchise was going to drastically change.

We cannot become what we want by remaining what we are (Max De Pree)

It was an April 1996 afternoon in Pennsylvania, blinding light poured in. A tall and thin, smart and arrogantly willful 17 year old attired in a suit, a paisley tie and white shirt, with sunglasses perched atop his head drifted in the room with cameras and tape recorders and a legion of curious doubters.  He was cavalier the way young kids are. He was confident the way young kids are. He appeared happy and casual the way young kids frequently are but his eyes were extremely serious in an exaggerated way. Precocious and with perfect diction, Kobe Bryant announced to the cameras filming that he was forgoing college to enter the NBA Draft. Then, he smiled.

It was a stunning moment for the NBA. No high school guard had ever passed on college. Was this precedent setting? Could it actually work? Immediately the dissenters and critics went into overdrive, ridiculing not just Kobe but his parents, Pamela and Joe, for allowing him to make a decision that could ruin his basketball career.

But, the closer draft day came, the more the experts were divided on where Kobe Bryant would be drafted. Some had him in the top 5 and possibly number 1. Others had him in the second round as a cautionary tale.

Far west of Pennsylvania, former number 1 draft pick, Shaquille O’Neal, didn’t watch the Pennsylvania press conference of Kobe Bryant, the high school phenom. Shaq was in a Detroit hotel room, preparing to play the Pistons.

Increasingly unhappy in Orlando, Shaq battled with coach Brian Hill. Hill couldn’t make up his mind who he wanted to run the offense through, O’Neal or Penny Hardaway. As a result, free agent Shaq began looking around. One more thing was true too: Shaq wanted a big payday. He wanted to be the highest paid player in the league, something the fans in Orlando held against him, as if making money for what you do well was a crime. The more the fans considered him greedy, the more Shaq wanted to escape small town Orlando for a place that wouldn’t ostracize him for wanting what all men want.

While Shaq was the possible future, Kobe Bryant was the present. Acquainted with talent, Jerry West was absent stars in his eyes. He played with Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain. He was friends with Oscar Robertson. He played against and lost to Bob Cousy and John Havlicek and Bill Russell. He built the Showtime dynasty. And yet, Jerry West was speechless as he watched the pre-draft workout of Kobe Bryant. Paired against Michael Cooper at the Inglewood YMCA, Bryant was electric, confident, athletic and incredibly ruthless.

Jerry West had never seen a workout like the one Kobe put on, his competitiveness and innate aggression on full display as if to say: this is me. Was this kid 17? Brashness and determination and relentlessness were characteristics West recognized. They were traits of a once-in-a-generation player. They were traits that belonged to him.

On draft night, West had a deal with Charlotte. Charlotte would draft whoever the Lakers told them to draft and then trade him to the Lakers. The Lakers would then send Charlotte their All-Star Center Valde Divac. But at the last minute, Bob Bass, the Hornets General Manager, got cold feet. He had heard that Vlade was going to retire, that if he wasn’t playing for the Lakers he wasn’t going to play for anyone. West had to convince Bass that was not the case and pray he didn’t just tell a lie.

But, before the pick would drop to Charlotte at 13, the New Jersey Nets had to be talked out of drafting Kobe. The Nets who had the 8th pick were desperate for a shooting guard. Kobe’s agent at the time, Arn Tellem, had to convince the Nets brass Kobe didn’t want to be there. Even Kobe’s parents convinced the Nets he’d be unhappy playing so close to home. Finally humbled, the Nets passed on Bryant, and selected Kerry Kittles, a shooting guard out of Villanova. It cleared the way for Kobe Bryant to be drafted by Charlotte and then traded.

On July 11, 1996 Kobe Bryant was a Los Angeles Laker.

With Kobe wrapped up, the deal for Shaquille O’Neal lingered on. The stress sent Jerry West to the hospital, treated for exhaustion. The 7-year $95 million dollar deal was nixed by O’Neal when Orlando upped their offer. The endless phone calls and the clearing of cap space so Shaq could receive $120 million, $5 million more than Alonzo Mourning, was made possible by the trading of George Lynch and Anthony Peeler to the Vancouver Grizzlies. On July 18th, Shaquille O’Neal said goodbye to Orlando and hello Los Angeles.

“Shaquille and Kobe could play, they could really play, and that ultimately, is what mattered. We were rebuilding a franchise that needed an infusion of star power because that is what the league is based on, has always been based on. Star power means you have someone who can be the foundation for a team, someone you can build around. We had a lot of really good pieces to start with in Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel and Cedric Ceballos but getting Kobe and Shaquille meant that we could put some glamour back into the franchise.” (Jerry West- West by West, My Charmed Tortured Life)

The Lakers also drafted an unheard of guard with the 24th pick out of Arkansas- Little Rock. Derek Fisher was an afterthought, a name no one would remember come training camp of that year when Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Cedric Ceballos, Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones took the floor in Hawaii.

There are no shortcuts to any place worth going

The Lakers hardly knew each other but they were 13-7 in the first 20 games. It was the 21st game that mattered to Shaquille O’Neal. Orlando was in town and Shaq was out for revenge. He played 41 minutes. He had 25 points and 18 rebounds, 5 steals and 7 blocks. He made 70% of his free throws. His message to his former team was clear: you’ll never, ever get over me. The win was the Lakers 14th. They had 7 losses.

On Christmas Day, at Phoenix, the Lakers won their 20th game of the year. Shaquille O’Neal had 26 points and Eddie Jones had 24 points to lead the team. Kobe Bryant played 5 minutes and didn’t score.

Even as Kobe and his parents were upset at his lack of playing time, the Lakers had a bigger problem and so did the Phoenix Suns. With the development of Eddie Jones as a scorer, Cedric Ceballos role was greatly diminished, something he was bitter about and didn’t keep hidden. Phoenix, who was coached by Danny Ainge, had a player mutiny as well, Robert Horry.

Horry was pissed off with how he was being used and he couldn’t stand one more minute of Danny Ainge. Incredibly frustrated during a January game, Horry, fully aware the cameras were watching, threw a towel in Ainge’s face. It was an embarrassing anti-authority gesture from Alabama native Horry, already a two-time NBA champion, and yet it worked to his benefit. The Suns felt Ainge’s credibility would be lost if Horry remained on the team. They immediately put him on the trade market. Jerry West swooped in, offering up Ceballos.

The Lakers lost in the second round of the playoffs in 1997, at Utah. In overtime, in game 5, Kobe shot an air ball that ended the Lakers season. He went home that night but he didn’t go home. He went straight to Palisades High School to shoot until the sun went up and stayed there almost until the sun went down.

In August, Jerry West signed Rick Fox to a minimum contract. Fox, who was trained by Dean Smith at North Carolina, had been drafted by the Celtics and toughened up by Larry Bird and the Celtics system. He was a natural defender, a small forward who could drive the ball to the rim and stop his man from scoring. Fox desperately wanted to be in L.A. He wanted a television career but he also believed the Lakers needed a defensive specialist. If he showed them his ability to defend and exhibited toughness and played a complimentary role to Shaquille O’Neal, he knew they would sign him to a long term deal.

Talent seeped out of this Lakers team but there was still a question mark. How long would maturity take? When will they develop into an unselfish group? Did they have the drive and the toughness to overcome adversity?

Kobe Bryant spent the summer of 1997, not filming He Got Game with Spike Lee which was his original intention but working on his jump shot and his conditioning. When the 1997-98 season started, he saw his minutes and opportunities increase. He played in 79 games his second year, averaging 15 points. He was an All-Star.

The Lakers in 1997-98 won 61 games. Besides Kobe’s All-Star nod, three other Lakers were All-Star’s too: Shaquille O’Neal, Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel. That season, Shaq averaged 28 points a game. Eddie Jones was good for 16 points a night. Nick Van Exel averaged 14 points and Rick Fox averaged 12 points. But for the second year in a row, the Lakers lost to Karl Malone and John Stockton in the playoffs, this time in the Western Conference Finals.

In June of 1998, Jerry West broke his own heart. He traded Nick Van Exel. West had deep affection for all his players but Van Exel was a kindred spirit, a player he had become particularly attached to. West had a troubled background with an abusive father, a dead but heroic older brother, a town where he was the star so he trafficked in excellence on the outside and despair on the inside. West understood the toll of a wretched past, of memories that wouldn’t go away, of chasing the past even when the past is over. West understood hate and how it created darkness. But, West, with all his paternalism and empathy and quiet hand on the shoulder support, couldn’t change Van Exel, he could not make him less combative, he could not shrink that ball of fire rage that made Van Exel an outsider.

The last straw was at the end of practice just before an elimination game- the Lakers were about to be swept. In the huddle Van Exel began chanting, “1,2,3… Cancun”, a reference to the vacation that was soon to be foisted upon him, a signal he was ready to quit.

The next season, Del Harris and his fate were on thin ice. He had yet to take this talented Lakers team over the hump and into the promised land of the NBA Finals. Harris’ cautious nature meant that Kobe Bryant played less than 20 minutes. Kobe was 19 years old. What was he saving him for?

When the Lakers started the season 6-6 after the lockout was resolved, Jerry West fired Del Harris. It was a tough thing to do. Del Harris won 48 games, 53 games, 56 games and 61 games. Every year he coached the Lakers, he delivered them to the playoffs. But, this Lakers team needed a coach who could do more than take them to the second round of the playoffs. They needed a leader who could make them champions.

Kurt Rambis was a decent interim coach. He won 24 games and didn’t inhibit the development of Kobe Bryant who was turning out to be everything Jerry West thought he would be. Bryant was developing at a faster rate than anyone expected. He needed more playing time, he needed not to have Eddie Jones waiting in the wings, looking over his shoulder.

So Jerry West did a Jerry West thing in March of 1999. He traded his second best player, Eddie Jones, along with Elden Campbell, to Charlotte for sharpshooter Glen Rice. The Lakers made it to the second round of the playoffs that year and in a familiar story, were swept again, this time by the San Antonio Spurs.

It made Shaquille O’Neal angry. Originally he came to Los Angeles for the money but once he arrived and tasted the culture and got a glimpse of the banners and was indoctrinated into the history and hung out in the city, he wanted more. A lot more. Losing was wearing on him. He met with Dr. Buss and demanded a coach who could deliver the Lakers a title, who could put him in the conversation of greatest ever. Specifically, O’Neal wanted Phil Jackson.

The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team (Phil Jackson)

In the 1999 NBA draft, Jerry West drafted Devean George, an unheard of small forward out of Augsburg College in Minnesota. In October, he signed veteran guards Brian Shaw and Ron Harper.

When the Lakers met in Hawaii for training camp, Jackson made several observations. One was in regards to Kobe Bryant. He saw a natural gift for passing. He commented to Tex Winter that it was too bad Kobe wanted to be a scorer. He thought he’d have a Hall of Fame career as a point guard. Jackson also noticed how undisciplined and immature the Lakers were as a team. The entire team had trouble focusing  and he instantly understood why they had so many playoff failures. They lacked mental toughness. If any team needed his Zen meditational tribal mythology, this team was it. He couldn’t help but compare the immature Lakers to his businesslike, disciplined Bulls teams; this Lakers squad fell far short. Jackson wasn’t sure what he could accomplish that first year.

But the Lakers took off right out the gate.

They were 15-5 in their first 20 games. Midway through the season they were 33-8. Shaquille O’Neal averaged 30 points a game. Kobe Bryant averaged 23 points a game. Glen Rice added 16 points a game. The Lakers won 67 games, the second most in franchise history, and entered the playoffs as the team that Jerry West built from scratch.

In 1993, the Lakers won 39 games. Seven years later they were in the Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trailblazers, in a game 7. Win and go to the NBA Finals. Lose and suffer humiliation.

The collective crowd anxiety was fog-thick as the 4th quarter began and the Lakers were trailing by 13- but, and this is the Jerry West part- the players who he trusted, mentored, supported and believed in, hardly broke a sweat. The kid no one thought should bypass college led the Lakers in scoring, rebounds, assists and blocks. The player that dominated the NBA and was the MVP- the one everyone said wasn’t focused enough to win a title, had a defining lob dunk to seal the victory. The power forward who threw the towel in Danny Ainge’s face, made huge three pointers to cut into the deficit. The stable journeyman guard, the Oakland son and brother who lost his family in a car crash, made clutch 3-point shots as he pulled the Lakers from the edge of abyss.

This was their moment, a gut wrenching, come from behind, get to the NBA Finals by ripping victory away from the the villains up north. When it was all over and the pandemonium began at Staples Center, when Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal and Robert Horry and Brian Shaw celebrated, Jerry West watched from afar. He didn’t gloat or take credit. He didn’t pat himself on the back. He didn’t take ownership of the moment the way others would have done for making something out of nothing.

But his humility didn’t erase the truth. Jerry West did something impossibly burdensome and punishing when he created a dynasty from scratch. His product, the Lakers team, would be historic and win three titles in a row. Jerry West, would be historic himself. He created Showtime. And he created this. This was harder. This took years. But, Jerry West didn’t need outsiders to tell him how majestic he was as a sifter of talent, how gifted he was at creating a plan and adjusting on the fly, how quiet he was as a leader, how influential he was as a father figure. This team said it all. They were extraordinarily gifted, a product of luck, work, skill, and maneuvering. They were an extension of the man who put them together, they had his fingerprints.

No other Lakers G.M. would have his success, win three titles in a row. No other Lakers G.M. would have on their roster this collection of players who sacrificed everything just to make Jerry West proud.

 

photo via llananba