West returns as the wizard
After leaving Lakers, he got bored at home and soon took over in Memphis
Jerry West seems to be one of those tortured souls who's never quite happy unless he's
Memphis has real possibilities then.
The NBA's 'Mr. Clutch' had it made in Los Angeles, steering the Lakers to a half-dozen championships, regarded by most as the greatest operations chief in the game. Now he is running the show for the Grizzlies in Memphis, the second coming of Elvis for a franchise that has held the standard for ineptitude since its inception in 1995.
After the 1999-2000 season, the first of three ending with titles led by Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, West resigned as the Lakers' executive vice president/basketball operations. He wasn't going to games. Couldn't bear to watch. Wasn't having any fun.
'When you are with one franchise so long, it becomes so personal,' West tells the Tribune. 'It ceases to be gratifying, even with success. The more success you have, the harder it becomes. You're always close to the goals you want to accomplish, but you absolutely have to meet those goals.
'The pressure had gotten to the point where it was unbearable, even with the great team we had. You worry about all the little things that could upset something that was pretty good.'
West almost surely won't make the trip when the Grizzlies play the Trail Blazers on Wednesday at the Rose Garden. He rarely traveled with the Lakers and probably won't very often with the Grizzlies. But that doesn't mean his outlook on life hasn't changed.
'It has been great,' West says from his Memphis office. 'I feel invigorated. It is exciting. It is fun to be part of something that you hope will be good in the future.'
The Grizzlies have a long way to go. Since the franchise was established in Vancouver, it has compiled a record of 124-419. Last year's record was 23-59, second-worst in the league. Total playoff games over eight seasons: zero.
It couldn't be a more dramatic departure from what West, 64, had grown accustomed to during his Hall of Fame career as a player, coach and administrator with the Lakers, a legacy that began in 1960. West owns seven championship rings Ñ six while in the front office and one he received as a player in 1972.
West had threatened to quit a couple of times before following through in the summer of 2000. He needed to get away, and it worked for a while.
'The first year was unbelievable, one of the happiest times in my life,' he says. 'The weight of the world was off my shoulders. I traveled a lot, did things I enjoyed when I was a kid. I fished in Alaska and Mexico with family and friends. I played a lot of golf. I had a great time.'
Last year wasn't quite so fulfilling. In a nutshell, West grew stir crazy.
'I started looking for things to do,' he says. 'That's not a good thing. You get into routines that after awhile are just not gratifying. Like golf. I used to love to play. It got to the point where I was frustrated with golf. Part of that is, I wasn't able to play as well as I did. I didn't have the patience to go out and work on it, and as you get older, your game is going to deteriorate anyway.'
The itch to put together an NBA club was returning.
'You miss the interaction with people,' West explains. 'It's like a game in itself. In the executive offices of the NBA, there's a lot of pressure on you. I like pressure, even though it doesn't make you feel good sometimes. If you are a competitive person, you can't just sit around and not be included.'
It wasn't all that surprising that West signed on with another club. But Memphis?
'I'm pretty crazy sometimes,' he allows. 'I make decisions that maybe surprise other people. I make them based on my desire to do something new.'
Memphis is very new. And very far away Ñ geographically and culturally Ñ from LA. Maybe not so far from his roots growing up in tiny Cabin Creek, W. Va., but that was a long time ago.
Last season, West let the word get around that he was interested in returning to the game. Several teams sought his services. Memphis owner Michael Heisley landed the Mother Lode, signing West to a five-year, $25 million contract.
'I'm not a conventional person, to be honest with you,' West says. 'I usually do the opposite of what people expect of me.'
The first two weeks after the announcement of his hiring, Memphis sold 500 new season ticket packages. 'The Wizard of Griz,' they call him.
'The impact he has had has been absolutely tremendous,' says media relations director Kirk Clayborn. 'We tease him all the time how he has become the big fish in the small pond.'
West is regarded with reverence by just about everyone in the league, from executives to coaches to players and to reporters, who often find him refreshingly candid and revealing. It is a paradox, in fact, because at this point in his life, West doesn't cherish the limelight.
'Jerry is very private,' says Mitch Kupchak, West's successor with the Lakers, 'but in the right setting, he can sit down and basically tell you his whole life in two hours and not know you that well. If he has that level of comfort, he will say things that make you think, 'I can't believe Jerry West is saying these things to me.' '
The challenge is enormous. There are good young players in last year's Rookie of the Year, Pao Gasol, and Shane Battier; an impressive rookie in Drew Gooden; and a flashy point guard in Jason Williams. But this team isn't close to being ready for prime time.
'It won't happen overnight,' West says. Maybe someday, though. If anybody can do it, the Grizzlies have their man.
NOTES: Nice that Amal McCaskill got signed by Atlanta, where he should play regular minutes behind center Theo Ratliff. The Blazers wanted to trade him to Detroit for a second-round draft pick and were even going to pay his salary ($565,850), but McCaskill has a clause in his contract prohibiting clubs from stashing him on their injured list if he isn't hurt. Portland and Detroit both intended to place him on the de facto taxi squad. McCaskill's agent, Steve Kauffman, said he told Blazer General Manager Bob Whitsitt about the contract clause several times after Portland acquired McCaskill. 'But when it came time for a roster decision, he tried to do it anyway,' Kauffman says.'