Damn, it really is Jerry West. In The Peabody. In Memphis. What next? Mark McGwire to the Redbirds for a comeback? Gordie Howe to coach the River Kings?
In the press conference to introduce him as the new president of basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies, West talked about visions and dreams and community and role models and family and, of course, basketball. But it was the whole package, the darns and Mr. Heisley for owner Michael Heisley and the sight of Wests son in a Shane Battier Grizzlies jersey that won the crowd and made it clear Memphis has a new hero.
Thats the one thing that I would tell everyone that I work with, West said in his modest, talkative way. Lets have some darn goals around here that are a little bit more lofty. Because loftier goals make you reach farther.
Why Memphis? West said his first year away from basketball and the Los Angeles Lakers was probably the best year of my life but last year he was restless and eager for a new challenge.
Two nights ago was the first night I have slept through the night in Los Angeles, he said. The other nights were fitful sleeping, up four or five times. When I slept through the night I said, Ôyou know something? Ive done the right thing.
West is coming to Memphis as the front-office mastermind who lured Phil Jackson out of retirement to coach the Lakers, saw Kobe Bryants potential when he was a junior in high school, and brought Shaq to L.A. But to a generation disillusioned with the current NBA, West will always be the player, Number 44, the guy in short pants and high socks with the flattop haircut and flat jump shot you tried to imitate. In the 1960s, there were 10 million male basketball players in the USA, and every one of them would have given the keys to his car, his Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars, Lettermen albums, and a can of Desenex to be Mr. Clutch.
West averaged 27 points a game during his career, and if he ever dunked I never saw it in 100 televised games. He drove past the big men and layed it off the glass. Or he flicked that jump shot from way out. If you werent a Lakers fan, he was the last person you wanted to see with the ball at the end of the game. More than a few times he won or tied big games with shots from well beyond half court at the buzzer.
He retired in 1974, and the game promptly changed. The next year began the infusion of high-schoolers and foreigners like Darryl Dawkins of Planet Lovetron into the NBA. West was as good in the front office as he was on the court, directing the Lakers to six titles and nine appearances in the finals. He helped put together the Magic Johnson/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dynasty and much of the current Laker championship team. In 1998 West was named one of the NBAs 50 greatest players of all time. He was the only one besides the late Pete Maravich who did not attend the ceremony.
The West-to-Memphis announcement was big news across the Mid-South, where the Grizzlies hope to expand their local base into a regional one.
I think that this, more than the arena or anything else, is real ratification of Memphis as big-time, said Michael Rubenstein, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum and a sports broadcaster in Jackson for several years.
For all of Wests accomplishments, it is surprising that as a player he won only one NBA championship Ñ that came in 1972 with Wilt Chamberlin and Gail Goodrich. The Lakers won 33 straight that year and were possibly the best team ever, but the dominant team of Wests era was the Boston Celtics. One key member of the Celtics was former Mississippi State All-American Bailey Howell.
Howell, who lives in Starkville, Mississippi, played against West for 11 years as a member of the Celtics and the Detroit Pistons.
He was the total package, said Howell. Of course he was a guard and I was a forward so we didnt guard each other although occasionally you might get switched on him. In the big games, playoff games especially, he was at his best. Most great players make the game easier for their teammates, and, of course, he did that.
On a trivia note, let the record show that Bailey Howell and Jerry West both scored their 10,000th NBA career point on the same night in the same game. West went on to score 15,192 more. If the NBA had put in the three-point shot back then, it would have been more like 20,000. Or, then again, he might still be playing.