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Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011
West's son provides insight into legend's life
By PETER VECSEY
LOS ANGELES — One of the things I loved most about my father was him being unafraid to show me his faults once we became coworkers.
For the first 16 years as a newspaperman, a New York Daily News door my father opened when I was a junior in high school, we would often spend five days a week together on the job, in the car, eating out and playing cards. He had the amazing capacity to help every bookmaker in the building to run a profitable business.
Because of those shared experiences, I like to think our connection was deepest of the five children.
Ryan West, a Lakers' scout, is the sole son of five — David, Mike, Mark and Jonnie — to have worked with his famous father. Because of all the time he spent with his dad traveling around the country scrutinizing college players, gushing basketball and being privy to private pain, he, too, likes to think his relationship is deeper than his brothers.
Who better to offer close-quartered perspective on Jerry West as we celebrated last week's unfathomably overdue tribute to the former Lakers' player, coach and executive; his statue was unveiled outside Staples Center flanking Magic Johnson, Chick Hearn, Oscar De La Hoya and Wayne Gretzky . . . and flaunting the preposterous omissions of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Elgin Baylor.
Over the years, I've written many League Logo anecdotes — remarkable, hysterical and outrageous things I've seen or heard about him since the late 1950s when he and Oscar Robertson ruled college basketball.
And then there are the emotional, heart-wrenching stories he has confided to me about teammates and his life growing up in West Virginia, the son of an angry, drunken, child-beating coal miner.
Jerry's soon-to-be-released autobiography ("West by West; My Charmed, Tormented Life" with Jonathan Coleman) will plunge into that darkness and much more.
In the meantime, in an e-mail, I asked Ryan if he would be comfortable giving us an unfiltered look at his father.
"Wow that's a tough one, he's so crazy," he responded initially before sending me several follow-ups that evening and the following morning.
"Well, he's brutally honest, which at times can be tough and hard to hear. But at the end of the day I appreciate the fact that he was straight forward with me.
"I remember one time we were in New York on a scouting trip for the Big East Tournament and he asked me to meet him in the lobby at 11:00 a.m. I got out of the elevator at 10:58 and he was upset because I was late. He's always on time, a complete perfectionist.
"I remember the summer when he was trying to sign Shaq. I was glued to his side throughout the whole process. If I was in my room and the phone rang I ran into his room and listened to every conversation.
"I saw him go through so many highs and lows that summer and when it finally looked like it was going to get done I've never seen him so excited.
"And after they signed him I saw him drop down into deep depression because Orlando had accused him of tampering. I think of anything negative that ever affected him during his time as an executive that was probably the most hurtful thing because he is moral and honest and always followed the rules and he was so hurt that someone questioned his character like that.
"The funny thing with him is, he seems to function the best during chaos. When everything is cool and calm that's when he goes crazy.
"I think maybe the saddest thing for me to see was after the Lakers finally won the championship in 2000 after completely rebuilding the team when Magic retired; he couldn't enjoy it. The stress and pressures of winning got to the point where he couldn't take it anymore.
"I will never forget when we won that year he did not come to Game 6 at Staples. My mom (Karen) and little brother (Jonnie, now playing for West Virginia) and I were at the game. We celebrated in the locker room after the game and the whole time I was saying to myself my dad should be here enjoying this, he put this all together.
"After we arrived home hours after the game (we were trapped inside Staples because they were rioting outside) I ran upstairs into his room to give him a championship shirt and hat and he was in a horrible mood. He said nothing about the game or the riots.
"He looked at me and said I need you to run an errand in the morning and got back into bed. I wanted to hug him and share it with him but he wanted no part of it.
"It was then that I knew that he needed to retire because he couldn't enjoy winning anymore. All I've ever wanted is to see him happy and enjoy his life, and it's hard because he's so all over the place."
Ryan is 31, too young to have seen his father run full speed up court, stop short, ascend to a high-priestess plateau and flick in a flawlessly formed jumper from wherever. Didn't see him coach, either; Karen was pregnant with him when he was finishing up a mostly unpleasant three-year stint on the Lakers' bench.
"I was born June 9, 1979," he writes. "The first time the Lakers ever beat the Celtics for the championship was on my birthday, June 9th, 1985. My mother was having a birthday party at our house during the game. My Dad was in the house watching the game and the cable went out I believe some time during the second quarter. Obviously, he was a nervous wreck. He had to listen to the rest of the game on the radio.
"That was the only championship ring he would wear, because it represented the Lakers' victory over the Celtics — we were not allowed to wear green in our house growing up; he is still haunted to this day by all those losses to Boston.
"On my 25th birthday we were at the Chicago pre-draft camp when we were both working for the Grizzlies. Most of the time when we did dinner it was my Dad and I, and all the Laker guys — Mitch Kupchak, Bill Bertka, Ronnie Lester, Gene Tormohlen.
So, we were at dinner and out of nowhere he gave this speech in front of everyone, which was extremely embarrassing because I don't like being the center of attention. He took his 1985 championship ring off and gave it to me. I was so touched it almost brought me to tears. After that day I have never seen him wear another ring."
Peter Vecsey cover the NBAfor the New York Post.