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Wednesday, May 1, 2002
Updated: May 2, 10:21 AM ET
Why West went south

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Playoffs!? @#%$!

Jerry West
Jerry West returns to his roots for a mighty big challenge.
With apologies to Jim Mora, the Memphis Grizzlies have already won the 2002 NBA playoffs. The Lakers have been anointed as the 2002 threepeat champions, and although anointing is much easier than playing, in the end, the anointment seems correct.

Le Griz, on the other hand, get the guy who put the Lakes in place.

Don't know who Griz owner Michael Heisley is. Whoever he is, Ned Beatty should play him in the movie. Whoever he is, he must put on one hell of a pitch, to break the code on Jerry West like that. Must be the equivalent of three of Disney's best "Imagineers."

As it turns out, as soon as word got out that Jerry West was too much of a competitor to retire from the League, even at the age of 63, hats flew into the ring; the Knicks (yeah, right), the Atlanta Hawks. And West is a bona fide commodity, pilgrim, not because he dropped 30 a game in the playoffs as a Lakers guard, and not even because he put the Showtime Lakers and the current Great Lakes together. Because he has vision. Because he can see.

Tell you a story. A few years back, when Kobe Bryant entered the Free Market out of Lower Merion H.S. in suburban Philly, he had a workout for NBA teams. The Golden State Warriors had a high draft pick. Their personnel guru at the time was a former Blazers guard named Dave Twardzik, a scrappy sort who specialized in floor burns and won a ring with Red Walton, Mo Luke, Lionel and Little Johnny Davis, back in Portland's Camelot year of 1977.

Twardzik rode that résumé into Oak-town. Got hired. Go figure.

Don't ask me. But better to ask me than ask Twardzik.

When asked if he'd be taking Kobe Bryant with that high draft pick, Twardzik said, and I'm not making this up:

Jason Williams
Now that Jason Williams has a mentor, just wait until he gets a better supporting cast.
"He didn't catch my eye."

Oh, really? West wasted no time trading Tru Value hardware, in the person of Vlade Divac, to Charlotte for the rights to Kobe Bryant. Both Charlotte and Vlade have made out OK in the meantime, but the Lakers got the keys to the kingdom. Back-to-back-to-probably-back, and counting. Then he got the hell out of Dodge, retired to consulting, behind what scandalous intrigue we can only guess.

Now he's back. In Memphis. Hell, not even Elvis spent that much time in Memphis, not after he blew up. But Jerry West has entered the building. Why? Money? Ric Bucher says $5 mil per, and Ric Bucher is a man whose reportage we can trust. That's Phil Jackson, Steve Spurrier, George Karl country. So ... yeah, the money, sure.

Challenge? Les Griz have Le Worst winning percentage in the history of the league. Cupboard? Check. Former GM Billy Knight had the foresight to draft Pau Gasol and Shane Battier, Rookie of the Year and runner-up, in the same draft, 2001. If they land in the first five picks this year, they'll pick up another young, live body.

Billy got the gate for his efforts, but that was ostensibly to make room on the organizational chart for West, so it says. I don't know who died and made Dick Versace Red Auerbach, but that's the way these things go. You hire who you're comfortable with, unless you're desperate, and then you hire whomever you have to hire to pull your cojones out of the fire. Billy Knight will land on his feet. But when he got snuffed ... that's when we knew West was in.

But what was it really that brought West into this little tent by the river? What was it about the Grizzlies that caught West's eye?

Jerry West
West is like some kind of basketball Elvis, without the self-destructive tendencies.
Wasn't the arena. The Pyramid is a good idea badly executed. The Grizzlies already need another primo-type joint. So what was it, really -- what tilted the balance so a man like West would pass on a chance to run the Knicks, just to hear rhythm & blues while eating open-pit barbecue so tender and spicy it'll make you slap Wolfgang Puck upside his head for leading you astray?

No question what did it. J-Will ... a k a "White Chocolate."

Jerry West must be internally moved when he sees Jason Williams play. I know I am, and my only connection to J-Will is that Hoop Art Appreciation course I've been taking all my life; to West, it must be like seeing his younger brother, in trouble, but also with mucho talent. Drenched in it. To see him in the middle of a three-on-one, with the sky being the limit on what he might do, to see that handle of life, handle of handles, to see how he buried G.P. with that jab-back-up twisting cross move that left The Glove in the popcorn machine and made me go "Oooooo-Weee!" like I was starring in "Bamboozled" or something.

It must do something to Jerry West, too.

Jason Williams' game -- the potential of it -- must take Jerry West back to when his hair wasn't silver, but a dark, rich brown, back to when his leg muscles hadn't atrophied into mere stalks, but when they ridged out deep and strong, ankle to hip; when he could shoot over the top of any guard you care to name, over Clyde, even over the Kangaroo Kid, Jumping Johnny Green, any of 'em, back to when he averaged 30 in the playoffs, back to when they broke his nose nine times because he kept sticking it in there. Nothing else to do with him. Couldn't stop that. You look at Jerry West today and you see a 60ish man, a ruddy nose, cheeks like a chipmunk, and working on a wattle; but that's not what Jerry West sees, not in his mind's eye; Hoop could never pass him by, not on the level he played it; he actually thinks he could have taken Kobe Bryant, and has told Kobe so. And there were times when he could've done it.

Jerry West
In his day, West could have taken Kobe Bryant.
J-Will can take West back past the nine broken noses and one lousy (to him) ring, back past Magic and Kreemy, past "What the hell is Elg thinking over there with them Clips?" Back to when he was just Zeke from Cabin Creek, a not-so-flattering descriptor that West turned on its head. Yeah, Ezekiel, wheeling, dealing, doing it, dropping 40 on your dome. You could hear ultra-rythmic James Brown behind Jerry West's game, and it fit. Jerry West is like some kind of basketball Elvis, without the self-destructive tendencies. Jerry West was J-Will, without all the confusion and the potential to blow it.

You regress when you get older. Not always in a bad way. You want to right some wrongs. You want to perpetuate the species. You want to Live, Live as more than just the silhouette of a league logo. If you are Jerry West, you still want to Ball. Always will.

Does race play a factor? Yeah, well, sure it does. You want your brother to do well. You want to save him. You want him to turn out all right. And you don't think he always has to be one of Rick Barry's sons, or that he must have a Slavic surname. Not everybody like you has cashed in, and pigged or vegged out.

J-Will is still in the house. And he has no fear. But it takes more.

Jerry West wants to get into Jason Williams' head. J-Will right now is like the Eminem of the NBA. You can say this and you can say that about his chosen form, all negative, but what you can't say about him is that he can't flow, or that he is not mesmerizing.

J-Will has talent, ungodly, untapped talent -- did you see the way West's eyes lit up when talking about Jason, as he did to Chris Connelly on "Unscripted" the other day? West couldn't hide that light. We all see a young fellow with an undisciplined, entertaining game who eventually might smart-ass insult his way outta here. But maybe he's just young. Maybe he's just a little insecure. Jerry West just set his jaw, listened to Michael Heisley's pitch set it up like some Disney Imagineer, and said yes. J-Will cinched the sell.

Jerry West
It's hard to question someone who averaged 30 points per game in the playoffs and helped build two Lakers dynasties.
"He's one of the most talented players in the league," West said the other day. Now J-Will grew up nearly within earshot of where Jerry West grew up, a long time ago, in the blue mountains of West Virginia. If you have no use or time or vision about J-Will's game, it's like you're having a beef with West's little brother.

"I get to go back to my roots," West said, when asked, quizzically, by the multitudes why would he leave his legend status and a nice spread in one of the canyons of the desert coast of Los Angeles.

"I'm a southern boy." One who wants to point J-Will in a northerly direction. Put enough good players around J-Will, a shot-blocker in back of him so he can take risks, muffle his defensive liabilities (West couldn't harbor Ernie DiGregorio back in the day -- it might have been West who named him "Ernie No D"), put something on his mind. Jerry West is betting on Jason Williams. And if J-Will doesn't keep up his end, West ... will drop him like he's hot.

It's a cold, hard business, Hoop is, in any direction you take it.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."