Jerry West spent a lifetime becoming one of the most decorated figures in N.B.A. history as a player and an executive, but these days, his routine includes daily workouts, coronavirus testing and a regular gin rummy game with some friends.
West, 83, is also a consultant with the Los Angeles Clippers and likes to stay current on today’s N.B.A. game, evaluating players just as he used to when he was a team executive.
In the past two years, West has faced the deaths of two close friends in Elgin Baylor, a Hall of Fame player who became his mentor when the Lakers drafted West, and Kobe Bryant, whom West traded for as general manager of the Lakers shortly after Bryant was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets in 1996. Baylor, 86, died of natural causes in March 2021, and Bryant, 41, was killed in a helicopter crash in January 2020.
West recently spoke to The New York Times about working through his grief, struggling to tell people he loves them and appreciating a former roommate for “saving my life.”
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
In the past two years, two of your close friends in the basketball world have passed, Elgin Baylor, whom you starred with on the Lakers in the early 1960s, and Kobe Bryant. What has been the hardest part about dealing with your grief?
When I heard that Elgin passed away — and let’s start with him first, because it was after Kobe passed away — it was just unbelievably hurtful. The first day when I found out about [Baylor’s death], I was down in Palm Springs, and I just sat around there and was just quiet. Very introspective. And, frankly, I got in a golf cart and I just went out and there was a driving range. I just was like a baby, I guess. Couldn’t believe it. As much as I appreciated him, I didn’t realize the depth of it until the first day. I really did not.
It was like — I lost my best friend. I lost someone who meant more to me than just a basketball player. For three days I might be doing something — I might be hitting golf balls or chipping golf balls or putting golf balls — and honestly, I would just have to stop.
I don’t think people understood what my relationship with him really was. I’m sure they knew we were teammates — Mr. Inside, Mr. Outside. I don’t think they understood the competitive part of it and what a bond you feel when you have someone you feel like is as competitive as you. He never changed. Never put himself above anyone. Those are the things to me that made it also a harsh and ugly feeling when he passed away.
Did something change after those three days?
No, I never really forget it. I might be driving around in Los Angeles and go by somewhere that was familiar with me years ago that will remind me of him, because he used to associate in those areas, places he lived here in Los Angeles. Because he was private, people didn’t really get to know him. If he had been in today’s game, he would be bigger than life. One of the most unique and incredible people.
I only had one other person in my life like that. Going up in college, my roommate Willie Akers. To this day, we remain incredible friends. Sometimes I thank him for saving my life. All the internal battles I still face: my battles with depression, disappointment with people who should know better and the way they treat people.
What do you mean when you say Akers saved your life?
There were a lot of times I didn’t want to live. There’s two times where it was frightening and I was right on the edge. Life was just too painful for me. When you grow up with not a lot of love in your house — I’ve often said, at least in my life, love is a word I’m not quite familiar with. For me, the word I would use would probably be “like.” I really like that person. You can love people and they’ll never know it. For men to tell men they love them, it almost seems antiquated.
When you think about Kobe, what comes to mind?
It’s really interesting because he didn’t have a full life. I saw him become a great father. Used to see him, in particular after he retired — he and his daughter [Gianna], who were both killed in that tragic helicopter crash. I just saw this enormous love and respect for this little girl. She was kind of the apple of his eye.
He was just one of those unique players that comes along. He had a big personality. He was very bright. He was going to be a bigger success off the court than on the court. He was taken away too young.
Around my house, my kids, when they were young, were huge Kobe Bryant fans. They don’t live here, but in their bedrooms, which are still intact, you go in there and there’s stuff that reflects Kobe Bryant’s life as a player.
His influence in this house has always been here because he was in my house a lot. Watching him grow up, watching this insatiable desire to be the best. When he gets to the top of the mountain, all of a sudden, he’s climbing another mountain. And then it’s all gone.
On being afraid to fail:
“If you’re afraid to fail, then you’re probably going to fail.”
“Pain doesn’t tell you when you ought to stop. Pain is the little voice in your head that tries to hold you back because it knows if you continue you will change. Don’t let it stop you from being who you can be. Exhaustion tells you when you ought to stop. You only reach your limit when you can go no further.”
On pushing past mental and physical road blocks:
“I have self-doubt. I have insecurity. I have fear of failure. I have nights when I show up at the arena and I’m like, ‘My back hurts, my feet hurt, my knees hurt. I don’t have it. I just want to chill.’ We all have self-doubt. You don’t deny it, but you also don’t capitulate to it. You embrace it.”
On making sacrifices to be great:
“There’s a choice that we have to make as people, as individuals. If you want to be great at something, there’s a choice you have to make. We all can be masters at our craft, but you have to make a choice. What I mean by that is, there are inherent sacrifices that come along with that. Family time, hanging out with friends, being a great friend, being a great son, nephew, whatever the case may be. There are sacrifices that come along with making that decision.”
On being hated:
“Learn to love the hate. Embrace it. Enjoy it. You earned it. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and everyone should have one about you. Haters are a good problem to have. Nobody hates the good ones. They hate the great ones.”
To Jay Williams asking about his work ethic after a regular season game between the Bulls and Lakers:
“I saw you come in and I wanted you to know that it doesn’t matter how hard you work, that I’m willing to work harder than you.”
On realizing he was different than other NBA players:
“I never looked at [basketball] as work. I didn’t realize it was work until my first year in the NBA. When I came around, I was surrounded by other professionals and I thought basketball was going to be everything to them and it wasn’t. And I was like, ‘This is different.’ I thought everybody was so obsessive about the game like me. It was like, no? Oh, that’s hard work. I get it now.”
On comparisons to Michael Jordan:
“When I have the chance to guard Michael Jordan, I want to guard him. I want him. It’s the ultimate challenge. I don’t want to be the next Michael Jordan, I only want to be Kobe Bryant.”
“I can’t relate to lazy people. We don’t speak the same language. I don’t understand you. I don’t want to understand you.”
“Winning takes precedence over all. There’s no gray area. No almosts.”
On the difference between losers and winners:
“Losers visualize the penalties of failure. Winners visualize the rewards of success.”
On being a leader:
“Leadership is lonely … I’m not going to be afraid of confrontation to get us to where we need to go. There’s a big misconception where people thinking winning or success comes from everybody putting their arms around each other and singing kumbaya and patting them on the back when they mess up, and that’s just not reality. If you are going to be a leader, you are not going to please everybody. You have to hold people accountable. Even if you have that moment of being uncomfortable.”
On “The Black Mamba” nickname:
“I create my own path. It was straight and narrow. I looked at it this way: you were either in my way, or out of it. If you were standing between me and the game, I was going to knock you on your back and not feel bad about it. I was unapologetically me. That’s all I ever wanted to be. I was never worried about my reputation — that’s how I earned one. That’s how I became the Black Mamba.”
On his shot selection:
“I’ve shot too much from the time I was 8 years old. But ‘too much’ is a matter of perspective. Some people thought Mozart had too many notes in his compositions. Let me put it this way: I entertain people who say I shoot too much. I find it very interesting. Going back to Mozart, he responded to critics by saying there were neither too many notes or too few. There were as many as necessary.”
On rough shooting nights:
“I would go 0-for-30 [from the field] before I would go 0-for-9. 0-for-9 means you beat yourself, you psyched yourself out of the game. … The only reason is because you’ve just now lost confidence in yourself.”