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As West turns 75, yearning for NBA success still burns bright

POSTED: May 28, 2013 10:58 AM ET

By Scott Howard-Cooper

BY Scott Howard-Cooper


Jerry West, 75, is still sweating the details in his front-office role with the Warriors.

He finds himself thinking about dying.

"I think about it a lot," says Jerry West, contemplating an end while admitting to an excitement about a healthy present.

Still, while watching Warriors playoff games from his Los Angeles home, he needs a 20-second timeout. "More than screaming," West says of his behavior. "The language is rude. Locker-room language."

The plan to reduce his legendary stress level officially has failed. Even The Logo chuckles at that miss.

"It's escalated again," he says. "That's for sure."


Jerry West turns 75 on Tuesday with a passion for the game as strong as ever. He is raw in his emotions, fierce in his beliefs on life and basketball. He remains a cauldron of ricocheting moods as if he was still trying to push the boulder up the steep Celtics hill as a player, still driving himself mad re-inventing the Lakers as management, still rebuilding with the Grizzlies' front office.

The difference now is that he is an adviser for the Warriors, a titled Executive Board Member with a particular voice on the basketball side and a role in marketing and business. But, really, there's no difference. West remains as emotionally invested as ever. His love for the role shines through. He still embraces a level of passion so uncommon and so great that it literally affects his health.

Photo Gallery

Photos: Jerry West's career

"I think the first game we played in San Antonio [in the Western Conference semifinals], I was just sick," he says. "Just sick from watching. I did not sleep one minute the whole night. Not one minute after the game. I was up the whole night."

But he is getting ahead of himself. First, there was the night of Game 6 of the first-round series with Nuggets. The bronchial ailment that had shadowed him for a couple months, coming and going, kept West away from all three Golden State home playoff games and had him looking to the warmth of spring in Southern California. Maybe that would be the cure.

He is watching the game on TV from home. His Warriors are doing everything possible to give the game and the night away. The chance to win a series for the first time in six years is critically important for a franchise that has known so much losing.

An 18-point lead with 9:11 left in the fourth quarter is down to six with 4:42 left and then two, at 90-88, with 32 seconds left as Golden State piles on the sloppy play. West is fidgeting and saying a few rude things out loud.

The Warriors hold on to win the game and the series. But West is frayed.

He has progressed, at least, to the point where he is able to watch postseason games in person, bronchial issues willing, unlike his last championship as Lakers personnel boss. Back then, he drove around town rather than watch, even on TV. During the clinching game of the 2000 Finals against the Pacers, a friend called with constant updates. If West was a constant in the office in Oakland, living the team every day, it would probably be the same now.

Four days after eliminating the Nuggets, Golden State is opening the Western Conference semifinals in San Antonio. The Warriors lead by 16 with four minutes left in the fourth quarter. They blow that lead, go to overtime and then a second overtime. Finally, San Antonio's Manu Ginobili hits a 3-pointer with 1.2 seconds remaining in the second overtime to give the Spurs a 129-127 victory.

Some 1,500 miles away, West's intestines are going through a paper shredder. He goes to bed but can't sleep. He turns on his Kindle, reads two chapters in "Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot" by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard, and realizes he missed most of the words. So he re-reads the chapters. West replays the missed assignments and careless passes. He watches the clock go from 12:30 a.m. to 6:30 a.m.

For Game 3 against the Spurs, he finally feels up to the trip, an hour flight to Oakland. West still sounds as if he has a very bad cold, but he's typically immaculate in a suit and tie, silver hair combed in place, a commanding presence walking the hallways of Oracle Arena before tipoff. His energy remains boundless, going from conversations with Warriors staffers to fans who want a handshake or autograph.

West starts to churn as if he had put the team together. The hopes to better manage his emotions after leaving the Grizzlies in 2007 and escaping the day-to-day pressures have given way to the reality that he will once again have to learn to live with the tension. He did well for a few years, then climbed back on the roller-coaster.

"I think it's a good thing, to be honest with you," he says. "I don't know what it's like to not have it in my life."

The burn that has driven him to greatness as an executive and player has brought a personal torment, but West says he's changed over the years. He says, for one, he's a lot more tolerant of the attitudes in the new NBA, like the way players smile on the bench as their team is being trounced on the court.

The real transitions are more personal.

West has been working to repair relationships. It is part of a catharsis that included a 2011 autobiography describing the trauma of childhood abuses at the hands of his father and how the ensuing feeling of inferiority shaped the rest of his life. From growing up underprivileged in West Virginia to becoming a Hall of Fame player whose silhouette was the basis for the NBA logo to thriving as one of the league's greatest executives, West has lived with some emotional destruction. His older brother David, someone he looked up to, died in the Korean War when Jerry was 13.

"I just want to make sure ..." West says. He briefly chokes up. His eyes water.

"... if I'm not around, that everyone I care about knows that in some way I've done something for them that would be different and unique and that I've always tried to be courteous to everyone. In this business, obviously people write things that are sometimes offensive. Even to the people that have offended me, I don't look at them any differently. I don't dislike writers. I think they've helped me keep balanced in my life, to not put myself on a pedestal and not to believe what things were written about me, both as a player and an executive.

"Because I know somewhere in between the truth really lies. For me, it's been an incredible journey and I'm hopeful it'll continue for a few more years and I'm hopeful that I can see this franchise have another NBA championship."

West, never one for statistics, knows 75 is a big number. He says he is in good health, nagging bronchial ailment be damned. But he starts mentioning life-insurance expectations, his self-inflicted anxiety, the injuries, the needles when maybe he should have just rested and healed some nights.

Buss Memorial: Jerry West

Plus, there have been too many reminders of his mortality lately. Lakers owner Jerry Buss, his one-time boss, passed away in February after a lengthy battle with cancer. Dana Davis, a Grizzlies executive and a constant when West spent five years in Memphis, died unexpectedly in October.

"At certain points in your life, you always wonder about how long you have," West says. "But I think it's a number for all of us. The one thing I really want to do with my life, I want to be around people that make me feel good about myself. I want to be around people that are driven. I don't want to ever lose that feeling. But to say that this is something I wish I could do all my life, oh, absolutely."

He is energized in a way he has not felt since leaving the Grizzlies, though he's back in the grips of the tension he once thought he had escaped.

"When I grew up -- and obviously I grew up in a little bit different circumstances than most kids -- birthdays were never a big thing," West says. "Not really something to celebrate. It was because of circumstances. When you live in a household where there's not much there, there wasn't that much going on. I've always felt that birthdays are just another milestone in your life. I know I'm getting to the point in my life where they're probably more important because I'm not going to be here forever.

"Yet I don't really dwell on age. Age is not what defines a person. It's what inside of you. It's what drives you. The passion you have. Once you lose passion, you might as well go sit in a rocking chair.

"If I had a recommendation to anyone, have a passion for what you do, regardless of how minor it might seem, how obscure to some people it might seem. But have a passion for what you do. I think it does help longevity. I think it keeps your mind going, and as long as your mind's active, I don't think you'll ever be your age."