LOS ANGELES – Jerry West’s longevity is surpassed only by his excellence, which is surpassed only by his credibility, which is surpassed only by his legacy, which is surpassed only by his continued relevancy, which is surpassed only by his humility, which is surpassed only by his longevity...
Aw, you get the idea.
The man known as “Zeke From Cabin Creek” early in his NBA playing days, as “Mr. Clutch” by the time he was putting the finishing touches on a Hall of Fame career and as “The Logo” for much of the league’s past half century got credit for only 81 steals in the 14 seasons he played for the Los Angeles Lakers from 1960-1974. The reason: that stat only got tracked starting in West’s farewell season.
But he racked up No. 82 by stealing the show with his acceptance speech of the NBA’s Lifetime Achievement Award presented at the annual All-Star “Legends Brunch” at the L.A. Convention Center.
West’s appreciation of NBA history, gratitude for his place in it, optimism for the game’s future and competitive fire all shone through when he stood before the audience filled with both his peers – some of the greatest players ever – and fans sampling for the first time one of All-Star Weekend’s most reliable highlights.
Three months shy of his 80th birthday, West – who won one NBA title as a player and eight more as an executive with L.A. and Golden State, and as a consultant now to the Clippers had input into that team’s blockbuster trade of star Blake Griffin – was one of four former Lakers honored per the brunch program’s tradition of recognizing men associated with the host city. James Worthy received the Global Ambassador Award, Bill Walton was presented with the Hometown Hero Award and Magic Johnson was named the 2018 Legend of the Year.
In introducing West, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said: “One thing people know about Jerry is, he pulls no punches. And so, Jerry is someone I know I can count on. When there’s things happening in the league, Jerry will tell me exactly what I should know about today’s game and what’s happening with today’s players.”
West used some of his time on stage, though, to acknowledge and thank a fifth Los Angeles legend: Hall-of-Famer Elgin Baylor. In fact, he got emotional, pausing to collect himself while praising his former teammate and dear friend, long considered one of the most underrated players in NBA history. Baylor got to the Lakers two years before West, before they left Minneapolis, and was an 11-time All-Star from 1958 to 1971 who still ranks third all-time at 27.4 points per game.
“Elgin, I won’t ever forget the way you treated me when I came here,” he said to Baylor, who was seated at a nearby table. “Amazing player but more amazing man. I remember when I was in college, never being able to watch the game, no TV, and of course we didn’t have one in my house. But I used to hear about this guy and I thought ‘Oh my God, I’m going to have a chance to play with him.’
“He’s my hero. I used to watch him practice, I’d watch him out of the corner of my eye. Just the way he conducted himself with people. Just one classy man.”
West talked up others in the room whose lives he touched, and both lauded and encouraged current NBA players in their performances and in their commitments off the court.
“You can be leaders because you have a voice. Don’t ever pass that up. Don’t ever lose your voice,” he said. “I really believe in humility. I also believe in civility.”
After talking about the NBA’s astounding growth over the run of his equally astounding career, West’s competitiveness flickered through once more.
“I’m going to say this – and I don’t like to say things that are controversial – but this game is going to overtake all the other sports,” he said.
Comedian Billy Crystal, a long-suffering Clippers fan, opened the program with a hoops-themed monologue.
“When I first started going to Clippers games, there was me, [broadcaster] Ralph Lawler and the players,” Crystal said. “A triple-double meant there were three couples in the stands. ... Watching all of this talent, I was glued to my seat – because that’s the way the Clippers would keep you from leaving.”
Crystal provided some imagery when he likened pro basketball’s legendary stars to great musicians.
“Wilt in jazz terms was a big band. He was powerful, huge, big brass section,” Crystal said. “Then Elgin came into the league and his style changed the way the game was played. ... He was cool, improvisational jazz. Then came the Big O [Oscar Robertson], who was the Dave Brubeck of basketball – easy but powerful and complex rhythms all at the same time.
“That led the way to Dr. J [Julius Erving] and Kareem – Doc was [John] Coltrane, Kareem was Thelonious Monk with a little bit of Duke Ellington. ... Magic was unbelievable [and] brought us to Motown. Also, the country sounds of Mr. Larry Bird. Then came Michael – I can’t remember his last name but he played for the White Sox. He played to the beat of his own drummer.
“Tim Duncan was not jazz; Tim Duncan was Beethoven. Then came the rappers, Shaq and [Allen] Iverson. And other virtuosos like Kobe [Bryant], LeBron [James] and Steph [Curry] and KD [Kevin Durant], [Russell] Westbrook. And the best goes on and on and on.”
Silver, though, might have had the morning’s best line. In a shout-out to Magic Johnson – who has been fined $550,000 in the past six months for violating league tampering rules in talking publicly about Oklahoma City’s Paul George and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo – the commissioner said: “Magic, thank you for paying for the brunch today.”
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