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West: 'I loved that guy'

Hall of Famer pays tribute to Ali, defends LeBron and discusses his own Finals failures in a series of reflections

POSTED: Jun 4, 2016 11:15 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


GameTime: Warriors and Cavaliers Remember Ali

Various members of the Warriors and Cavaliers speak to the media about Muhammad Ali.

— Jerry West had finished reading, just two days ago, a book about Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. The timing stuck with him when West heard the news late Friday that Ali had died at the age of 74.

The two had been teammates, albeit in dramatically different sports, as members of the 1960 U.S. Olympic team. West went on to a legendary NBA career as a Hall of Fame player and an executive with the Los Angeles Lakers, applying his hoops savvy in his later years with Memphis and most recently Golden State. Ali, of course, soared even higher as boxing's heavyweight champion, a global icon and arguably the most impactful of sports stars crossing over into civil rights and political activism.

West, at 78 four years older than Ali, was at the Warriors' practice Saturday -- he's a member of the team's executive board -- as they prepared for Game 2 of the 2016 Finals. He shared some of his thoughts on Ali with reporters at Oracle Arena afterward.

"He was someone I admired tremendously as a person. Obviously it's a sad day. A magnificent person," West said.

Ali's popularity worldwide owed much to his success in the boxing ring and even more to his personality, so full of braggadocio, confidence, zeal and rhyme. His significance domestically was drawn in darker hues, based on Ali's refusal of military service in the Vietnam War, his embrace of the Nation of Islam in changing his birth name of Cassius Clay and his opinions and appearances dedicated to race relations in the U.S.

"I think everything he went through in life, ya know, certain people are courageous," West said. "He was very courageous, doing what no other athlete probably would have dared to do -- particularly a black athlete at that time. To me, he's inspired people who look at inequities in this world and some of things he did changed the perceptions of people.

He was a magnificent person. I loved that guy, I really did."

West, by contrast in the politically turbulent 1960s, played basketball. Period. His public struggles were limited to the hardwood, largely the Lakers' inability to get past the Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics and the difficult he had dealing with losing.

How did someone so non-controversial view a fellow pro athlete who was constantly stirring the pot?

"I don't really think he was outspoken. He was just him. He wasn't trying to fool anyone," West said.

When their paths first crossed in Rome for the 1960 Summer Games, West was familiar only with sketchy reporters about the "teenage sensation" from Louisville with the "big smile, big personality" who would win heavyweight gold. But the shooting guard from West Virginia already was a boxing fan, noting that his "first two heroes in life were both black men: Joe Louis and [Sugar] Ray Robinson."

Eventually West would attend a number of Ali's fights, including some in Los Angeles and his famous comeback bout in March 1971 against Joe Frazier after his conviction for draft evasion was overturned and his boxing license was restored.

"He was a magnificent fighter," West recalled. "I always thought, people came to watch him fight and he would let [opponents] hit him deliberately to show what a man he was. And yet when the fight was on the line, he was going to win the fight."

Asked how athletes in the current sports landscape compare to Ali, West said: "Some people have big personalities, brightest personalities. But he had the most unique one. 'I'm the greatest' this, 'I'm the greatest' that. You see players get close to it -- we have a player with a big personality on this [Golden State] team, Draymond Green. But completely different.

"Being around him, you almost felt a God-like presence around him. You really did. He had 'it.' "

West said his relationship with Ali never went much beyond shared acknowledgment, a few hellos along the way. He was familiar with the former champion's post-boxing battle with Parkinson's disease and also knew of Ali's declining health this year that made his passing Friday less of a shock to fans.

"He had been hospitalized a number of times in the recent months and year," West said. "The last time, when he received the Medal of Freedom at the White House [in 2005] -- and obviously, you know I follow him -- I thought that was kind of a defining moment in his career. Very deserving. And to see a picture of him there that night, that was hard for me to see also."

West added: "The world was better for having him. It really was. He was controversial in his own way, but I always say, he was like a pussycat in personality."

The man known as "The Logo" (it is West's silhouette in the NBA's official symbol) touched on some other Ali- and Finals-related topics, including:

The time Lakers teammate Wilt Chamberlain entertained a notion of challenging Ali in the boxing ring: "I said to him when I heard it, 'You know what it's going to be like? Have you ever been in the woods when they're chopping down a tree? And when it's ready [to fall], they go 'Timberrrr!' because it's so big.' "

The player he thinks has come closest to Ali's worldwide appeal: Michael Jordan.

Winning the first Finals MVP award even though he played for the losing team (West averaged 37.4 ppg and 7.4 apg as the Lakers lost to the Celtics): "Miserable. I don't like to lose. I hate to lose. I'm not a good loser. I'm not. I was sort of born that way, and that's never going to change."

Criticism of LeBron James' 2-4 record in NBA Finals series: "That's the most ridiculous thing. If I were him, I would want to strangle you guys. He's carried teams on his shoulders. They've been in The Finals six straight times. How many times have they been the favorites? None! Zero. OK? Grossly unfair to him." (For the record, James' teams in Miami were favored three or four times in their four Finals trips.)

West's own 1-8 record in the Finals: "Sure it bothers me. Even today it bothers me. It's no fun to get there that many times and not to get the results you want, regardless of how you played. In the playoffs, the best players are supposed to play better. I did. Made no difference. We weren't good enough, obviously."

The career and success he has enjoyed since his playing days: "It's a thrill to be involved, particularly at this point in my life, that they thought I had something that maybe I could contribute. When people view you a certain way, it's flattering. I don't seek compliments. I don't want 'em, period. The thing that meant the most to me was to try to come along and do what they asked me to do, if I can make a contribution. If they ask me questions, I'm going to give 'em a response. Otherwise I'm just part of a group here that I love to be around. We have a lot of great people here. It's fun to be around a lot of young people. They help keep you young, trust me."

The evolution of the NBA game: "I think it's a lot easier to play today. It's not a dirty game at all. It's not a physical game. When somebody gets bumped, it's a flagrant foul or something. Beyond comprehension to me. Obviously I don't like officials being scrutinized the way they are the day after. It's grossly unfair, makes their jobs a lot harder. This is a hard game to officiate. I think they should get rid of the rule, period."

Stephen Curry's ability to compete back in West's day: "He would have been great. He would have ended up knocked on his fanny a lot harder. But he also would have gotten to the free throw line a little bit more. He plays the game so differently than any one I have ever seen. You have to appreciate different kinds of skills. Watch golf -- Jordan Spieth, is he the best ball striker out there? No. But he is by far the greatest putter. And what is this about? It's about scoring. Steph scores, OK? If we score more points tomorrow, we're going to be happy. If we don't, we aren't going to be happy."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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