Jerry West: The most important Lakers figure of all time


Jerry West is as synonymous with the Los Angeles Lakers as purple and gold itself.

The tragic news of West’s passing on Wednesday at 86 offers an important reminder of West’s legendary run with the franchise. There is no Lakers lore without West. He was there nearly every (successful) step of the way as a player, coach, scout and executive. He is a Los Angeles icon who bridges multiple eras of Lakers championships, superstars and history.

West may not have won as many titles as a player as Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Kareem Adbul-Jabbar or Shaquille O’Neal. He may not be as popular or as revered among younger generations. But he was just as essential, if not more, in building the Lakers into one of sports’ most historic and glamorous franchises.

West was, unequivocally, the most important Lakers figure ever.

He was there from the start: West was the first Lakers draft pick as the franchise transitioned from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in 1960. He immediately became the team’s second-best player behind Elgin Baylor as a rookie, earning an All-Star appearance.

Chick Hearn, the definitive voice of the Lakers, dubbed West “Mr. Clutch” during his second season due to his knack for delivering in crunchtime (including, eventually, one of the greatest shots: a game-tying 63-footer against New York in the 1970 NBA Finals).

West went on to become one of the greatest players ever. He was an All-Star in all 14 of his seasons, a 12-time All-NBA selection and a member of the NBA’s 75th anniversary team. He helped lead the Lakers to nine NBA Finals appearances, where they perennially fell short to Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics, including in 1962, ’63, ’65, ’66, ’68 and ’69.

His greatness defied convention; he’s the only player to win NBA Finals MVP in a losing effort. He led the Lakers to their first championship in Los Angeles in 1972, the same season they won 69 games and a still-unmatched 33 straight. When the NBA decided on its logo in 1969, it chose West’s silhouette, creating the most famous symbol in basketball outside of the ball itself.

Despite his 1-8 finals record as a player, West became the ultimate winner in his post-playing career. Like many good Hollywood stories, his redemption arc was memorable.

West never had a losing season as a coach from 1976 through 1979 (145-101 regular-season record), leading the Lakers to the playoffs three times and to one conference finals berth in 1977 when he finished runner-up for coach of the year. He then was officially a part of six more championships, including five as the architect of the “Showtime” Lakers in the 1980s and the first championship of the eventual Shaq-Kobe three-peat in 2000.

West doesn’t get credit for the 2001 and ’02 championships, or the ’09 and ’10 titles won by teams built around Bryant and Pau Gasol. But his legendary eight-day span in 1996, in which he signed O’Neal from the Orlando Magic and traded for the No. 13 pick to select Bryant, paved the foundation of those triumphs.

West’s ability to identify talent and project how pieces would work together is unparalleled. He pushed for an inexperienced 36-year-old Pat Riley to become head coach in 1981. He drafted James Worthy. He bet big on Bryant. He persuaded O’Neal. His non-Lakers work with the Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors and LA Clippers includes drafting Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, pushing the Warriors to keep Thompson instead of trading him for Kevin Love in 2014, helping sign Kevin Durant, drafting Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, helping the Clippers sign Kawhi Leonard and trade for Paul George and helping the Clippers trade for James Harden.

West, who is already a two-time Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee as a player and as a member of the 1960 U.S. Olympic team, is going to be inducted for a third time later this year for his contributions as an executive. He’ll be the first person to be inducted as both a player and contributor.

There is a sad element to the timing of his death. He and the Lakers never reconciled their public fallout after West left in 2000.

“One disappointing thing (about my career) is that my relationship with the Lakers is horrible,” West told The Athletic in 2022. “I still don’t know why. And at the end of the day, when I look back, I say, ‘Well, maybe I should have played somewhere else instead of with the Lakers, where someone would have at least appreciated how much you give, how much you cared.’ ”

The Clippers, not the Lakers, were the franchise that announced West’s passing in a news release (West has been a consultant for the Clippers since 2017). The Lakers released a short organizational statement before team governor Jeanie Buss posted an Instagram story honoring West.

“Today is a difficult day for all Laker fans,” Buss wrote. “I know that if my father were here, he would say that Jerry West was at the heart of all that made the Lakers great. He was an icon to all — but he was also a hero to our family. We all send our sympathies to Karen and the West family.”

Even as time passed and his distance from the organization grew, West was always associated with the Lakers on some level. He’s Mr. Laker as much as he’s Mr. Clutch. He embodies the qualities the Lakers have always held dear: Greatness, competitiveness, loyalty. He hates the Celtics and the color green as much as anyone. He has ties to every major Lakers figure, including playing alongside Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain.

Johnson and Bryant are widely considered the two greatest Lakers of all time, depending on one’s nostalgia. There is certainly a strong case in either legend’s favor. But West belongs in that conversation — and has the strongest case of all when evaluating the breadth of his contributions to the organization.

West dedicated four decades of his life to the Lakers and laid the foundation for what the franchise became. He was the first great Los Angeles Lakers figure. Only one of the Lakers’ Los Angeles titles (2019-20) was devoid of West’s golden touch in some form or fashion.

The Lakers simply aren’t the Lakers without him.

(Top photo: Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images)





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