Towards the end of Jerry West’s tenure as the executive vice president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Lakers, he spent much of his time dealing with the egos of his two superstar players, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. He said he viewed both players like sons and both players have said in the past he was almost like a second father.
Not long after West left the Lakers, the relationship between O’Neal and Bryant deteriorated and ultimately led the Lakers to trade O’Neal after he screamed, “Pay me!” at Lakers owner Jerry Buss during a preseason game in Hawaii in 2003 while he was seeking a new contract.
Before he signed copies of his new book “West By West, My Tormented Life” at the ESPN Zone in Los Angeles, he told ESPNLosAngeles.com that he didn’t believe his presence would have prevented the messy divorce and that the O’Neal’s trade probably facilitated the team’s last two championships.
“I think when you work for Jerry Buss the thing that’s the greatest about him is he’s not afraid to make tough decisions,” West said. “I think Shaquille put himself in a very precarious position with something he said in Hawaii and they moved on and Kobe Bryant was ready to take center stage.
“To some degree it was almost like when [Kareem] Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson were here. Abdul-Jabbar abdicated his throne for a player who was in the middle of his prime and I think Shaquille’s personality is completely different than Kobe’s personality and by making a tough decision they were able to win a couple more championships. Obviously here in Los Angeles they want you to win but they want you to win at the very highest level.”
West was not allowed to address the current lockout as a consultant and minority owner of the Golden State Warriors but he said he understood the Lakers’ decision to part with 20 staff members, including assistant general manager Ronnie Lester and scout Gene Tormohlen, who put in 43 years with the club.
“I know Jerry Buss well enough to know that he’s someone who has kept people there for years,” West said. “Sometimes people want to make changes and you can’t criticize people for making changes. When I was there we obviously had a much smaller group of people working and as the franchise has gotten bigger, there’s a lot more people and then you figure out we have too many people here. I think change is good. I don’t think it’s bad.”
The biggest off-season change for the Lakers was the retirement of Phil Jackson. In the book, Buss outlines his strained relationship with Jackson and an incident where Jackson kicked West out of the locker room. West, however, doesn’t believe Jackson’s attitude has resulted in so few of his assistants, including Brian Shaw, getting head coaching jobs.
“He did exactly the job with us that he was supposed to do,” West said. “He’s one of the few coaches in this league who has successfully made this triangle offense work. His belief in it, his ability to teach it and his ability to get players to buy into it were frankly his strengths. He hasn’t had a lot of coaches go on to have head coaching opportunities and who knows why that is. You would think with all the winning he’s done that more people would look into what he’s done because his offense really promotes team play and the way you win in this league is with team play.”