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The Life

October 15, 2002
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The following is a description of a commercial briefly considered and summarily rejected by the Memphis Grizzlies' business department. There are no statistics to cite, but it just might be the best-ever unrecorded advertisement for a local sports franchise.

Two guys sitting at a bar. They're looking up at a basketball game, the Grizzlies against somebody. They're drinking their beers, watching the game, not saying anything. Two sips pass, then another. Finally, one of them starts shaking his head, looking down at the bar. He turns to the other guy and says, almost under his breath, "Jerry Freakin' West." They both shake their heads and high-five.

There's a story in Memphis about a man and a mansion, but it's not that man and not that mansion. This is another famous local mansion, one that turned up in a photograph in a May edition of The Commercial Appeal of Memphis, where it was revealed that the man, a famous newcomer, had recently agreed to purchase the home and would soon be moving in.

Jerry West
Can Jerry West turn things around in Memphis?

The convergence of man and mansion made the attention inevitable, but the man was not pleased. He considered the photograph unnecessary; he wasn't especially eager for everyone to know where he planned to live. There was another reason for his sensitivity, though, one that tells you a little bit more about the man. Frankly, he didn't know why anyone cared, and it disturbed him that someone might. When he discusses the phenomenon now, he sounds more sad than angry, like a person unaccustomed to having any aspect of his life dictated from the outside.

To put it another way, Jerry Freakin' West didn't get it -- and still doesn't. He wouldn't appreciate that commercial, either, which explains the business department's quick rejection of it. He doesn't understand why, when he walks down a street in Memphis, you can follow his progress through the Dopplering of car horns and the roundelay chants of "Jer-ry, Jer-ry" emanating from the just-opened windows. He's the biggest thing in Memphis, a city with an inferiority complex as strong as the musty scent that rises from the Mississippi and permeates downtown on sticky summer afternoons.

He just doesn't want to be Jerry Freakin' West, thank you all the same. "I'd like to get out of the limelight in Memphis," he says. "It's a great place, and the people have been unbelievably hospitable. But it's been a bit more than I expected."

You wait for West to laugh, or smile, or somehow acknowledge how preposterous it would be for Jerry Freakin' West to walk into Memphis as the president of basketball operations for the Grizzlies -- the Memphis Freakin' Grizzlies, for heaven's sake -- and be treated like another run-of-the-mill basketball executive. You know, maybe like Wally Walker with a better jump shot, or Stan Kasten with more hair, or Jerry Krause with a healthier diet.

But the laugh doesn't come, nor does the smile or acknowledgment. Instead he says, "For some reason, people want to put you on a pedestal." He appears to be sincerely puzzled, so it seems best not to say, "Look. You're Jerry West, this is Memphis and they're the Grizzlies." He is, after all, Mr. Logo -- yes, the man upon whom the very image of the NBA was modeled back in 1968 -- the winner of eight titles as a player, coach and executive. And this is, after all, Memphis, and they, after all, are the Grizzlies, the franchise with the worst all-time winning percentage (.229) in the history of the NBA. The stigma of city and team was built right into one of the franchise's slogans last season -- "Memphis. Big Time." It's as if they're trying to convince themselves.

There's no denying the impact, though. A team that won 23 games last season sold more than 500 season-ticket packages in the first seven days West was on the payroll. Asked if the West-in-Memphis phenomenon is overstated, Grizz consultant Chuck Daly raises his epic eyebrows and drops his jaw in astonishment. "No, you wouldn't believe it," he says. "It's the second coming of Elvis."

West is an elegant 64-year-old man -- posture perfect, clothes just right, hair precise. An unforced air of dignity surrounds him. He's an older guy who relates to the young guys, not by pandering or patronizing but by being classy and understated. "This is overwhelming," said Drew Gooden after the Grizzlies made him the fourth pick in the 2002 draft. "Just to have my name mentioned by Jerry West is hard to believe."

The West Ethic is uncompromising. He was troubled when his name was linked to the GM jobs in New York and Golden State last spring, so he picked up the phone and called the Knicks' Scott Layden and the Warriors' Garry St. Jean to tell them he respected their positions and hadn't been contacted by either team. "It bothered me a great deal," he says, "because it was grossly unfair to the men who held the jobs."

After the Lakers won the first in their current run of titles, West chose not to attend the victory parade. "I didn't belong there," he says. It was June 2000 and he'd decided to retire by then. He could have chosen the occasion of the parade to make the announcement. Instead, he stayed home and watched highlights on the news. No, this man isn't anything close to Jerry Freakin' West. This man is whom you want to be when you grow up.

Growth -- and the rapid acceleration thereof -- is what Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley banked on (for an estimated $5 million per) when he announced West's hiring on April 30. What West sees now is the equivalent of a group of scattered adolescents, with two of the best rookies from a year ago (Pau Gasol and Shane Battier), a sketchy point guard in fellow West Virginian Jason Williams and a potential star in Gooden. "They had two terrific rookies last year, but again, how much are they going to grow as players?" West says. "Most good teams have seven or eight good players. They don't have three or four."

West left the game two years ago because he was stressed, and he returned because he was bored. He dismisses the well-circulated notion that a power struggle with Phil Jackson influenced his decision. The stress of winning was bad enough, but the stress of having to win is what pushed West past the brink. "Physically and emotionally, I was a wreck," he says. "I couldn't sleep. Winning was the most meaningful thing in my life, and unfortunately it came at the expense of family and friends. All I could think about was 'Boy, I hope one of our great players doesn't get hurt.' That's no way to live. This sickness was about the things you had no control over. You can't control somebody getting hurt, you can't control the bounce of a basketball. You worry about that, and the worry creates the stress and the anxiety. I'm hoping this time around I can look at things differently and have a little more balance in my life."

West grew tired of sitting around his Southern California house reading self-help books and dispensing wisdom, via telephone, throughout the league. He found himself watching nearly every NBA game, usually with his 14-year-old son, Johnny, and eventually something must have crept into the tone of his voice. Offers started coming. No, he said at first, not interested. Then he found himself saying, "Well ... maybe." Then Heisley offered to make him the league's highest-paid executive. Just like that, maybe became definitely.

"I always thought he'd be back," says Clipper VP and former Laker teammate Elgin Baylor. "It never crossed my mind that Jerry retired for good. Even the Memphis part doesn't surprise me."

So far, West's search for the elusive balance doesn't seem to have been noticed around the Grizzlies' front office. "This is all he's ever done, and you can see he's got a piece of the game inside him," Barone says. Which is probably why West has had his greatest successes along the margins. In 1990, West took Elden Campbell after other teams chose Dwayne Schintzius, Lance Blanks and Alaa Abdelnaby. In '96 he found Derek Fisher. He traded for Robert Horry and signed Rick Fox. During the '89 draft, he held the second-to-last pick of the first round. He and his personnel people watched as the names were called before the pick -- John Morton, Anthony Cook, Roy Marble, Byron Irvin and Blue Edwards. West went around the room, asking for suggestions, and everyone in the room named the same guy. West respected their opinions but chose his own guy anyway. And then seven years later he used his guy -- Vlade Divac -- as bait to lure the No. 13 pick in the 1996 draft, a high school kid named Bryant.

"Jerry's the best judge of peripheral talent I've ever seen," Daly says. "Nobody else is even close."

The Grizzlies expect more of the same. West's track record imbues each pick with a significance it wouldn't otherwise possess. Gooden was a surprisingly conventional pick, but later in the draft West made the night's most unheralded move, picking up shooting guard Wesley Person for little-used Nick Anderson and second-round pick Matt Barnes. The move was vintage West, picking off a veteran role player who fills needs (outside shooting, perimeter defense) and provides stability.

The West phenomenon nudged a team that has been barely watchable into the national limelight. It wasn't just a Memphis thing; West's hiring was one of the biggest sports stories of the summer. Andy Dolich, the Grizzlies' president on the business side, says, "This off-season it was Dateline Memphis, Dateline Memphis, Dateline Memphis -- because it was Dateline Jerry. You can't buy that kind of publicity, and the people around here are looking for an identity. They're starved for it."

Dolich's voice rises an octave or two. "Hey, he had other options, and he chose us. I mean, Jerry West chose us. Imagine that."

This article appears in the October 28 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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