Jerry West has spent his life becoming one of the most popular figures in NBA history as both a player and an executive, but today his routine includes daily workouts. days, check for coronavirus and play regular gin rummy with some friends.
West, 83, is also a consultant with the Los Angeles Clippers and enjoys updating today’s NBA game, rating players just as he did when he was the team’s chief executive officer.
Over the past two years, West has been dealing with the deaths of two close friends in Elgin Baylor, a Hall of Fame player who became his mentor when the Lakers shook West’s hand, and Kobe Bryant, whom the Lakers did. West traded to become general manager of the Lakers shortly after. Bryant was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets in 1996. Baylor, 86 years old, died of natural causes in March 2021 and Bryant, 41, is died in a helicopter crash in January 2020.
West recently spoke to The New York Times about working through his grief, struggling to tell the people he loves them, and appreciating an old roommate for “saving my life.”
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
In the past two years, two of your best friends in the world of basketball have passed away: Elgin Baylor, with whom you played with the Lakers in the early 1960s, and Kobe Bryant. What is the hardest part about dealing with your pain?
When I heard that Elgin had passed away – and let’s start with him first, because that was after Kobe passed away – it was unbelievably painful. The first day when I found out about [Baylor’s death], I was in Palm Springs, and I just sat around and was quiet. Very introspective. Honestly, I got in a golf cart and I just went out and had a practice field. I was just a kid, I guess. Unbelievable. I appreciate him so much, I didn’t realize the depth of it until day one. I really didn’t.
It was like – I lost my best friend. I lost someone who meant more to me than a basketball player. In three days, I might be on to something – I could hit the golf ball or chip the golf ball or put the golf ball back – and honestly, I would have to stop.
I don’t think people understand what my relationship with him really is like. I’m sure they know we’re teammates: Mr. Inside, Mr. Outside. I don’t think they understand the competitive part of it and how bound you feel to have someone you feel is just as competitive as you are. He never changes. Never put yourself above anyone. Those are the things that to me make it also a harsh and ugly feeling when he passed away.
Has anything changed after those three days?
No, I never really forgot it. I could be driving around Los Angeles and passing somewhere that was familiar to me many years ago would remind me of him, because he was so attached to those areas, places he lived here in Los Angeles. Because he’s private, people don’t really know about him. If he was in today’s game, he would be greater than life. One of the most unique and incredible.
I only have one other person in my life like that. In college, Willie Akers, my roommate. To this day, we are still amazing friends. Sometimes I thank him for saving my life. All the inner battles that I still have to face: my battles with depression, frustration with people who should have understood better and the way they treat people.
What do you mean when you say Akers saved your life?
There were so many times I didn’t want to live. Twice the place was scary and I was right on the edge. Life is too painful for me. When you grow up with a lot of love in your house… I often say, at least in my life, love is a word I am not very familiar with. For me, the word I would use would probably be “how”. I really like that person. You can love people and they will never know it. For men to tell men they love them, it’s almost old-fashioned.
Have you ever told Elgin that you love him?
It’s correct. It was not until later that he grew up that he had some health problems.
When you think of Kobe, what comes to mind?
It’s really interesting because he doesn’t have a full life. I have seen him become a great father. Ever met him, especially after he retired – him and his daughter [Gianna], both of whom were killed in that tragic helicopter crash. I just see tremendous love and respect for this little girl. She is an apple in his eyes.
He was just one of the only players to come along. He has a great personality. He is very bright. He will be more successful off the court than on the court. He was taken away when he was too young.
Around my house, my kids, when they were little, were huge Kobe Bryant fans. They don’t live here, but in their bedroom, still intact, you go in and have things that reflect the life of Kobe Bryant as a player.
His influence in this house is always here because he has been in my house a lot. Watch him grow up, look at this insatiable desire to be the best. When he reached the top of the mountain, suddenly, he was climbing another mountain. And then it was all gone.
Do you think about the day he died?
It’s hard not to remember the day he passed away. I don’t think anyone will forget that for a long time. I often wonder if he had lived, like Elgin Baylor’s age, or even my age, would everyone see him the same way? I’m not sure they will. It was just the shock and sadness that this very young man’s life seemed impossible.
Do you have a hard time talking about this?
I probably talk more about him than Elgin because of its timing and tragedy. A life too young. Elgin is someone I can think of more of because I see myself. You wake up every day and you can’t deny, thank God I’m still alive and more importantly I’m not in real pain. That’s all, knock on the wood, because I had a bunch of wounds.
Also, the fact that I still enjoy learning. I feel really lucky. Many times I have seen life pass before my eyes. No question, I do. I get these really blue moods, which sometimes last longer than they used to. Of course, I see life differently than it did then. I’m a lot more introspective with all the people I’ve seen passed away, comrades.
I know there’s a day out there that I won’t wake up. I am so lucky to have so many people in my life that I can never thank, most importantly, loyal friends.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/26/sports/jerry-west-kobe-bryant-death.html Two Years After Kobe’s Death, Jerry West On ‘Shock And Sorrow’