7.02.2008

Jerry West's Anguish (Part II)

Who wouldn't want to be Jerry West , to achieve all that he has? Who would dare dream the life Jerry West has led? Not even Jerry West -- Zeke from Cabin Creek, dribbling a ball on the West Virginia dirt on winter nights 40 years ago, a country boy's solitaire -- could have created this life from his imagination. ''I was my own best friend,'' he says of those days. ''I was everything, actually. Player, coach, announcer, even the timekeeper. It was amazing to me how many times in those imaginary games there'd be one second left, my team one point down and me with the ball, and I'd miss and -- the really amazing part -- there would still be time for another shot, or 10.''

Not that many years later, the timekeeper no longer his best friend, he would make a 60-foot shot at the buzzer to send a 1970 NBA championship game into overtime. Not even his dreams, as fevered as they may have been in the Appalachian twilight, anticipated the glory of real life. Real life: West became one of the greatest guards to play the game, a perennial All-Star, a rich man, later a winning coach and, after a brief retirement to country-club life and a one handicap, the architect and curator of the 1980s' dominant professional sports franchise. Life's lottery winner.

But Jerry West is naturally distrustful of success, and he is always surprised, but never pleased enough, when it comes his way. He was a two-time All-America at West Virginia, the only college player you could mention in the same breath with Oscar Robertson, but he was astonished when the Lakers, just then picking up to move from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, drafted him in the first round in 1960. ''I didn't think I was good enough to play in the NBA,'' he says. ''No, really.'' Then, after a bad game during the Olympic trials that year, he almost gave up on the Olympics, too. Pete Newell, the U.S. coach, had to explain to him that if West wasn't on the team, neither was he. ''But that was Jerry,'' says Newell. "Even the tiniest setback can be seen as catastrophic to Jerry."

It's unclear when this started, but clearly much of his angst can be traced to failure at the Finals in the 1960s.

1962
CELTICS 4 LAKERS 3

With the series tied 2-2, Baylor scored 61 points -- then a playoff record -- as the Lakers won in Boston and moved within one victory of slaying the Celtics. ``We'll win it now,'' Lakers coach Fred Schaus said. Sorry, Fred. In Game 6, the Celtics' Sam Jones scored 35 points as Boston won by 14 in Los Angeles. For Game 7, PFC Elgin Baylor, an Army reservist, was granted a second special pass from Seattle's Fort Lewis to play. He scored 41 points, Jerry West added 35 and the Celtics had big foul trouble. The Lakers' Frank Selvy took a jumper at the end of regulation that would have won it. The ball rimmed out. The Celtics prevailed by three points in overtime. Bill Russell had 40 rebounds and 30 points.

1963
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The Lakers lost Game 4 in Los Angeles to trail the series 3-1, and the focus afterward was on one play. With 51/2minutes left and the Lakers down by five, Baylor collided inside with Russell. He hit a short hook shot on the play, but referee Richie Powers called Baylor for an offensive foul.It sapped the steam from the Lakers. Baylor finished with 31 points and 19rebounds. Heinsohn countered with 35 points. The Lakers fought off elimination in Game 5, with Baylor's 43 points, but Boston won Game 6 on the road. ``Los Angeles isn't the basketball capital of the world yet,'' Auerbach gloated afterward.

1965
CELTICS 4 LAKERS 1

With Baylor out for the series with a broken kneecap, Boston won the opener at home by 32 points -- scoring 142points, topping their own record by two. The Lakers won the third game but in Game 4, Sam Jones had 37points for the Celtics, who took a 13-point win and a 3-1 series lead. Back in the Garden for Game 5, West had 33points. But Boston opened the fourth quarter with 10 straight field goals and held L.A. scoreless for five minutes. The Celtics won the game by 33 points. Russell had 30 rebounds and 22 points.

1966
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West had 41 points and Baylor had 36in the Lakers' Game 1 victory, but the Celtics won the next three games. The Lakers rebounded and won Game 5 when West broke a 115-all tie on a jumper with 35 seconds left. The Lakers then forced a seventh game with an eight-point victory at home, but in the decisive game in Boston, the Celtics won their eighth consecutive title. Down by 16 points entering the fourth quarter, the Lakers outscored Boston 33-19 in the final 12 minutes but it wasn't enough. West had 36points, but Russell created his usual havoc with 25 points and 32 rebounds.

1968
CELTICS 4 LAKERS 2

The Lakers evened the series with a Game 4 victory in Los Angeles. West scored 38 points, but he left with 44seconds to go after spraining his ankle in a collision with John Havlicek. Don Nelson, who had been waived by the Lakers in 1965, scored 26 points to help Boston to a 120-117 OT win in Game 5. Boston won Game 6 in L.A., and thus the series, in a rout. West, limping up and down court, scored 22 points. Havlicek had 40 points for the Celtics, who led by as many as 21 points in the fourth quarter before settling for a 15-point victory.

1969
CELTICS 4 LAKERS 3

The Lakers acquired Wilt Chamberlain before the season started, and were hailed all season long as basketball's next dynasty. The Lakers took a 2-0 lead in the series, and put themselves on the verge of a championship with a Game 5 victory in Los Angeles. They took advantage of Russell (seven points, 13 boards) being in foul trouble in the second half. West had 28 of his 39 points in the second half, but he pulled a hamstring muscle late in the game, which would hurt the Lakers later on. Wilt Chamberlain had 31 rebounds. The Lakers lost Game 6 by nine points but, anticipating the end of the Celtics' hex in Game 7, Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke had balloons tied to the Forum's rafters and arranged for the USC marching band to play ``Happy Days Are Here Again.'' The band was never needed. In the third quarter, the Lakers missed 15 straight field goals and Boston led, 91-76, and cruised to victory. ``What are they going to do with all those ... balloons now?'' Auerbach said. ``And all that champagne?'' ``I still have nightmares about that game,'' West in 2006. ``We should have beaten the Celtics. But we didn't. That one hurt the most because it was the final time we had a chance to beat Bill Russell.''

1984
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From the Lakers' perspective, no loss to the Celtics has been more crushing. The Lakers lead in the final minute of games 1-4, and come away with only two wins. A Gerald Henderson steal and a Kevin McHale clothesline still replay themselves in the minds of both West, and his Captain Ahab, Jerry West. The Lakers go on to lose the series in seven games, with West and Riley blaming defeat on hotel pranks, lack of air conditioning, and suspicious bus drivers. Riley is so paranoid that before game 7 he orders all of the team's water coolers emptied and inspected. Nothing suspicous was found.

"Those seven losses in the Finals haunted Jerry," said West's backcourt mate, Gail Goodrich. Even after the Lakers won two championships by defeating the Celtics in 1985 and 1987, West was still was not happy.

"I saw West being interviewed during the summer of 1987," John Havlicek once told Sports Illustrated, "and he was still saying how much he disliked the Celtics. We had the utmost respect for them, as players. I was surprised the enmity they still held for us. For the longest time, Jerry wouldn't go into the Boston Garden, even when he was a chief executive of the Lakers. He wouldn't even attend game 6 of the 1985 NBA Finals--which the Lakers won--because he was so spooked by the building."

When asked about the team's success in the 1980s, all West could say was "I was so used to being on the other side, I didn't know what to think or how to feel. It never seemed to matter how well we played, they always won. It was almost like fate wasn't going to let you win."

Before the 2008 Finals began, West was still expressing angst.

"You may not want to think about it, but it's impossible for me not to think about it," West said in early June. "When you've competed at a high level, and had a great measure of success like we did, you feel the hurt of losing even more."

"The pain of knowing we should have won at least a couple of those series (in the 1960s) against the Celtics still hurts," West said. "When it's happened again and again, it's not real fun to relive it. I know we always felt scarred by that. I know I did."

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