Jerry West spent a lifetime becoming one of the most decorated figures in N.B.A. history as a player and an executive, but these days, his routine includes daily workouts, coronavirus testing and a regular gin rummy game with some friends.
West, 83, is also a consultant with the Los Angeles Clippers and likes to stay current on today’s N.B.A. game, evaluating players just as he used to when he was a team executive.
In the past two years, West has faced the deaths of two close friends in Elgin Baylor, a Hall of Fame player who became his mentor when the Lakers drafted West, and Kobe Bryant, whom West traded for as general manager of the Lakers shortly after Bryant was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets in 1996. Baylor, 86, died of natural causes in March 2021, and Bryant, 41, was killed in a helicopter crash in January 2020.
West recently spoke to The New York Times about working through his grief, struggling to tell people he loves them and appreciating a former roommate for “saving my life.”
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
In the past two years, two of your close friends in the basketball world have passed, Elgin Baylor, whom you starred with on the Lakers in the early 1960s, and Kobe Bryant. What has been the hardest part about dealing with your grief?
When I heard that Elgin passed away — and let’s start with him first, because it was after Kobe passed away — it was just unbelievably hurtful. The first day when I found out about [Baylor’s death], I was down in Palm Springs, and I just sat around there and was just quiet. Very introspective. And, frankly, I got in a golf cart and I just went out and there was a driving range. I just was like a baby, I guess. Couldn’t believe it. As much as I appreciated him, I didn’t realize the depth of it until the first day. I really did not.
It was like — I lost my best friend. I lost someone who meant more to me than just a basketball player. For three days I might be doing something — I might be hitting golf balls or chipping golf balls or putting golf balls — and honestly, I would just have to stop.
I don’t think people understood what my relationship with him really was. I’m sure they knew we were teammates — Mr. Inside, Mr. Outside. I don’t think they understood the competitive part of it and what a bond you feel when you have someone you feel like is as competitive as you. He never changed. Never put himself above anyone. Those are the things to me that made it also a harsh and ugly feeling when he passed away.
Did something change after those three days?
No, I never really forget it. I might be driving around in Los Angeles and go by somewhere that was familiar with me years ago that will remind me of him, because he used to associate in those areas, places he lived here in Los Angeles. Because he was private, people didn’t really get to know him. If he had been in today’s game, he would be bigger than life. One of the most unique and incredible people.
I only had one other person in my life like that. Going up in college, my roommate Willie Akers. To this day, we remain incredible friends. Sometimes I thank him for saving my life. All the internal battles I still face: my battles with depression, disappointment with people who should know better and the way they treat people.
What do you mean when you say Akers saved your life?
There were a lot of times I didn’t want to live. There’s two times where it was frightening and I was right on the edge. Life was just too painful for me. When you grow up with not a lot of love in your house — I’ve often said, at least in my life, love is a word I’m not quite familiar with. For me, the word I would use would probably be “like.” I really like that person. You can love people and they’ll never know it. For men to tell men they love them, it almost seems antiquated.
Did you ever tell Elgin that you loved him?
Yes. It wasn’t until later in life, when he had had some health issues.
When you think about Kobe, what comes to mind?
It’s really interesting because he didn’t have a full life. I saw him become a great father. Used to see him, in particular after he retired — he and his daughter [Gianna], who were both killed in that tragic helicopter crash. I just saw this enormous love and respect for this little girl. She was kind of the apple of his eye.
He was just one of those unique players that comes along. He had a big personality. He was very bright. He was going to be a bigger success off the court than on the court. He was taken away too young.
Around my house, my kids, when they were young, were huge Kobe Bryant fans. They don’t live here, but in their bedrooms, which are still intact, you go in there and there’s stuff that reflects Kobe Bryant’s life as a player.
His influence in this house has always been here because he was in my house a lot. Watching him grow up, watching this insatiable desire to be the best. When he gets to the top of the mountain, all of a sudden, he’s climbing another mountain. And then it’s all gone.
Do you think about the day he died?
It’s hard not to be reminded of the day he passed away. I don’t think anyone will forget that for a long time. I’ve often wondered if he had lived to, say, Elgin Baylor’s age, or even my age, would people look at him the same way? I’m not sure they would. Just the shock and sadness of seeing this very young man’s life taken seemed impossible.
Is it hard for you to talk about this?
I probably talk a lot more about him than Elgin because of the timing and the tragedy of it. A life taken so young. Elgin is the one I probably think about more because I see myself. You get up every day and you can’t deny, thank God I’m still alive and, more importantly, I don’t have any real aches and ailments. Which is all, knock on wood, because I had a bunch of injuries.
Also, the fact that I still enjoy learning. I feel really blessed. A lot of times I see my 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 look at life a lot differently than I did then. I’m so much more introspective with all the people I’ve seen pass away, teammates.
I know there’s a day out there that I’m not going to wake up. I’m just fortunate to have so many people in my life that I can never thank for, most importantly, being loyal friends.
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