Back-stabbing West definitely no genius
Charley Rosen / Special to FOXSports.com
With all the hullabaloo involved in the Lakers' trading Shaq and re-signing Kobe, Phil Jackson seems to be the forgotten man. Even worse, after winning three championships during his five years in Los Angeles (and six in Chicago), the local L.A. press has taken to denigrating Jackson's accomplishments.
After all, the argument goes, Jackson was a passive coach who merely rode the talents of such great players as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaq and Kobe (no matter that both MJ and Shaq had been ringless in their six NBA seasons before benefiting from PJ's counsel). One L.A. media muppet even branded Jackson's tenure there as "a failed experiment," and he's also been dismissed as the "Zen Hen."
Granted that the scribes who cover the NBA generally can't distinguish an X from an O, and that they think they can objectively evaluate what a player does when they have no idea what he's supposed to be doing — the culprit who's ultimately responsible for these peevish, ignorant judgments is none other than Jerry West.
The truth is that before Jackson blew into town, West was the Lakers executive VP for basketball operations yet was profoundly dissatisfied with the terms of his employment. Although West was paid approximately $700K per season, he yearned for at least $1 million. Also, West felt that since he'd been part of the organization ever since the Lakers relocated from Minneapolis in 1960 (as All-Star player, then as coach, consultant and general manager), he deserved to be given a piece of the team. After all, Magic Johnson didn't arrive in La-La Land until 1979 and Jerry Buss had presented him with a part-ownership deal soon after his retirement.
Moreover, for lo these many years West had taken (and been universally granted) the credit for drafting Magic out of Michigan State. This momentous decision was, in fact, the cornerstone of West's claim to administrative greatness.
The fact of the matter, however, is that West was determined to use the Lakers' first pick (and the NBA's first overall) to draft not Magic, but Sidney Moncrief. It was only after prolonged hours of being convinced otherwise by both Bill Sharman and Chick Hearn that West finally yielded and selected Magic.
West has likewise taken credit for building the Magic-Jabbar-Worthy dynasty, when it was Sharman who did much of the planning.
Did both Shaq and Kobe come to L.A. during West's watch? Certainly, but here again, others pulled the strings — various combinations of lawyers and businessmen, and in O'Neal's case, Dale Brown.
Even so, Jerry West was an icon in Tinseltown. Not only was he Mister Clutch and the Logo-Man, he was also Mister Laker. The local media adored him and hung on his every pronouncement. Only when Jackson signed his five-year, $30 million contract with the Lakers did Dr. Buss finally grant West the million-dollar pact he'd been seeking for so long. Still, from the get-go, West was resentful of Jackson's presence. Why should Jackson be hailed as the franchise's savior when West had been performing miracles on and off the court for more than 40 years? Besides, back when they'd competed against each other, West wasn't appreciative of Jackson's aggressive elbows.
The very first pronouncement of West's that I personally witnessed occurred just before the Lakers' initial preseason practice session in October 1999. As a longtime friend of Jackson's, I felt obliged to offer West a small warning: "Phil's teams always start off slowly while they're learning the triangle."
West's sour response was this: "He's got six weeks."
Turned out that after six weeks, the Lakers were 31-6 and West was even more resentful than before. His most wished-for scenario was for the Lakers to collapse and for Buss to beg him to save the team. Part-ownership, unlimited power, bucks galore — Buss would gladly accede to whatever West required. When West's dream turned into a personal nightmare, he began to actively undermine Jackson.
Part of Jackson's game plan was to create an environment where the players mostly disciplined themselves. This, because he understood that any directives coming from civilians are viewed by players as being heavy-handed, intrusive, and misguided. (So when Pippen refused to play in the infamous "1.8 Seconds Game" against the Knicks, it was his teammates who effectively reprimanded him.) But word was leaked from West to friendly L.A. journalists that Jackson was a do-nothing coach. Also that the triangle was bogus and that Kobe was being underutilized. With West as the conduit, the previously secret news of Jackson's relationship with Jeannie Buss was fed to scandal-hungry press-peepers in Chicago.
And so it went: Overpaying draft picks to constrict the money available for free agents. Not providing the backup big man the Lakers needed. Spreading rumors that Kobe was going to sue Jackson for defamation of character. And generally promulgating ubiquitous undercurrents of disrespect.
Has West done an admirable job in resurrecting the fortunes of the Memphis Grizzlies? Absolutely.
In so many other aspects, however, West's squeaky-clean reputation as a genius is less than meets the eye.
NOTE — Because Jackson always accepts personal responsibility for his own failings, I relied on other sources for all of the above information.
Charley Rosen, former CBA coach and author of the upcoming book A Pivotal Season — How the 1971-72 L.A. Lakers Changed the NBA, is a frequent contributor for FOXSports.com.