Question: Do you think this current Lakers team has what it takes to become a dynasty on par with the Showtime Lakers or the Kobe-Shaq Lakers?
Answer: This team has all the elements of a team that could win for a number of years. And one of the things they have going for them is youth. If you look at the Showtime Lakers, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wasn't a young player anymore. But this team, they have youth in players like Trevor Ariza and Andrew Bynum, and of course they have a great star in Kobe Bryant, who's young in terms of age but old in terms of experience.
Q: How long do you think this team could enjoy success?
A: Frankly, they've got all the ingredients there to have a number of years of success. But you can't control injuries. If you have a devastating injury to a key player, that can change the fortunes of a franchise. And it can be difficult to maintain a team by paying them all what they want without bankrupting yourself. When you assemble as many good players as they have, some of them might want to leave because they can get more money or more playing time some place else. But team owner Jerry Buss is not afraid to make tough decisions. If he has to lose a player, he seems OK with that.
Q: After you left the Lakers, you became president of the Memphis Grizzlies for awhile. When did you leave there and what are you doing now?
A: Two years ago. And you know what? I've just been enjoying my life. I enjoy reading; I'm reading a book right now on FDR called "Traitor to His Class," a fabulous book. I really can't put it down, it's about 800 pages and I'm almost done. I've read a few books on Lincoln. I also have a home in West Virginia and I enjoy going back there and getting back to my roots.
Q: You grew up in West Virginia. What was it like growing up there?
A: It was pretty bleak and tough. It wasn't easy. We lived in Chelyan, 15 miles south of Charleston. My father ended up working for a coal mine as an electrician. I came from a large family, three boys and three girls, and I was the fifth child and the youngest boy. We had no cars in our family. It was a struggle. But I learned important things from my family, too, like the value of education, disciple and work ethic.
Q: Your brother David was killed in the Korean War when you were only 12. What impact did that have on you?
A: It was very traumatic for me. When you're in a big family, you sort of get lost in the shuffle sometimes, but David always paid attention to me. He was a really unbelievable person, very religious, extremely dedicated in whatever he did. Everyone loved him. And after he died, I became shy, painfully shy. And I became a bit of a loner. I used to love to go into the woods and fish and do solitary things.
Q: How did you start playing basketball?
A: Well, it's an individual sport and I think the allure basketball had for me is it was something I could do by myself. And mentally, I could put myself on the basketball court. I was my own coach, I was my own announcer. I'd be out there on the court talking to myself, saying "West shoots it and misses it. Oh my goodness, there's one second left, West shoots and misses it again; wait, they made a mistake on the clock, there's still one second left, West shoots it again." Anyone who saw me out there would probably have thought I was crazy.
Q: Why did you decide to go to West Virginia University?
A: Well, I was fortunate in that I could have gone pretty much to any school, but going to West Virginia was a pretty simple choice. My mother practically held a gun to me and said, "You're not going any place else." She didn't make it very much fun for the other recruiters who stopped by to visit my house. And besides, I used to listen to West Virginia basketball games at night on the radio, which would fade out and fade in because of the mountains, so sometimes I wouldn't even know who won the game until the newspaper came the next day.
Q: Did you enjoy college?
A: You know, my first year I wanted to leave school because I was so homesick. I was backward, shy, really felt I didn't fit in at all. But when basketball season started I found out I had to maintain a certain GPA to stay on the team, and I thought: "Well if you want to play, you'd better do well in school." And then school became a great experience. But my first year in school, my gosh, I didn't want to be there.
Q: Did you always want to be a professional basketball player?
A: I never dreamed of it. I just loved to compete. It was almost like an individual thing, I had to beat my man so my team could beat this team. Then I was the second player taken in the 1960 NBA draft by what was then the Minneapolis Lakers, and the team moved to Los Angeles that summer. I found that out when I was in Rome, competing in the Olympics. I read in the newspaper that the Lakers were going to move to Los Angeles and I was like, "Thank God!" I had nothing against Minnesota, but I didn't like the weather there.
Q: What was your fondest memory from your years as a basketball player?
A: I have a number. I absolutely loved my teammates. I loved them. We did everything together. We'd go to movies together, we'd go to dinner together, played cards together. And with all the disappointments we had as a team, not being able to win a championship for so long, when we finally won one in 1972 that was pretty special.
Q: Did you have a favorite teammate?
A: I had someone whom I greatly admired: Elgin Baylor. I loved the way he handled himself, conducted himself, a real gentlemen. Forget playing with him, that was always fun, but I just loved being around him. He was really kind and generous with his time, and I'm not so sure players of that stature today are as generous with their time as he was.
Q: Was it tough to transition from being a player to being a coach?
A: It was difficult. My first year this is a bit personal but I was going through a divorce, and my last two years were just miserable, and I was ill-suited to coach. It was like I lost my mind. I didn't like the way I was interacting with the players, and I'm sure they didn't like it. At the time I even felt like I could have played better than some of my players, and that's a terrible feeling. I probably owe a lot of apologies to some of my players for some of the things I said to them.
Q: But you had a successful run.
A: We went to the playoffs three years straight.
Q: After that, you moved into the office. What was your typical day as a general manager like?
A: It's challenging. Putting together the different players for a team, it's almost like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. You watch a lot of college teams play, network with other people in the league. And you never have a day off. As a player or a coach you at least had the summers off. As an executive, you don't. And if you go on a vacation, you get calls from here, you get calls from there. It's fun, but it made for a lot of sleepless nights.
Q: What are some business or management lessons you learned from being a G.M.?
A: The one thing I found out really quickly is you need people to work with who are going to challenge you, who are going to ask you, "Why don't we do this instead of that?" I tried to surround myself with people who would challenge me and whose strengths matched up to my strengths.
Q: You were a Lakers executive during the Showtime era of the 1980s, and the Kobe-Shaq Lakers from 1999-2002. How did those two teams compare?
A: They were completely different, to be honest. We had a number of dynamic players, like James Worthy, on the Showtime team, and that team could have won any kind of a game, a brutal game, a dirty game, a high-scoring game. We had so many players who could make plays to win games. And, of course, we had Magic Johnson. The Kobe-Shaq team was different in that the players mostly didn't have a lot of experience. But you had Shaq, who was one of the scariest players to play in the league because of his power and physicality, and, of course, you had Kobe, who's just phenomenal.
Q: What did you think about the relationship between Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant?
A: It was difficult. You had two dramatically different players, but also two very different personalities. At the time I felt Kobe was growing into Shaq's class as a player, and obviously you'd want those times to be fun and exciting. And they were, but what happened internally undid the situation very, very fast. It was disappointing they broke up because I'm sure they could have won a few more championships.
Q: Why did you leave the team in 2002?
A: It got to the point where I couldn't even go to the games. I felt so much pressure and stress, and I wasn't willing to compromise my health. And I also felt it was just time for me not to work there anymore. My relationship with the Lakers was so important to me, and it still is to this day, but it was time to try something different.
Q: Why did you decide to be president of the Memphis Grizzlies?
A: I always said I wanted to work for a team that had no success. And I wanted to see what it was like to work in a smaller market. These smaller markets of course are riskier because they don't have the ancillary incomes that these larger markets have. But it was a lot of fun. I had a fantastic time there because expectations were so low.
Q: There was a lot of speculation that you somehow helped get Pau Gasol, who was then with Memphis, to the Lakers in 2008. Is that true?
A: No, no, not at all. The only thing I did was I told General Manager Mitch Kupchak he would be available. That's the only thing I knew.
Q: Are you proud of being the silhouette on the NBA logo?
A: If that's me on the logo, I'm very proud. I heard somebody the other night who said they think the logo should be upgraded to Michael Jordan. And someone else asked me if that would bother me. And I said absolutely not. I think it should be, too.
Q: If you were in your prime as a basketball player right now, how do you think you would do?
A: From a competition standpoint, I think I'd be fine because I love to compete. The big difference now is the athletes have gotten so much bigger because of weight training. We didn't even touch a weight when I played, and I weighed 180 pounds when I was in the league. So physically, I don't know how I'd be. That will forever be a mystery.
Q: You caused a stir when you said you thought LeBron James had surpassed Kobe as a player. Do you still believe that?
A: Look, I love Kobe Bryant. He's someone I'll always care for. I've watched him grow up, I've watched his dedication, I've watched his incredible skill. But I think there are certain times in a player's career when, just because of age, maybe another player moves ahead of him. In no way was that a slight against Kobe. I just think LeBron is bigger and younger.
Q: Do you still play?
A: You've got to be kidding. I'm afraid I'll get hurt. I have nine broken noses, and I don't want another one.
Q: But you have a basketball court out back. Do you still shoot?
A: I can still shoot. It's not something you forget how to do. But I wouldn't be presumptuous and say I could actually play a game of basketball now. Unless you had a pogo stick or a wheelchair division.
Q: Why did you accept the position of director of the Northern Trust Golf Tournament?
A: The thing that really appealed to me is the charity because Los Angeles has been so incredible to me, so supportive of me, this is my way of giving back. There aren't enough charitable contributions here in Los Angeles. There need to be a lot more.
Q: Are there any changes you want to make to the tournament?
A: I'd like to do some things that make this event more fun to go to, provide more amenities for the fans. We'll hopefully have more seating and a food court that will represent the kinds of food that are in Los Angeles. I also want to get the local schools involved, UCLA, USC, Pepperdine, get them to come out there. And just add some pizzazz. Hey, if we can get Tiger Woods out here to play, that would be a big jump-start.
Q: Do you play golf?
A: Oh, yeah. But it drove me crazy, and sometimes I'd come off the golf course thinking it was enough to put me in a mental institution. You're fighting not only a little round ball, but also your emotions. And I'm a golf fan.
Q: Are you concerned at all about the image hit the golf tournament took this year?
A: Not really. Northern Trust has been in existence for years, and I have complete faith in them and faith in the fact that this is something they're serious about. This is an old company that's respected and trusted.
ORGANIZATION: Northern Trust Open
BORN: 1938; Chelyan, W.Va.
EDUCATION: B.A., University of West Virginia
CAREER TURNING POINT: Second year in the NBA when he realized that he could play consistently at professional level
MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE: Roy Williams, his basketball coach in high school; Fred Schaus, his college and first NBA coach; Pete Newell, his coach in the 1960 Olympics; Jerry Buss, owner of the L.A. Lakers; all his Laker teammates,
especially Elgin Baylor
PERSONAL: Lives in Bel Air with Karen, wife of 31 years, and three dogs; five grown sons
HOBBIES: Reading, golf and playing cards
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