Below is an edited transcript of Golden State executive and former Jerry West speaking about Kobe Bryant before the Lakers’ 116-98 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Thursday at Oracle Arena.
On Jerry West securing the Charlotte Hornet’s draft rights that landed Kobe Bryant for the 13th pick in the 1996 NBA Draft.
West: “Something very unique happened to the Lakers organization that year that I think changed the course of a franchise that had been very good. But it put it on a track to have incredible success for so many years. We had a chance to work out a 17-year-old kid, and everyone talks about legendary workouts, that’s you people that create legendary because I’ve seen an awful lot of good workouts. But for someone that age, it was remarkable the skill, the love that he had for the game, and the desire to excel.
I think the one thing that was very evident to me right away was this was a player that, from my perspective at 17 years old, I’d never seen anyone with the skill level that he had. He was really unique. And we were trying to do something I think really daring that summer. But to acquire him, we traded an All-Star center and a starting center for a lot of teams in the league. We offered Vlade Divac from the No.1 pick in the draft all the way down to 13, and finally, Charlotte, who needed a center desperately agreed to do this.
Now everyone looks back and says it’s a one-sided trade. It was not a one-sided trade. Charlotte won over 50 games that year with Vlade as a starter. So I think it’s almost demeaning to Vlade and to Charlotte to even think that that was something that was an error for them. As it turned out, it did work to our advantage because we were able to kill two birds with one stone.
We got what I thought was a number one player in the draft, in Kobe Bryant, 17 years old, and it wasn’t en vogue to draft 17-year-old kids yet. It was not. But we got the biggest prize of all in Shaquille O’Neal. And for us, it was a turning point for this franchise.
And, again, I think you look back over history of what Shaquille and Kobe accomplished together and then what Kobe Bryant accomplished without Shaquille O’Neal, it’s really pretty remarkable.
Obviously, the game has changed a lot. At one time big men were the people that everyone was looking for. Today there are almost a dearth for big players that can play with their back to the basket. And Kobe kind of transcended some of the players we see today with the way he played the game, and particularly with the enormous desire and toughness, never-quit attitude.
But maybe one of the things I admired most about him from a distance, because I wasn’t there any longer, was his ability to play when other players would simply not play. He’d play through things that other players just wouldn’t play. He was a show man, but he also was a winner. And he has led a legacy throughout the world. Millions of people love this guy, and millions of people will miss what he was able to accomplish in his career.”
“I was fortunate enough to be, frankly, like a father to him for the first couple years in Los Angeles. He spent time in my house, interacted with him. I tried to be a father figure to tell him that this is not as easy as you think it’s going to be, regardless of how skilled you are. I said, ‘You’re going to have to learn how to play with your teammates. You’re going to have to learn how to play an NBA game. This is not one against five; it’s five against five.’
And in the year 2000-2001, was my last year with the Lakers; they went on to win the championship my last year there. It was an incredible thrill to see. Two players who were so completely different and probably at that point in time wanted to kill each other at times, but they managed to win three straight championships and two when I wasn’t there.
But I’ve always had a fondness for him as a player. Sometimes he would disappoint me with some of the things he would say, in particular with regards to players who would not play as hard as him. Number one, they couldn’t play as hard as him, but number two, they didn’t have the skill to play as hard as him.
But I think on the balance, this has been a remarkable player, a player for the decades, simply one of the greatest players that ever played the game. And I’m talking about a handful of guys that ever played the game.”
Some of us who remember when you came in and retired and now Kobe, do you sort of think back when a guy like Kobe goes through and finishes, about your own career and all the years you played and the game itself?
West: “Well, I do, because, you know, I will tell you right now the thing that people don’t realize, that players that play the game at a very high level, they put an awful lot of pressure and stress on themselves every day to come out and compete and to try to make a team win.
I know with me, and I can only go with what I felt as a player, and I’m not comparing myself to Kobe Bryant at all. I’m just telling you how I felt as a player. If we lost, it was always my fault. Always my fault if we lost, because I thought I could have done more.
I don’t know if Kobe approached it that way or not, but that’s how I was. And I know when I left the game, I could have played more. I could have played more. There is no question. I think I could have played at a very high level too, but I could not play the way everyone wanted me to play. And I was not willing to compromise what I felt was a standard that I had established in this league and particularly for our fans at home. I was not willing to do that. And it took me a year, frankly, to realize what an enormous burden was lifted off my shoulders.
I told Kobe tonight — I had a chance to spend a little time with him. We did something very nice for him … It was like the weight of the world was off my shoulders, and in some respects I think he will feel the same. But one thing I will guarantee you, after a year because of how competitive he’s been — and the thing with being competitive, he also has to be disciplined — all of a sudden, you’re going to have to find a way to be disciplined with your life.
So I’m hoping for him that he will find something in his life that will allow him to still compete, and more importantly, find some enjoyment in it because you’re never going to find the enjoyment you did when you competed. I was lucky enough to have a chance to work in the front office for a lot of years with now three teams, and I can tell you, I did get some exhilaration out of that, because in its own way, that was being competitive also.”
You mentioned you went 1 through 13 trying to find a trade partner. Were you worried that he might be picked before 13 on draft day?
West: “Frankly, I thought he should have been taken number one, but that was my thought. It wasn’t en vogue to draft 17-year-old players then. I think what happens sometimes is that people, if you’ve had good teams, sometimes people are reluctant to trade with you. And we had done very well in the draft, drafting late. I think with us, we were offering Vlade Divac who is an All-Star center, and a really good player, really good player.
When I think back to it, I’ve often felt that maybe someone thought that there’s something wrong with Vlade and there was absolutely nothing. He’s one of the greatest people and a terrific player in his own right, but we had a lot of help along the way.
His agent, Arn Tellem, told the New Jersey Nets, I think that’s what they were, the Nets then? The Brooklyn Nets? He told them he didn’t want to play there. It was too close to Philadelphia. Other teams talked about drafting him, and we didn’t hear much talk about it at all. Then Kobe’s parents got involved, and he would really basically try to tell people that he didn’t want to play so close to his hometown. So to say that we did this on our own would be fiction. We had a lot of help along the way.
For him to get there and for us to get him, we thought was pretty remarkable because we got a big salary off of our cap which allowed us to go and make an effort to sign Shaquille O’Neal.”
After watching him workout for you, you realized that he could make it in the NBA physically. What convinced you when you were looking at this 17-year-old that mentally he would be strong enough to make it in the NBA?
West: “Well, I’ve always said when you interview people, in particularly when you interview athletes, when you look in someone’s eyes, and I do believe in looking at people when I talk to them, sometimes you look in there and it looks like muddy water, okay? Nothing there. Absolutely nothing there, except someone who has a huge desire to play. He had a personality, he had a swagger about himself. His eyes were darting all over the place. And we didn’t ask him a lot of leading questions at all.
If you had a chance to watch and just a chance to watch him do things on his own, you’d say to yourself, well, this is a savant, but he happened to be a basketball player. He was that good when he was that young.
Again, we weren’t geniuses. Trust me, we weren’t. We had a lot of good fortune in Los Angeles, a lot. As they say, if I walk in this room and I look back here and I see this gentleman who works for the Lakers named John Black, and I look at him, and if I can see he doesn’t have a whole lot of hair, I would be right, okay? I would be right.
To look at this kid and see the skill he had and he couldn’t sit still. They show pictures on TV where there’s a storm and electric lines are down and they’re jumping going all over the place, he’s jumping, making sparks. That’s who he was. You could see that. He was special. I’m surprised other people did not draft him. I’m really surprised because he was really special.”
What was it about Kobe at that age that allowed you guys to connect like that and develop a relationship that’s lasted this long?
West: “Did you ever see a water spill in the house? What’s somebody do? They used to put a sponge on it, okay? Sponge sucks the water up. Now they put some kind of paper towel. He was a sponge, all he wanted to do was learn. All he wanted to do was talk about the game. He was fixated on not having a career; he was fixated on having an incredible career.
Go to practice and watch him, hell, he would — two on three days I would go to practice and there are five guys out there, he’s playing against the good guys. He’d be dribbling through all five of them, make a dunk or something, and look back and try to laugh at them, right? And he’d start talking afterwards. “What do you think of that?” And I said, “I thought that’s pretty good, but that’s not going to win the NBA.”
They used to call him “Showboat.” Used to call him “Showboat.” And I told him, that’s not a becoming name. I said, you don’t want to be a showboat. When somebody looks at you, they want to see the greatness you can attain if you change some of the things you’re doing, and, boy, did he ever do that.”
When Kobe had the game his rookie year against Utah that had the air balls, how did you see him respond to that moment in adversity afterwards?
West: “You know, I really thought that was a defining moment in his career. You know why? Because if somebody would have shot an air ball on our team and they had shot a second one, they would only shoot a third one. He was fearless. I think that’s one of the things that spurred him to greatness. He wasn’t going to allow himself to fail. Saw a lot of negative comments.
They killed our coach Del Harris for having him in there. I applaud Del Harris to this day for allowing this guy to get in there and play when no one else was playing nor competing. I don’t know if anyone on our team would have taken three shots that he took. I don’t know that. But I’ll guarantee you one thing, when he came back next year, it was a different person than it was a year before. That was not going to happen again.”
Would you have taken Kobe if Kevin Garnett did not go before and looked like he would have been a success? What was the climate like at that time for high school players?
West: “Well, I know Kevin Garnett was a great player, okay, but he wasn’t Kobe Bryant. He just wasn’t. Kevin was an incredible team player. He was a great rebounder, great defender, and his career showed that. Kobe Bryant was all of those things, plus he was a scorer also. Kevin was not a great scorer. A really good scorer, but not like Kobe Bryant. Kobe Bryant could score 30 in a quarter. What did he score, 81 in a game? Coach took him out. I wanted to see if he could score a hundred, but he didn’t get a chance.
But he would just — say, one of those unique people that comes along that, frankly, some of you youngsters never saw — a lot of young people in here. Lot of old people in here too. But I got a chance to watch him when he was young. I got a chance to watch him grow up and become the player that he was. It was thrilling for me. It was thrilling for me to play a little part in his life.
And also when he was 17, he spent time at my house. My son used to drive him around. He’d have dinner in my house. He lived and grew up in Italy, and my wife’s Italian. He loved Italian food, so when he came over, we had Italian food. We didn’t give him any wine, of course. But, as I say, he’s changed. He’s changed a lot, changed a lot.”
“Where does he fit in, I guess, the ranking among all the greats that the Lakers have had?
West: “He’s probably a lot better than the people in this room, I’ll say that … We’ve had so many incredible players in Los Angeles. And I know Boston’s got a lot of retired jerseys up there, but I would defy you to find a franchise that had more players that have left a mark on the NBA that Laker players have had. Good fortune.
I wouldn’t even want to attempt to put him in that category. We had a player that because of his personality, that was one of the most unbelievable players I’ve ever seen, [Kareem] Abdul-Jabbar. No one ever talked about how great he is. He was quiet, reserved. We had one, if he was in this room he’d be jumping all over the place and smiling and throwing balls over here and there and everywhere. He had a name Earvin Johnson, okay. He was Earvin Johnson. Put a basketball in his hand and he was Magic Johnson, okay.
You have Kobe Bryant. Just incredibly gifted, all around player, but I think you should look farther than that. I think in the NBA he will be one of those players that will be perceived at one of the ten top players of all time, probably higher, because I don’t want to demean anyone that’s played this game at eye level. I don’t.
But for a franchise to have someone that long, for 20 years, it’s pretty amazing. He’s left a lot of big footprints there. I don’t see anyone there now that’s going to be able to step into those footprints. I’m hopeful they will find one one day.”