It was not until the Los Angeles Clippers’ 74th game of the season, on one of their final home dates, that the excitable owner Steve Ballmer and Jerry West, his hypercritical special consultant, agreed to watch a game together in Ballmer’s baseline seats at Staples Center.
“He told me early on, ‘You don’t always want me sitting with you,'” Ballmer said.
West prefers to watch games alone, or as isolated as he can manage when he takes one in live; that allows him to fume at will, nitpick unreservedly and, most of all, curse freely.
Ballmer, though, did not offer a reported $4 million-to-$5 million per year and lure West away from the Golden State Warriors to then ask The Logo to muzzle himself. West is encouraged to be as outspoken as he wants with his new team, rants and all.
“We have long conversations — that is true,” Ballmer said. “We talk a lot.”
Near the end of his first full year as a consultant to Ballmer and Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations, West will have a seat Tuesday night that will make it hard to miss where he works now. The Los Angeles Lakers legend has a chair reserved on the dais at the NBA’s annual draft lottery Tuesday in Chicago — representing L.A.'s other team.
It is largely a symbolic role, often assigned to franchise legends and occasionally even owners’ children. But for West — who both turns 80 and celebrates his 40th wedding anniversary on May 28 — the league’s made-for-TV production is the showy occasion circled on his calendar this month.
“We have to do a great job this summer,” West said of the Clippers over lunch at the Bel-Air Country Club, where he has spent much of his time away from basketball since the 1970s, playing golf and gin.
He insists he does not feel 80 — “Not at all,” West said — and carded a 78 followed by a 75 last month. Yet on this day, West was far more intent on discussing the two lottery picks the Clippers have in the NBA draft this June.
Do the Clippers hold on to those picks and wait for July 2019 to make their next big free-agent push? Do they try to package one or both in a potential trade this offseason to pursue an established star like San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard?
Frank and Ballmer will ultimately make those calls, but West expects to have significant say.
“I don’t just want to be a figurehead,” West said. “You want to be a part of the decision-making process. I don’t have the final decision here, but I do have a voice.”
The Clippers never envisioned worrying about lottery proceedings so soon after they re-signed Blake Griffin to a five-year, $171 million contract in July. Days after West signed on in June, they agreed to trade Chris Paul, the stellar but frustrated All-Star guard, to Houston before Paul could bolt in free agency. But re-upping their star forward, to keep Griffin teamed with the All-NBA center DeAndre Jordan, had the Clippers convinced they would remain a playoff team — even in the stacked Western Conference.
It was not long, though, before buyer’s remorse set in. Already plagued by a lengthy injury history, Griffin suffered a sprained knee in November. He was the fourth of five projected starters to incur an early season injury, exacerbating a poor start that featured a nine-game losing streak even before Griffin got hurt.
Griffin wound up missing six weeks, but an unexpected opportunity to trade him to the star-starved Detroit Pistons materialized soon after Griffin’s late-December return.
Going through with the trade would essentially be admitting that re-signing Griffin was a mistake, an ill-conceived attempt to cling to relevance and respectability after losing Paul.
Do it anyway, West urged.
The Clippers had gone to great lengths just six months earlier to persuade Griffin to stay in free agency, staging a mock jersey retirement ceremony in which Griffin was proclaimed to be “a lifelong Clipper” as part of their recruiting pitch. Trading him so soon after that, for all the financial flexibility it could restore, would also paint the Clippers as heartless.
“Don’t be afraid to make that tough decision if you need to,” Ballmer recalled West telling him.
“No one wants to do that, particularly with someone like Blake Griffin,” West says now. “It was very difficult for everyone, especially Steve, because he really liked Blake personally. But this franchise was really stuck. There was nowhere for it to go. You have to figure out how far away you really are and how we can get there.”
If that view makes West cold, too, he is prepared to absorb the criticism, responding with one of his pet phrases: “What is right is not always popular, and what is popular is not always right.”
When it comes to making such calculations, West is the antithesis of the modern NBA executive. He openly disdains how much teams rely on statistics in the NBA’s analytics era.
Yet the Clippers will put up with that stubborn streak in exchange for the instant credibility they get from West’s presence. It also does not hurt that the Clippers’ new front-office cabinet features Michael Winger, the highly rated salary-cap guru and strategist, as Frank’s top aide.
West does not respond to email or even have an email address, because “he doesn’t know how to use a computer,” Karen West, his wife, said. But the man whose silhouette and unmistakable left-handed dribble served as the inspiration for the NBA logo has managed to gradually add texting to his repertoire.
“Lawrence and I text each other two or three times a day,” Jerry West said proudly, after a message from Frank caught his eye.
Before the Clippers called, West’s six seasons in a similar advisory role with the Warriors were undeniably fruitful, featuring two championships, a record 73-win season and the successful free-agent recruitment of Kevin Durant. But for all of his achievements and longevity, West still needs to feel needed, say those who know him best.
And he could not help but wonder: Did the Warriors, whose then-new ownership group so badly needed the credibility boost West provided upon arrival in May 2011, still need him after the team’s president of basketball operations, Bob Myers, had become so adept in assembling a starry, and successful, roster?
For much of his Golden State stint, although it was never advertised, West was the highest-paid member of the basketball operations staff. But Myers, who joined the front office with West’s strong backing in April 2011, was promoted to general manager after a one-season apprenticeship and quickly established himself; he earned NBA Executive of the Year honors twice (to match West’s career total) in a five-season span.
Longtime Sports Illustrated writer Jack McCallum reported in his 2017 book “Golden Days” that West, partly because of Myers’ rise in stature, was asked to take a reduction in compensation to stay.
But money was only one factor in West’s exit. No matter how hard Warriors officials tried to convince him, publicly and privately, that his input remained vital to their collaborative approach to decision-making, West felt his influence was fading.
“You have to be wanted,” West said.
Joining the Clippers, meanwhile, would represent a new challenge reminiscent of West’s unexpected move to the Memphis Grizzlies in April 2002, after he walked away from a 40-year association with the Lakers following Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant’s first championship in 2000.
The Lakers back then, like the Warriors now, were set up for success with or without West. Putting the Clippers on a championship course, by contrast, is seen as the ultimate challenge in LA.
That is not only because of the Lakers’ immense shadow but also the stain that lingers from Donald Sterling’s 33-year ownership, which for so long was synonymous with ineptitude and frugality to the point of cheapness that it made the Clippers a long-standing laughingstock. Sterling’s run finally ended in 2014, with his team competitive at last, when he was barred for life by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver after Sterling was recorded making racist comments.
The Clippers strung together their six most successful seasons before West’s arrival, but they also failed to advance past the second round, even after hiring a championship-proven coach in Doc Rivers in June 2013. Mounting frustration prompted Ballmer to strip Rivers of his front-office power in August 2017 and promote Frank to head the department.
Atlanta and Detroit likewise went away from that sort of leadership structure over the past 12 months. San Antonio (Gregg Popovich) and Minnesota (Tom Thibodeau) are the only two teams left in the league that employ a coach who also holds final say over personnel matters. Teams are more apt now to try to replicate the Golden State model, which was built upon the belief that a diverse group of voices — if properly managed — can succeed through collaboration.
“In terms of how to set up a front office, how to think about problems, talent evaluation — Jerry is a superstar,” Ballmer said.
The idea to pursue West came from Ballmer’s former Harvard classmate-turned-Clippers minority shareholder Dennis Wong, who was once part of Golden State’s ownership group.
“He kept saying, ‘We need a guy like Jerry West,'” Ballmer said. “I kept saying, ‘Show me one guy in the world who’s like Jerry West.’ Then last season Dennis said: ‘Did you know he’s near the end of his contract? Jerry West is like Jerry West.'”
Ballmer and West eventually came to terms on a two-year deal. “If he still wants to do it, we can go beyond that,” Ballmer said. “Now that I know him better, I can’t see him retiring.”
Neither can West.
“I’m not a person that does very well when I don’t have a reason to get up in the morning,” he said.
West admitted he also badly needs the 9-mile drive into the Clippers’ offices in Playa Vista for his own psyche, even though he has been part of eight NBA championships as an executive. He typically stays no more than a couple of hours, but merely being able to make frequent visits to the team’s nerve center — not an option when he was a Southern California-based consultant to the Warriors — is, he said, “rejuvenating.”
“His mood is so determined by work,” said his son Jonnie West, an executive with the Warriors who, along with his older brother Ryan West of the Lakers, followed his father into front-office life. “I think he really enjoys the situation he’s in. It gives him a puzzle that needs figuring out.”
The Clippers finished 10th in the West this season, five games out of a playoff berth, but have high hopes after posting a 42-40 record despite their steady stream of injuries. They acquired the promising forward Tobias Harris and defensive specialist Avery Bradley in the Griffin deal, along with Detroit’s first-round pick in June, and can start plotting for the future in earnest after Tuesday night’s lottery results.
West, for his part, is convinced that “the mountain is not that high for this team if we make the right moves” under Ballmer and Frank’s leadership.
“Frankly, this is Lawrence’s first foray into running a front office — and he’s fantastic,” Ballmer said. “But who can’t learn from Jerry West about that? He’s kind of the master. So we all get the chance to learn from the master.”
Said West: “Leaving the Warriors was probably the most difficult thing for me in my whole life. I didn’t want to leave. You get to the point where maybe you don’t feel as valued, but it’s just something that happened. I hold no malice toward anyone over there.
“It did not end the way I wanted it to, that’s for sure. But this is a perfect role for me. People ask me my opinion, and I’m going to give it to them.”