There aren’t many people who could assemble a group of NBA legends including Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell and Elgin Baylor up on a stage, let alone listen as the best players in basketball history offer effusive praise.
Jerry West is one of those people.
The man that has perhaps meant more to the history of the Lakers both as a Hall of Fame player and, in Johnson’s words, the best executive in NBA history, sat on a stage outside STAPLES Center alongside the aforementioned players — not to mention Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak and owner Dr. Jerry Buss, former Lakers coach and Heat executive Pat Riley, NBA Commissioner David Stern, AEG CEO Tim Leiweke, Shaquille O’Neal, Pau Gasol and so on — for the unveiling of a statue in his likeness.
It was a touching ceremony, featuring speeches that universally praised West for his excellence on the court, humility off of it and his trust and loyalty as a friend. One after one, some of basketball’s greatest names strode up to the podium to offer their thoughts about Mr. Clutch:
“I never played the game with anyone who played as hard,” said Baylor, whom West holds in the highest regard. “He carries his heart and soul on his sleeve and he says what he believes. I love Jerry, and this honor that he’s getting is well deserved.”
“I don’t know anyone who has dedicated more to this game,” offered Stern.
“If Jerry West hadn’t played basketball for the Lakers, would the Forum have been built?” wondered Kupchak, who said the same for STAPLES Center had West not built the teams of the Showtime and Kobe-Shaq eras.
“Jerry West’s name is synonymous with basketball in the world,” revealed Dr. Buss. “His courage was really inspirational to everybody. To this day Jerry remains, most importantly of all, my friend.”
“Here’s a guy whose statue should have been out there before mine,” said Magic. “We all really, really, truly love you. Congratulations.”
“He taught me about what greatness was,” said Riley, crediting West with giving him his start as a coach but first knew him as a teammate. “I could see this pressure and will to perform night in and night old.”
Russell, always an admirer of West’s even while defeating him year after year in the NBA Finals, went so far as to change the green shirt he had on in the morning to blue, so as not to bring the Celtics color into West’s ceremony. Russell even revealed that he had always wanted to be a Laker, since his hero growing up, George Mikan of Minneapolis Lakers fame, suggested as much when the two met while Russell was in high school.
Kareem spoke fondly of the time in 1961 when he and West first met, and marveled at the time that had gone by.
Finally, West came up to address the large gathering, with fans chanting “Jerry! Jerry!” in the background. West, always humble and never easily accepting of praise as his own harshest critic, admitted to being a bit uncomfortable in receiving so much praise. But he was also extremely thankful.
“This will be a night I’ll never forget,” he said, calling his sons and wife up onto the stage. “Thank you for making this a very special evening by attending … To think of a little boy who had a chance to live his dreams and maybe succeed them: it’s very special.”
Perhaps Dr. Buss best summed up the night.
“How many people have a statue named after them?” concluded L.A.’s owner. “One in a million? Well, Jerry is certainly one of those.”