Jerry West, one of basketball’s greatest players, dies at 86

In his first season as head coach, West led the Lakers to the NBA’s best record, 53-29, with Abdul-Jabbar as the league’s most valuable player, but they lost in the playoffs to the eventual champions, the Portland Trail Blazers, led by Bill Walton, who had died the previous month. Two years later, Los Angeles lost again to the eventual champions, the Seattle SuperSonics.

In three seasons as coach, West’s win-loss record was 145-101 – an admirable accomplishment, especially considering he had no prior coaching experience at any level. But it wasn’t a rewarding experience.

Among other things, he had also lived through two disturbing incidents. In one, Abdul-Jabbar broke his hand when he punched opposing center Kent Benson of the Milwaukee Bucks after Benson elbowed him in the stomach. Several weeks later one of the most shocking and disturbing episodes in league history occurred: On December 9, 1977, when the Lakers and Houston Rockets got into an on-court melee, Lakers forward Kermit Washington punched the Rockets’ Rudy Tomjanovich in the head, nearly killing him and ending his career.

In a 2010 biography of West, Roland Lazenby wrote that “West was convinced that talent was more important than coaching in the business of basketball,” and even though Cooke sold the team after the 1979 season and the new owner, Jerry Buss, wanted West to remain with the team, he did not care to be on the bench. However, West was interested in evaluating players and taking an executive role on the team, and in 1982, following a season that led the Lakers, led by Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, to their second championship in three years, Buss appointed him general manager.

West was an active team builder. His draft picks included several players who became Laker legends: James Worthy (No. 1 in 1982, ahead of Dominique Wilkins), A.C. Green in the first round in 1985, and, to replace Abdul-Jabbar, who retired after 20 years as the game’s dominant player, Vlade Divac in the first round in 1989.

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