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NBA great Jerry West dies

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Los Angeles, basketball legend Jerry West has died at the age of 86. West was one of the NBA's great players, starting with the LA Lakers in the 1960s and '70s. Then he found success as an executive. Reporter Steve Futterman looks back at his career.

STEVE FUTTERMAN, BYLINE: Jerry West entered the NBA in 1960 and was an instant All-Star.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: And the guard, number 44, Jerry West.

FUTTERMAN: In each of his 14 years, West made the All-Star team. He was an offensive juggernaut with a classic jump shot, making nearly 50% of his attempts. He was a great passer and could drive up the lane.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: West, on the switch, got away from Frazier. It went in. Score - basket counts.

FUTTERMAN: One of West's most famous baskets came in the 1970 finals against the New York Knicks.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: Two seconds, one second - West throws it up.

(CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: He makes it. West threw it up and makes it. Jerry West made it from the other side of the big point stripe.

FUTTERMAN: A last-second shot from 60 feet that tied the game and sent it into overtime. In his first 10 years, the Lakers made the finals seven times. But unfortunately, for Los Angeles, six of them were against the Boston Celtics, one of the greatest dynasties ever. The Lakers could never beat Boston. West couldn't handle that.

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JERRY WEST: I believe in perfection. You can't have perfection, almost, in any sport. I analyzed everything that I did - horribly critical of myself, horribly.

FUTTERMAN: Finally, in 1972, against the Knicks, West and the Lakers won the NBA Championship. For all of Jerry West's achievements, his life was full of burdens, as he wrote in his autobiography. He never recovered from his brother's death during the Korean War. He faced abuse from his father and battled lifelong depression. During his career, the wins never overcame the losses.

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WEST: I think if you hold yourself at a lesser esteem, then it's not going to work in getting to the top of the mountain.

FUTTERMAN: After playing came part two of West's career - as a basketball executive. As general manager, he helped shepherd the Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar era. And in 1996, he pulled off one of the greatest trades in NBA history.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: With the 13th pick in the 1996 NBA draft, the Charlotte Hornets select Kobe Bryant.

FUTTERMAN: Charlotte picked Kobe Bryant, but West had already made a trade with the Hornets for that pick. Bryant would lead the Lakers to five more championships. Even as a basketball executive, though, West could not handle those struggles. At times, he would be at games and watch only briefly from the players' tunnel. Steve Springer is a former writer with the Los Angeles Times.

STEVE SPRINGER: In a close playoff game, he couldn't stand to just watch the game in person. He couldn't even stand to just listen to it in person. So he would get in his car and drive around the neighborhood. And then when he felt like he could - he was ready to listen, he turned on the car radio, listened for a while...

FUTTERMAN: Outside the Lakers' arena today, fans like Eric Von Erdin (ph) came to pay tribute, recalling how West's silhouette is the inspiration for the NBA logo.

ERIC VON ERDIN: Oh, he's the logo. The greatest ambassador of sports - you know, the greatest executive, one of the greatest players of all time. I mean, I - he just should never be forgotten.

FUTTERMAN: West was also part of the legendary 1960 U.S. Olympic basketball team that won the gold medal. He called that one of his greatest achievements.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Futterman in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIOPY'S "MEDITATION 22") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Futterman
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