West takes the helm for Northern Trust
Monday, February 1, 2010
After a breakfast meeting with Jerry West over coffee and bagels a year ago, PGA Tour officials didn’t need long to realize hiring the basketball legend as Northern Trust Open executive tournament director would be a perfect fit. As the face of a Los Angeles golf event stung by the perception of lavish hospitality spending post-bank bailout and intent on restoring stature, the beloved West brings myriad qualities – class, credibility, recognition and, perhaps most important, a philanthropic bent and “I ♥ LA” vibe.
In Southern California, West can open doors and close deals. He’s known there for having done things the right way in more than 40 years as a Los Angeles Lakers player, coach, scout and general manager. He’s the perfectionist who has said he’s a “possessed person when it comes to winning” and that the “average person wouldn’t understand the pressure and stress I’ve felt in my life.”
That ultra-competitive nature manifested itself when the GM couldn’t bear to watch some Lakers playoff games, instead driving around town with the radio off. Or when the addicted amateur golfer admittedly might break two or three clubs when not getting desired results back when he was a plus-3 handicap capable of shooting 63 once and a back-nine-record 28 another time at Bel-Air Country Club.
Yet by all accounts, West agreed to his latest venture because at this conscious stage of his charmed life, at age 71 and out of the NBA for nearly three years, he wants to give back to a city that has heaped love on him for more than four decades. Charity is the one-word explanation West has used over and over. It traces to the youth of a shy, introverted kid from a poor West Virginia household. A jump shot that kept finding the hoop on the side of a shed was his ticket out.
“To me, living is about giving, not about receiving,” West said during a lengthy interview. “I get more gratitude doing things for people. It comes from growing up with nothing. I’m not a saint or perfect person. But I do like people, and if I can help, I do. When I retired, I said, ‘My God, I’m so lucky. The city has been so great to me.’ The greatest thing to do for people is give. With the tournament, the focus is to get the message out that it’s OK to give.”
All things considered, the union sealed last May resonates right guy, right time, right place.
As Mr. Clutch, West played in nine NBA Finals but was pained to have won but one. He collected six more titles as an executive, five in the 1980s. The last came in 2000, in his final Lakers season, completing the restoration of the franchise some four years after West remarkably acquired Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant within a span of eight days.
The NBA logo incorporates West’s silhouette. Yet these days, representing a different sporting emblem, he seems to project more Gandhi than Auerbach.
“He’s a warm-fuzzy kind of guy,” said Mitch Kupchak, West’s successor as Lakers GM and longtime protege. “I’ve noticed the last two to three years, since he’s had time, that he’s more concerned about helping other people.”
Three years ago, West and his wife Karen extended their commitment to his alma mater, West Virginia University, to more than $1 million (about what he made playing 14 NBA seasons). The pledge went toward two scholarships and a new Athletic Academic Performance Center honoring the memory of his late brother. West says David West’s death in the Korean War “changed my life forever.”
Now golf and various L.A. charities are the beneficiaries of his virtues. His mission is to elevate the status of the tournament and again make it the must-play stop that Sam Snead used to tell him about. The goal, too, is to increase annual contributions to the needy from the $1.5 million range to more than $6 million, around the Tour’s upper echelon. That would mean increasing civic interest and financial support. Among other ideas, he founded the Legends Club, comprised of influential L.A. business leaders.
“We still get a great field, but it’s lost some luster,” West said. “It has to be a special event. It’s the worst thing in the world when peoplelose interest.”
Between bridge games at Bel-Air, West recruits corporate partners and players, gives speeches and interviews, attends meetings, offers guidance, spreads insight and enthusiasm and even delves into detail such as placement of bleachers and hospitality structures. He was out promoting the tournament every evening during a recent fortnight, getting out his message on what the tournament means to L.A. The focus was such that Karen left for 20 days around the event. “I’ve been swamped,” West said.
“You can hear a pin drop when he talks,” said Tom Pulchinski, longtime tournament director through 2009 now in charge of on-site operations. “He’s so sincere and genuine when he talks.”
Mike Bone, the event’s GM, calls West’s impact so far “immeasurable,” given the respect he has with the public and media. “He’s a genuinely nice person you want to succeed and want to succeed for,” Bone said. “What has struck me most is his focus and involvement. His attention to detail has been most surprising to me.”
West has put in more time than originally expected. PGA Tour vice president David Pillsbury estimates West “signed up for 20 hours a week and is working 50 to 60. His competitiveness kicked in.”
That doesn’t surprise Kupchak.
“He’s going to make sure it measures up to his standards,” Kupchak said. “He’s really into it.
It has consumed more time than he probably thought because he has great pride in doing things the right way.”
West said the year leading to his appointment was his best ever because he could come and go as he pleased. Yet West is quick to say he doesn’t consider his new task a job. “I don’t call this work,” he said. “This makes me feel good.”
Early indications were the event would attract some players “because of Jerry’s personal appeal,” Bone said. West has a couple of dozen Lakers tickets available for Tour players to the two games the week of the Feb. 4-7 tournament. He told PGA winner Y.E. Yang that he’d take him to a game if he plays. Lakers seats likewise were mentioned during two conversations with Anthony Kim.
“When Jerry West asks you to play in his tournament, it’s very hard to say no, and I didn’t,” Kim said. “For him to ask me to play was pretty special.”
West also has worked on luring the person who most can affect attendance and prestige at the event. Once a regular attendee, Southern California native Tiger Woods hasn’t played at Riviera since 2006. In an effort to reverse that trend, West had Lakers PR man John Black hand-deliver a letter to Woods courtside at a Lakers-Orlando Magic NBA Finals game last spring. Woods is on indefinite leave, but West’s presence can’t hurt getting the world No. 1 back in the future. West talked with Woods about pressure at the request of his father Earl years ago, has hosted the superstar at numerous Lakers games and has visited the Woods Foundation learning center.
“But I would never, ever pressure anyone to play,” West said. “I’m not going to say, ‘You need to play this tournament.’ That’s not who I am.”
West first played golf in college when the WVU president took the basketball team on an outing, but he didn’t get hooked until former L.A. teammate Frank Selvy encouraged him to play often. Given a new Wilson Staff set as a rookie in the 1961 NBA All-Star Game, West developed to the point he often shot in the 60s after taking lessons from Jimmy Ballard. West once defied Lakers coach Fred Schaus and played golf during the playoffs, a violation he might have gotten away with if not for making a publicized ace on the fifth hole at L.A. Country Club.
Feeling a sense of sadness after retiring as a player, West immersed himself in golf to fill a competitive void. He said he could hit balls all day. He’d play in some gambling games at Bel-Air to test his mettle. Longtime Bel-Air pro Eddie Merrins says West’s embarrassment over the occasional bad score kept him from the next level.
“At one point, I could find my ball,” West said. “Those were the good ol’ days. I still find my ball, but it doesn’t go as far.”
Nor do his emotions.
“There was a time I was crazy on a golf course,” said West, who holds a 4.7 handicap index off 18 posted scores in 2009. “I was nuts. There were times two to three clubs were broken. But now I don’t take it seriously.”
Jim Justice, the West Virginia billionaire who owns The Greenbrier resort, is familiar with the perfectionist and philanthropist in West, his longtime friend. West owns a home at The Greenbrier and spends about three months per year in West Virginia, where his son Jonnie is a junior on the WVU basketball team.
Some of his time there is spent turkey hunting with Justice. Once, with Justice calling and West supposedly shooting, the NBA legend never got a shot off two days in a row.
“Jerry was trying to make sure everything was perfect and make sure he had a clear shot, and the turkeys ran away,” Justice said. “I turned to Jerry and said, ‘Let me put this in perspective for you. There are two seconds left, you have the ball, you’re one point down and you’ve gotta shoot.’ ”
On another trip, while trying to turn around at a dead end, Justice got his Jeep Wagoneer stuck between a fronting tree and rear mountain and was unable to drive forward or back. He and West figured if they shot a notch in the tree, they might be able to knock it over with the Jeep. They shot all of their ammunition, but the plan didn’t work.
“If The Charleston Gazette had a picture of this, a lot of people would say, ‘Isn’t that the dumbest thing you’ve ever seen Jim Justice do?’ West told Justice then. “And then they’d say, ‘My, God! Isn’t that Jerry West with him?’ ”
The two met when Justice picked up West at the Charleston airport about 20 years ago. In the car on the way to a speaking engagement, Justice asked West if he’d mind stopping to visit a devout WVU fan dying of cancer. “Let’s go,” West responded.
They walked into the man’s house without knocking. Happy shock followed.
“(The cancer patient) looked up and saw Jerry West and almost died right there,” Justice said. “That’s Jerry. A kind man, full of caring. He’s so grounded. When he says he wants to give back, it’s really deep.”