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'He's irreplaceable': Jerry West, an all-time NBA legend, was a teacher to the very end

Another seminal figure, another pillar of institutional knowledge has passed away with the death of NBA legend Jerry West Wednesday morning.

Bill Walton passed away recently, and a couple years ago Bill Russell died. Each had their own mark on NBA history, unique players and characters. West might very well be the most decorated figure in the league's history, because winning seemed to follow him — even if he's most associated with those painful losses to the Boston Celtics during his playing days.

But that was in his mind, not in the minds of the people who revered him, who constantly sought his counsel. Perhaps losing in those NBA Finals to the Celtics, even winning the first Finals MVP in a losing effort, defined the way he built teams and shaped his thinking as an executive.

After he moved into the front office, he never hesitated to pass along knowledge, even letting players from opposing teams sit and watch during intimate times.

When West’s Los Angeles Lakers lost to the Celtics in the 1984 Finals, a classic seven-game series, he let Isiah Thomas sit in during Pat Riley’s exit meeting with his team.

“Pat’s giving his speech. Magic, Kareem, Coop, Byron Scott, are there, all of them,” Thomas told Yahoo Sports. “I’ll never forget after that meeting, Magic and I riding back to his house, listening to (James Ingram’s song) Just Once, can we figure out what we’ve been doing wrong?”

That fueled Magic Johnson’s comeback in 1985 after critical mistakes, and the Lakers’ series win over the Celtics in '85 was the first time the Lakers had ever beaten the Celtics in a Finals series — vindication in some ways, for West himself. Thomas remembers attending those Finals series between the Celtics and Lakers, getting an up-close education as his Detroit Pistons were years away from being at that level.

“Just to show you how Jerry West and (former Celtics coach and executive) Red Auerbach treated me, it was beyond any education that I received, being under those two, and I was able to bring a lot of that back to Detroit.”

Thomas said he and West spoke frequently, and talked as recently as two weeks ago.

“He and I had a very close relationship,” Thomas said. “Our last words to each other, I told him, ‘I love you,’ and he said, ‘I love you too,’ and then turned around and asked, ‘Why do you always say that to me?” And I said, ‘It’s true and you should say that to people you love, too.’”

It was probably a glimpse into West’s psyche, how he was known to go from sparring with you to offering help in the next sentence. Feeling appreciation always seemed to elude West, especially with his departure from the Lakers following the 2000 season even though he laid the groundwork for their dominance by signing Shaquille O’Neal in the summer of 1996 and trading for the draft rights of a then relatively unknown high schooler named Kobe Bryant.

It’s often said he was a tortured soul, but Thomas describes him a little differently.

“I always got a warm person. And not just a warm person but a giving person in terms of wanting to share knowledge and give advice,” Thomas said. “He and I would talk, sometimes for hours on the phone. Now, what I did see, which probably is in a lot of us, is to strive for perfection. He wanted to be perfect, to do things as well as anybody. That drive, that tenacity was one of the things I admired in him. I never saw him as tortured.”

Thomas took a similar route as West, going from playing to team building upon retirement, to the expansion Toronto Raptors. He said West, along with Wayne Embry, Jerry Krause, Elgin Baylor and Jack McCloskey were his biggest influencers.

“Those are the guys who would lay things out for me and helped me in Toronto the most,” Thomas said. “Jerry and I became really, really close friends. Really good friends.”

Because West accomplished so much in his six decades of basketball, his playing career hasn't received great examination. Beyond the clapback to J.J. Redick when Redick said players in previous eras were "plumbers and firemen," West might be the best player to never win the regular-season MVP — he and Thomas are atop the very short list of that.

But he led the league in scoring in 1969-70, then assists in 1972 when those Lakers broke the single-season record for consecutive wins (33) and wins in a season (69).

His fingerprints were not just on the Showtime Lakers and the O’Neal-Bryant Lakers, but on the Golden State Warriors when he served as a senior advisor, and the Memphis Grizzlies before that. In Memphis, he hired Hubie Brown, then 69 years old and thought to be too old to impart daily wisdom and leadership on a young team. A year later, West won executive of the year and Brown was coach of the year as the Grizzlies won 50 games.

With the Warriors, he stood on the table as they were contemplating trading a young Klay Thompson for Kevin Love, who was then with the Minnesota Timberwolves. West threatened to quit his job if the move was made.

The Warriors relented and it wasn’t long before their dynastic run began, and he was also instrumental in the Warriors landing Kevin Durant in free agency in 2016. His imprint was all over the Los Angeles Clippers, who he was with recently following his years in San Francisco.

The totality and excellence of his basketball career is unparalleled, and it’s not a stretch to say he’s one of the most important figures in NBA history, and certainly the most important Los Angeles Laker, along with Magic Johnson.

“I mean, he’s the logo,” Thomas said with a laugh.

“He’s irreplaceable. When people were talking about changing the logo, I’m like, come on. He’s the logo and … he got everything out of an NBA career that you wanna have.”

Thomas’ son, Joshua, is a scout for the Phoenix Suns. Joshua and West bonded being on the road, watching games this season.

“Joshua and Jerry were sitting at a game, and a player made a nice move,” Thomas recalls Joshua telling him. “My son said, ‘Oh!’ and Jerry turned to him and said, you like that? My son said, yeah. Then Jerry said, ‘Don’t ever give that reaction again and don’t tell nobody you like him.'”

A teacher, all the way to the end. Another pillar of institutional knowledge, passing on.

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