Two years after the deaths of Kobe Bryant and Elgin Baylor, Los Angeles Lakers legend Jerry West is reflecting on what both men meant to him.
Speaking to Tania Ganguli of the New York Times, West said Baylor's death was "unbelievably hurtful."
"I just was like a baby, I guess. Couldn’t believe it," he added. "As much as I appreciated him, I didn’t realize the depth of it until the first day. I really did not. It was like—I lost my best friend. I lost someone who meant more to me than just a basketball player. For three days I might be doing something—I might be hitting golf balls or chipping golf balls or putting golf balls—and honestly, I would just have to stop."
West and Baylor were teammates with the Lakers from 1960 to 1972. They reached seven NBA Finals during that span but never won a title together. The Lakers did win the championship during the 1971-72 season, but Baylor retired nine games into the regular season because of ongoing knee problems.
Baylor died at the age of 86 on March 22, 2021.
Wednesday marks the two-year anniversary of Bryant's death at the age of 41. He was among nine people killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California.
"I’ve often wondered if he had lived to, say, Elgin Baylor’s age, or even my age, would people look at him the same way? I’m not sure they would," West said upon thinking about Bryant's death. "Just the shock and sadness of seeing this very young man’s life taken seemed impossible."
West played a significant role in bringing Bryant to Los Angeles in the 1996 NBA draft. He was the team's general manager from 1982 to 2000.
In a March 2021 article by ESPN's Dave Fleming, West recalled what it was like watching Bryant during a pre-draft workout that convinced him the Lakers needed to find a way to get him to Los Angeles.
"You watch a workout like that—there isn't much of a choice to think of anything else. I remember saying to Jerry Buss, our owner, I said, 'Jerry, he's the best player in the draft.' I meant it. I would have taken Kobe as the first player in the draft. It was a no-brainer. He had this—forget desire—he just didn't want to stop playing. Ever," West recalled.
West told Ganguli that Bryant "was just one of those unique players that comes along."
Bryant spent his entire 20-year career with the Lakers from 1996 to 2016. He was named to 18 All-Star rosters, won five NBA titles, two NBA Finals MVP awards and the 2007-08 NBA MVP.
The Lakers retired Bryant's No. 8 and 24 in December 2017. He was posthumously inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as part of the 2020 class, along with fellow players Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Tamika Catchings.