Jerry West's Son Ryan Carries Lakers' Past into the Future as Key Scout for LAApril 8, 2014
LOS ANGELES — A lot has been said about the family business lately.
The Los Angeles Lakers are a family business in more ways than that one, though.
That understanding, along with an unwavering in-house pride in the Lakers brand, washes over you if you sit in the small office shared by two of the sons with famous last names doing an awful lot of grunt work. In the even smaller office next door is Bill Bertka, 86, in his 33rd consecutive year with the Lakers.
Whether you're a Buss, a West or a Bertka, it is a very real thing to be part of the Lakers family.
With the team about to post its single worst record in 54 years in Los Angeles, it's a good time to introduce Ryan West. On the surface, it's a good time to know anyone who will have a hand in deciding the Lakers' highest draft pick in 32 years—and West is one of the Lakers' primary scouting voices these days.
Yes, he is Jerry West's son. Yes, he was the one Jerry groomed to inherit his eye for talent. And with Mitch Kupchak increasing Ryan's workload to include "a lot of things" and Kupchak's expectation that West, 34, will occupy his own general manager chair down the road, fans will find out about Ryan West eventually anyway.
"He's eager and bright and loves to work," Kupchak said.
But West's story for now says as much about the Lakers family as his career path. He shares that office with Jesse Buss, late owner Jerry Buss' youngest son at age 26, and together they run the Lakers' scouting department that reports to Jesse's brother Jim Buss, executive vice president of basketball operations, and Kupchak, who played his final four NBA seasons with the Lakers before moving into the executive ranks.
When you pop into the next-door office of venerable Bertka, who assisted on the coaching staffs of Bill Sharman, Pat Riley and Phil Jackson, you see every spot on the walls covered with glorious Lakers memories—and a few more waiting on VHS tapes in search of a VCR to play them. (The row of images above Bertka's desk is particularly fantastic: a shrine to Kupchak's playing days, when Mitch looked fully ready to be cast in Magnum, P.I.)
When you ask Bertka if Ryan is more like Jerry West or Kupchak, Bertka immediately rules out the calm, patient Kupchak. Bertka needs only a moment to reflect on the tortured elder West before happily declaring one critical difference about Ryan: "He actually smiles."
There's a little bit of the same delivery to their words, father and son, though no one could ever quite match a rapid-fire, profanity-laced rant from Jerry West. It's fitting that Ryan is the narrator for the audio book of Jerry's 2011 memoir, West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, chronicling both his personal struggles and professional successes.
The one part of Jerry's life that he shared completely with Ryan in real time was running the Lakers.
That meant the kid sitting in on workouts for college players. No green allowed in the house in a pledge of unity against the Boston Celtics. A trip to the Final Four to scout when Ryan was 12. All that angst pervading the home while Jerry masterminded the arrival of both Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal.
"I feel like the Forum was my second home," Ryan said. "For whatever reason, I just latched on to him and wanted to learn more and more about the game, as much as possible. I didn't really understand what was going on at the time, but I really fell in love with the whole draft process, building teams, adding players who can contribute. For some reason, my dad and I just had a bond through basketball that set me on a path to where I am today. I learned the love of the game from him."
Jerry didn't really want to give Ryan a job, preferring he earn his own ticket. Jerry's good friend Gary Colson—who introduced Jerry to Ryan's mother, Karen—encouraged Jerry while running the Memphis Grizzlies to try Ryan out as a scout as soon as he graduated in 2002 with his degree in sociology from Loyola Marymount.
It was the right call. That time working together and building the lowly Grizzlies into a playoff team brought Jerry and Ryan even closer. So it was at the Chicago pre-draft camp on Ryan's 25th birthday where Jerry interrupted dinner with everyone in their old Lakers scouting family—including Kupchak and Bertka—to announce a gift to his son and Grizzlies co-worker...
First a flashback for context: When the Wests had a 6th birthday party for Ryan during Game 6 of the 1985 NBA Finals: Lakers at Celtics, the cable TV went out, and Jerry the general manager was forced to listen to the game on the radio—an odd precursor to the psychological safe haven he would find in future years, when he preferred not to watch his teams' games.
The Lakers won that day in Boston, avenging a Game 7 loss the previous year and lifting all the weight from those NBA Finals losses to the Celtics all six times Jerry had tried as a player: 1962, '63, '65, '66, '68 and '69.
Even though West won a championship ring as a player in 1972 and five more running the Lakers, the 1985 ring was the only one he ever wore—because it was the Lakers over the Celtics, because it was won on Ryan's birthday.
So returning to Ryan's birthday in 2004, rather than at a real family dinner at home, Jerry up and gave his precious 1985 championship ring to Ryan…right in front of their Lakers family.
"Special thing," Ryan said.
Now a year after Jerry Buss' death, the family name doesn't command the automatic respect it once did. What needs to be understood is that not everything falls on Jeanie, Jim, Johnny, Janie, Joey and Jesse, though.
The Lakers' family tree has other branches.
And those branches—summed up by Bryant's calmed-down March 18 Twitter hashtags directed toward Jeanie: #bleedpurple#bleedgold#lakers4life—include Ryan West.
"The Lakers, to me, will always be family," Ryan said.
He left the Grizzlies after seven years, as soon as the Lakers invited him over. He has not left the Lakers for the Golden State Warriors, even though Jerry is an executive board member and Ryan's younger brother, Jonnie, is now a Warriors scout.
Jerry goes to great lengths in near-daily conversations with Ryan and even greater lengths whenever talking to Kupchak to specify that Ryan is a Laker with no tie to the Warriors.
Kupchak doesn't need to hear it. He knows how Ryan feels about the Lakers. And in a way that is reassuring to Jerry, who still lives in Los Angeles and perhaps loves the Lakers like no one else ever will. Drafted in 1960, the same year the team moved to L.A., West embarked on a legendary playing and managerial career that spanned four decades with the Lakers.
"It nearly drove my dad crazy," Ryan said. "His love goes overboard, where he gets obsessive and compulsive. And I can be that way, too, but he was a good example of how to do things and how not to do things."
Kupchak, for the record, has a 1985 NBA championship ring, too. He was on that team that broke through in Boston, and nearly 30 years later, the Lakers have not forgotten. Besides Kupchak as GM, Kurt Rambis is now a Lakers assistant coach, and James Worthy and Byron Scott are studio analysts for the Lakers' regional network. Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Cooper and Ronnie Lester have all been employed by the Buss family in varying capacities. Jamaal Wilkes had his jersey retired by the Lakers last season.
Jerry Buss was always big on loyalty, and not just toward his own children. So it feels right in that old Laker way first to have had Jerry West as Kupchak's mentor and now Kupchak as mentor to West's son.
Kupchak said it doesn't feel like "giving back." What he feels, he said, is "honored."
It's a poetic thing that really does feel like home.
The first verses were written back when Ryan wasn't yet 10 years old, scooting into Kupchak's office next to Jerry West's office at the Forum. Ryan would settle in to watch NBA games on TV with Kupchak while Kupchak ate his dinner before the Lakers played.
"I would go and pick his brain, too," Ryan said. "I've known Mitch pretty much my whole life. He's like an uncle to me."
It wasn't Ryan's father who gave him his first freelance assignment as a scout. It was Kupchak in 2001, after Jerry had left the Lakers and Ryan was still in college. An exhilarated Ryan headed off to the Big West tournament and filed his copious notes to Kupchak.
When Jerry West had left the Lakers the previous year, Kupchak described him as "my mentor, my guiding light, my best friend." Kupchak also noted his wife Claire's observations that after 14 years working alongside West, Kupchak had taken on some of West's impulsive, emotional character. Long after establishing his own vision and recording his own success, Kupchak still speaks of what he learned from West trusting his gut.
"That was his gift to me," Kupchak said.
At the very same time, here is Ryan West, noticing a change in himself. He finds himself leaning more and more toward Kupchak's style of detective work in the front office.
"I've seen how important it is to get as much information as possible to make sure you know every single detail about everything," West said.
Yet Kupchak is clear in pointing out that some of that nurture cannot compete with all of the nature.
"He's got a lot of Jerry in him, too," Kupchak said. "Ryan's unabashed in his opinion. If you ask for an opinion, you're going to get one. That's how Jerry was, as you know."
Kupchak has a laugh about how Jerry and Ryan both devour their meals before others at the table have even unfolded their napkins. And talking about eager next-gen scouts Jesse Buss and both Ryan and Jonnie West piling into his car to drive down to Anaheim for the recent NCAA tournament regionals, Kupchak said: "Kinda cool, actually."
It warms Kupchak's heart to hear that West does feel empowered by the additional challenges presented by Kupchak, who remembers vividly Jerry not just sharing knowledge but even letting Kupchak handle trade calls in his first years.
"It made me feel good when you said Ryan said I was bringing him along and introducing him to other things, because that means you're helping somebody," Kupchak said. "That's a good feeling."
You hear of fathers teaching sons discipline a lot more than you ever hear that a father adores his son. It's often a complicated relationship that isn't built on warm fuzzies and requires some level of rebellion before peace in adulthood.
Particularly when a father has as much churning inside as Jerry West, there needs to be something simple to share.
Ryan understands and appreciates that. He admits the line was blurred early on between his love for his father and his love for basketball, but the net result positioned him well for this career…as long as he neither runs from nor leans on the shadow of the NBA logo.
"I obviously do want to be my own man," Ryan said, "but I'm never going to forget where I came from."
The question of whether the eye for talent can be passed down is hard to answer when so much of a player's success is variable, determined by his off-court character or how he fits into a certain system.
But on a fundamental level, all Ryan can tell you is he shares something with his father. Quite possibly it does spring from a son so desperately wanting to see a world through his father's eyes.
"I don't know if that's his influence or not, but we pretty much like the same kind of players, it seems like," Ryan said. "His guidance probably did help formulate my opinion on what I look for in a player."
Both Wests are partial to really athletic players. Ryan believes something about a guy should pop out as a clear NBA talent—whether it's as abstract as communicating on defense or as simplistic as playing hard—while he observes that guy in a game.
And coming up is the first time that what West sees can really touch the Lakers in a substantial way.
Since he joined the Lakers in 2009, they've had eight draft picks—all second-rounders. Now the Lakers, holding the league's sixth-worst record as the final week of the season approaches, are lining up in the high first round.
"For us this year, this is a huge pick. It really is," West said. "This is something that could maybe change the course of our franchise."
Kupchak and Jim Buss will make the final call, but West said there hasn't been a pick yet where they went far away from what he and other scouts offered in compiling the club's master list.
It's just that this pick can be so much more than all those others.
It represents fresh hope. Whereas it's natural to fear the unknown, in the Lakers' case the unknown cannot possibly be worse than the current reality.
And maybe, just maybe, the unknown will turn out like the glorious past: Jerry West, Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant all came to the Lakers as rookies and became members of the fabulous family forever.
Ryan West is a reminder that the virtues of the family business indeed live on.
Loyalty and legacy.
"I bleed purple and gold," he said.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.