Ball is life, Jerry West its logo

Ball is life. This is what they say on playgrounds across America. Perhaps more than any other team sport, basketball does have a way of drawing its legends back to the game long after their playing days are done — if they ever left at all. Their omnipresence has always tied its future to its present.

Nobody embodied this more than Jerry West, the Hall of Fame player turned executive. The lifer. His death on Wednesday widens a void no sport can halt. Where once Tommy Heinsohn was still calling Boston Celtics games, Bill Russell was still presenting the NBA Finals MVP award named in his honor and West was still consulting for another contender, there are now the immeasurable shadows they cast.

For so long, generations of fans could bounce their youngest on a knee, point to the front row and say, "There goes a legend." It would serve as a conversation starter about how West was a West Virginia high school phenom, a Mountaineers great and an Olympic gold medalist before he ever played in the NBA.

And, man, what an NBA career it was. He was an All-Star each year of his 14-year career, including 10 All-NBA first-team selections. He was the origin of the league's ring culture, losing seven NBA Finals — six to Russell's Celtics — before breaking through at age 33 alongside Wilt Chamberlain on the 1972 Los Angeles Lakers. He is the only player ever to capture Finals MVP honors on a losing team. He even finished second to Chamberlain, Willis Reed and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in four separate regular-season MVP races.

But West takes a backseat to no basketball lifer. He was a jump-shooting guard the likes of which the NBA had never seen. Barely anyone before him even knew someone 6-foot-3 could post 27 points, seven assists and six rebounds in a game, let alone average as many for a career. He was Mr. Outside and Mr. Clutch. If you want to know why, watch his 60-footer to send Game 3 of the 1970 NBA Finals to overtime.

He is the NBA's logo, for goodness' sake, and that's not even the half of it.

"Jerry would kick ass in a way that was so skilled and relentless," Pat Riley, who credited West for his illustrious career as both coach of the Lakers and president of basketball operations for the Miami Heat, said in a statement Wednesday. "I was so proud to be there in his presence. I watched, I learned. He made me believe. Being in that aura of greatness was mesmerizing. I was told, ‘Pat, just watch him and model yourself after Jerry.’ He was smart, committed, opinionated, fearless, generous, ultra-competitive, stubborn, but with great grace. These were just some of the characteristics he embedded in my psyche."

West served as a scout, coach and ultimately the general manager of the Lakers from 1976-2000, building a pair of dynasties in L.A. He drafted Magic Johnson, signed Shaquille O'Neal and traded for Kobe Bryant, who together delivered 10 titles to the franchise for which West owed his entire playing career.

West won his second Executive of the Year award with the Memphis Grizzlies in 2004. Even after stepping down, West did not stay away from the game for long. He joined the Golden State Warriors as a consultant in 2011, famously convincing them not to trade Klay Thompson and recruiting Kevin Durant. Another dynasty on his record. West held a similar role with the Los Angeles Clippers until his death, consulting on their acquisitions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. No executive has accomplished more. West collected eight championship rings across eight decades in the NBA. So much for second place.

Never mind his pioneering contributions to the league's mental health discussion.

"He never stopped," Clippers owner Steve Ballmer said in a statement on Wednesday. Not even after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2019. The work was never done. The game never left him.

FILE - Former basketball players, from left, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West and Bill Russell watch during the first half of an NBA All-Star basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018, in Los Angeles. Jerry West, who was selected to the Basketball Hall of Fame three times in a storied career as a player and executive and whose silhouette is considered to be the basis of the NBA logo, died Wednesday morning, June 12, 2024, the Los Angeles Clippers announced. He was 86.(AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, File)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West and Bill Russell were on hand at the 2018 NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, File)

These tales are long to tell, but they are necessary to unfold basketball's history, so long as that grandson on your knee is willing to listen to it all. It was easier when you could still see the legend on the sidelines.

Those days are fading, though. We lost Heinsohn in 2020, Elgin Baylor in 2021, Russell in 2022, Reed in 2023 and Bill Walton late last month, just to name a handful. We were so fortunate that so many of these legends stayed with us — stayed around the game — for so long. We can still call on Bob Cousy, as The Boston Globe's Dan Shaugnessy did this week, when we need to feel connected to the game's beginnings.

But not forever.

"I'm 95 [expletive] years old with one foot in the grave and I can barely move," Cousy told Shaugnessy during this year's Finals. "I know I’m in overtime. So everything in your life becomes more meaningful. And one of the last things I want to be able to see is for the Celtics to hang up banner No. 18."

Their legacies may last forever, but they are as mortal as the rest of us, so we need to remind these monumental figures how much they mean to us and the game we love so much. I saw Oscar Robertson at this year's All-Star Game in Indianapolis. I should have stopped him. I should have said, "Thank you."

So thank you, Jerry. Ball is life, and you were its Logo.