It’s hard to imagine now, but there was once a time where the Los Angeles Lakers struggled to win championships. After moving to LA from Minneapolis in 1960, the Lakers fell in each of their first seven trips to the NBA Finals. It wasn’t until 1971-72—the fourth season with Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain leading the team—that the purple and gold finally got over the hump, delivering the first Larry O’Brien trophy to a city that now has 12 of them.
More than 50 years later, that ‘72 squad is back in the spotlight thanks to Goliath, the Showtime docuseries about Chamberlain’s life, but also because Sotheby’s is auctioning off Chamberlain’s uniform from the clinching game of the ‘72 Finals. The historic jersey is expected to fetch at least $4 million—more than guys like Chamberlain and West, who quite literally changed the way the game is played, ever earned annually as active players.
After retiring in 1974, West later became the Lakers’ head coach, and then enjoyed a long run of success as the team’s general manager. From there he became GM of the Memphis Grizzlies, but West added some more trophies to the case when he joined the Golden State Warriors as a consultant, just a few years before their own dynasty took off. Today, at 85 years old, he’s still working in the NBA, serving as an executive board member and consultant for the Los Angeles Clippers. In a long, winding conversation, West touched on his relationship with Wilt the Stilt, the modern game, and having no clue where any of his game-worn gear is now.
What was your reaction when you heard that Wilt’s jersey is expected to go for at least $4 million?
First of all, I’m not privy to that kind of information. But I think there’s probably serious collectors out there that have [interest in] certain players with iconic backgrounds. He certainly was one of them. You know, nothing shocks me in the world today. The other day I saw a car that went for $62 million! For people who are serious collectors, I don’t think price matters. I don’t know a whole lot about collectors, but when I hear a number like that, it certainly is eye-opening. It’s a different world today. Obviously there’s so much new wealth created by this Generation X.
Do you collect anything? Is there memorabilia from your own career that you held on to?
No, I’m too simple. From that era, there’s not that much stuff around, there’s really not. They used to throw away significant game-worn jerseys and shoes back then. I have a pair of shoes that were bronzed the night I scored my 25,000th point. The team gave them to me, and I looked at them and said, “Well, at least it’s going to be preserved, but the shoes would be a heck of a lot more valuable than the bronze.”
So you don’t even know where your jersey is from the night you won your only championship as a player?
I would have no idea. If you came to my house, you wouldn’t even know that I participated in sports. But in West Virginia there’s a restaurant called Prime 44 West. There’s a bunch of interesting stuff there. They’ve got my Olympic gold medal and uniform, and a picture of the team—which was an amateur team, not a professional team—and a lot of game-worn stuff there. I played in 14 All-Star Games and I think they have every [uniform] at the restaurant.
Who would have ever thought? I guess some players have probably kept things that are significant to them. But every year you played in a different uniform and there was no thought of maintaining them. Frankly, they’re probably in some dump heap in Los Angeles.
That 1971-72 championship season was toward the end of your career, as well as Wilt’s. I thought it was interesting that it was the only year you ever led the league in assists. Were there conversations about that? Having to change some things about your game because there was a real urgency to win a championship?
I’m not sure, but there’s kind of an interesting story behind it. Before the season started, the late Bill Sharman—who was our coach—told me he wanted me to lead the league in assists. I said, “If that’s what you want, I’ll try.” And I did! Of course, both Wilt and I had the ability to score, but not like a few years before. He had a very serious knee operation, and I had an operation too. It just wasn’t easy to come back from injuries at that time, particularly when it comes to tearing a ligament or tendon. Both of us had that.
I think we were 5-4, a game or two over .500 [to start the season], and Elgin Baylor announced his retirement. Oh my gosh, he and I were so close. We shared a lot of winning, but not winning what we really wanted to win, which was a championship. I had a tremendous kinship with him. I don’t know if anyone really understands the closeness between players, especially during that era. It was a shock for me to walk in the locker room and not see him that night. But, that was the beginning of a 33-game winning streak.