Jack Kent Cooke had a knack for identifying talent when it came to coaches.
Cooke, who owned professional sports franchises in both the United States and Canada over the years, was the one who pushed baseball Hall of Famer Sparky Anderson to get into coaching. He also elevated Joe Gibbs to head coach of the Washington Redskins, which worked out in the form of three Super Bowl championships for the franchise.
And then, of course, there is the case of the Kanawha Valley’s own Jerry West.
Cooke, who owned the Los Angeles Lakers from 1965-79, pushed for West to take a hands-on role away from the court in the 1970s, and before long the former East Bank High and West Virginia University star was in charge in L.A.
His coaching career did not produce any world championships, but it was the springboard West needed to go on to become the best front office official in the history of American professional sports — a title West continues to justify to this very day.
Last week West, in his capacity as an executive board member for the Los Angeles Clippers, helped orchestrate the moves that brought NBA All-Star Paul George to the Clippers in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder. That trade cleared the way for West and the Clippers to sign coveted free agent Kawhi Leonard — fresh off his second NBA Finals MVP award after leading the Toronto Raptors to their first Larry O’Brien Trophy in franchise history.
George and Leonard are just the latest examples of West’s ability to get the best players. What the Clippers do with their new star power remains to be seen, but there is no denying West’s resume littered with championships and all-stars.
When the Lakers needed to rebuild in the early 1980s, West became the team’s general manager and was the vital piece in the front office as the team went on to battle the Boston Celtics for titles throughout the decade with stars like Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar leading the way on the court.
Once the Lakers fell off as an NBA powerhouse in the 1990s — thanks in part to Johnson’s revelation that he contracted HIV and was stepping away from basketball — it would take a few years for West to get the ship pointed in the right direction again. When he did, however, it was more of the same — championships and all-stars — for West and the Lakers.
In the summer of 1996, West pulled off a trade that sent longtime Lakers center Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for the rights to the Hornets’ newest player they had just drafted straight out of high school. You might have heard of the guy — Kobe Bryant.
A few months later when the Orlando Magic — poised to become the new powerhouse in the Eastern Conference with a chance to take down Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls a few pegs — were hesitant to throw bags of cash at Shaquille O’Neal, West swooped in to sign O’Neal as a free agent.
Bryant and O’Neal showed promise with the Lakers, but once West brought in former Bulls coach Phil Jackson prior to the 2000 season, it set in motion another Laker dynasty. Los Angeles won the NBA title in 2000 and went on to win titles again in 2001 and 2002 — to this day the last time a franchise has won three consecutive NBA championships.
West, however, wasn’t around for all three of those title runs. He left the Lakers to become the new GM for the Memphis Grizzlies in 2002. Memphis, a relatively new franchise that had never been associated with any sort of success on the court, did not win any championships under West but did make the transition from league doormat to respectability with players like Pau Gasol, James Posey and fellow eastern Kanawha County basketball legend Jason Williams. West was named the NBA’s Executive of the Year in 2004 with Memphis, and in 2007 he passed on the job to fellow West Virginian Chris Wallace, a Buckhannon native.
After a few years away from the league, West returned to the front office in 2011 as an executive board member (and minority owner) with the Golden State Warriors. West helped the Warriors draft players like Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Those players turned out to be cornerstones of the NBA’s newest powerhouse, as Golden State went on to win three championships and play for two more.
In 2017, West left Golden State to take on a similar role with the Clippers. It’s impossible to predict the future for West and the Clippers, but if history is any indicator — Magic, Kareem, Kobe, Shaq, Phil, White Chocolate, Klay, Dray and the eight championship rings West has earned as a front office executive — then PG and “The Board Man” are in good hands.