Hawks missed a chance to add NBA legend Jerry West to their front office

NBA legend Jerry West (left) with Pete Babcock (center) and Rick Sund (right), both former Hawks' general managers, as the trio often scouted games together.

Credit: Courtesy photo

Credit: Courtesy photo

NBA legend Jerry West (left) with Pete Babcock (center) and Rick Sund (right), both former Hawks' general managers, as the trio often scouted games together.

Imagine Jerry West – basketball royalty and literally the logo of the NBA – as a member of the Hawks’ front office.

It almost happened.

Perhaps it should have happened.

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 the basis of the NBA logo, died Wednesday. He was 86.

West was a 14-time All-Star, a 12-time All-NBA selection, part of the 1972 Lakers team that won a championship, an NBA Finals MVP as part of a losing team in 1969 and was selected as part of the NBA’s 75th anniversary team. West was general manager of eight NBA championship teams with the Los Angeles Lakers, helping build the “Showtime” dynasty. He also worked in the front offices of the Memphis Grizzlies, the Golden State Warriors and, most recently, the Los Angeles Clippers.

Two former Hawks general managers, Pete Babcock and Rick Sund, came into the league and were mentored by West through many scouting trips and games. West took them under his wing. Both reflected on their friend Wednesday in interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Babcock, Hawks GM from 1990-2003, told the story of his recruitment of West to join the front office. He did so even as many thought he would bring in his eventual replacement.

“My answer was there are three people that none of us can be,” Babcock told the AJC. “If they want to join your organization, you welcome them in and you give them any position they want. That’s Jerry West, Red Auerbach or John Wooden. … You can’t be any of those three people. They are legends and so well respected in the game.”

In 2002, West was working as a consultant with the Lakers after leaving the front office and was looking to get back into the league. Hawks president Stan Kasten and Michael Gearon Sr. spoke with West at a pre-draft camp in Chicago to gauge his interest in joining the Hawks. He was interested. Very interested. Babcock said he spoke with West nearly every night as they talked about a position in the organization. West told Babcock he wanted to come to Atlanta.

Babcock then called Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak to ask what it would take to bring in West.

Kupchak told him, “He doesn’t want to negotiate. He wants to be asked what it will take for you to come. He will tell you, and it’s done.”

“That’s what the Memphis owner did,” Babcock said. “Had we done that, he would have signed with us.

“Whether it came from Stan, whether it came from someone above Stan, all I know is that no one would agree to give a blank check. I kept arguing we have a chance to get Jerry West. You can’t measure that. You can’t value that.”

The Hawks had missed out.

West joined Memphis as the general manager and spent 2002-07 with the organization. He would join the Warriors from 2011-17 and the Clippers from 2017 until this death.

When Sund left Dallas, where he had been general manager for 15 years, in 1994, he got a call from his old friend.

“He called me and said ‘C’mon, come out here,” Sund said. “He took me to Hawaii to play golf. That’s the type of friend he was. It was a hard time (for me). When he left the Lakers (in 2000), then it was my turn. I said ‘C’mon, we’re going golfing.’ On my treat, we went to Phoenix. That was funny.”

Both Babcock and Sund traded text messages with West in the past few months. Sund reached him on his 86th birthday last month. Both knew that their friend was not well.

Still the loss of a legend is hard. The basketball world mourns. Two of those who benefited from West and his graciousness over many days and nights on the road, can especially relate.

“As accomplished as he was and the fact that here he was the logo, he was always humble,” Babcock said. “He was always unassuming. We would be on the road with him and people would want his autograph, and he was great with everyone. Just a wonderful person.”