Counting On Mr. Clutch
NBA Hall of Fame Guard Jerry West is a man on a mission: restore prominence to the 84-year-old PGA Tour stop in his adopted home town
Jerry West is driving to the Conga Room, an aspiring-to-be-hip downtown Los Angeles nightclub where a meeting with Chevron's Glenn Weckerlin awaits. The Conga Room overlooks the new "L.A. Live" development across the street from Staples Center, home of the Lakers, where West's No. 44 jersey hangs in the rafters next to the eight NBA championship banners he helped the team win as both Hall-of-Fame guard and general manager. It's a typical early November day, with comfortable temperatures and a soft sky, perfect for West to play golf or enjoy his Bel-Air home and his passion for reading, perhaps the new Gay Talese book personally inscribed to him.
Since West was named executive director of the Northern Trust Open nine months ago, though, his calendar has been filled with speaking engagements and face-to-face sponsor visits such as this one. Weckerlin is Chevron's affable representative charged with handling sports hospitality. He is hosting media and dignitaries to launch December's Chevron World Challenge, and West is merely stopping in to remind Weckerlin of the mission to rejuvenate February's Northern Trust Open. Because Chevron pours millions into the nearby Sherwood CC-hosted event, it's a longshot bid to sign the oil-and-gas behemoth for even a hospitality package. But West is determined to upgrade the oldest continuously running PGA Tour event's annual charitable donations from about $1 million into something more closely resembling the multi-million dollar contributions tour stops in Phoenix, Dallas and San Antonio have made.
Sporting a meticulously tailored gray suit and unusually erect posture for an ex-athlete, the 71-year-old West Virginia native seems taller than his listed playing-day height of 6-feet-3. After shaking hands with anyone who nods or smiles his way, West pulls Weckerlin aside to better understand Chevron's needs. A few weeks later Weckerlin is asked how the meeting went.
"He's a damned bulldog," Weckerlin says, laughing. "What a first-class guy though. He's on a mission, and he's trying to do something really special."
And West's take?
"I'm not good at asking people to give things, it's hard for me to do," he says, reflecting on his whirlwind schedule of local events designed to expand awareness of the tournament, sign up new sponsors and build the charity-driven fundraising mechanisms modeled after other successful tour events: Tickets FORE Charity and the L.A. Legends Club.
The initiatives are mentioned in West's next downtown stop: a speech to the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. It's the ultimate rubber-chicken lunch, featuring a broad mix of well-dressed business elite who hand out business cards to anyone they don't know. After West is introduced, a few in the audience appear to have little interest in what he has to say, spying looks at their BlackBerrys. But most in the room are transfixed by the man who led West Virginia to its first Final Four, played on the 1960 Olympic gold-medal winning U.S. basketball team, appeared in 14 NBA All-Star games and in 1972 guided the Lakers to their epic 33-game win streak and, ultimately, a world title. Later, as an executive, West crafted the greatest one-two acquisition punch in sports-management history: trading Vlade Divac to Charlotte for the draft pick that was Kobe Bryant and luring free agent Shaquille O'Neal away from the Orlando Magic.
Even the BlackBerry readers take notice as West reflects on growing up poor in rural Cabin Creek, W.Va. That's where, at age 13, he learned of his older brother David's death in the Korean War.
"If ever I could do something for someone like him" said an emotional West, his voice trailing off before collecting himself. "He deserved to live. I was the dumb one in the family."
He asks the 60 or so Chamber members if they have seen the film "October Sky," Jake Gyllenhaal's break-out role based on Homer Hickam's true story of a young West Virginia rocket-builder who dreams of a life beyond the brutal coal country thanks to a teacher encouraging his unique talent for science. "I was a Rocket Boy with a basketball in my hand," West said.
Though West has donated more than $1 million to his alma mater and makes appearances for it during annual three-month summer sojourns home, he also wants to give back to his adopted hometown.
"L.A. has embraced me so much," says West. "It's almost embarrassing how good people are to me."
But a reinvigorated Northern Trust Open is about more than just community. "I tell people that they don't owe anything to this area, but I ask them to consider whether they owe appreciation for having a better life than a lot of people have in other circumstances. That, to me, is important. I go back to my childhood, and I know what it's like to feel sorry for yourself when you see other kids getting to do things and experience things you wish you could have. In L.A. there are so many needy kids, and all they need is the right mentor or the right person to have an interest. We can raise money to help them enjoy opportunities they've never enjoyed."