OAKLAND -- Thursday night at Oracle Arena was an incredibly nostalgic night for a hopeless basketball romantic like me, with Jerry West in the building largely with the intent to pay tribute to the retiring Kobe Bryant.
I was a Lakers beat writer for the Los Angeles Daily News in the summer of 1996, when West, over the course of mere days, engineered the moves that enabled L.A. to acquire the draft rights to Kobe Bryant and sign Shaquille O'Neal away from the Orlando Magic.
It was the ultimate two-fisted coup of a career that established West as one of the greatest executives in the game's history. And having the privilege to cover it in real time back then meant I simply could not miss Kobe's farewell at Oracle, because I knew West -- now an executive consultant to Warriors owner Joe Lacob -- would be here to reflect on the last two decades like no one else can.
The following, with a huge assist to ESPN's own peerless Adam Reisinger, is a transcript of my SportsCenter convo with West before Thursday's tipoff?:
West on how hard it was to actually acquire Bryant in a draft-day deal with Charlotte that wasn't officially consummated for another two-plus weeks after Vlade Divac initially threatened to retire:
"It was a very difficult task. We offered a starting center who was an All-Star center in Vlade Divac from (No.) 1 through 13 (in the draft) and finally Charlotte needed a center. They made a good deal for themselves. I think they won 50 games the next year with Vlade as their center, but we got a young prospect. I know it's easy to go back and a lot of people will say it sounds braggadocious and everything, (but) I told our owner, the late Jerry Buss, that I think we got the No. 1 player in the draft with the 13th pick. And it took a lot to get there. His agents, Kobe's parents ..."
"To think 20 years later -- the kid was 17 years of age, couldn't even sign a contract -- to watch what he's accomplished in his career and to see what he's meant to the NBA, thousands of fans all over the country, it has a very warm place in my heart. I was very close to him for a long time. Unfortunately in 2001, I really wanted to stop working for the Lakers. I really never saw much more except for watching him on TV, and we touch bases every once in awhile, but I even thought that was awkward because I was working for the Memphis Grizzlies at that time.
"(I'm) really proud of his career, what he's accomplished as a player. But I think the growth you've seen in him as a basketball player is testament to his incredibly gifted mind and unbelievable desire to achieve and to excel. And above all the determination to play through injury that few players would even think about playing through.
"My admiration for him will be my lasting memories when I leave this Earth, but he's just someone I've always loved. I've loved him like my son, to be honest with you. He was different, unique, spent a lot of time with him when he was young. For me now, at the end of two eras I guess, it's almost sad, to be honest with you. But for him I just wish him all the success in the world going forward and I know he'll find a way to be successful in something else.”
West on what made Thursday night "almost sad" for him:
"You know, we get a lot of players in this league that are good. We get a lot of players in this league who get a lot of publicity because of the incredible publicity machine behind them that are not in his caliber ... that weren't in his caliber. And I've always been a very harsh judge of talent, because if you don't play the game on both ends of the court and if you don't play hard every night, I'm probably not going to be in love with you as a player. I'm going to respect you because you're good, but these players are unique.
"He's a very unique player and when will we see one of those players again? There's a couple in the league right now, but when will the next one come on board in the NBA to keep this ball rolling? You need players like this that bring people to the arena to see something special and he brought something special every night he played."
West on Kobe's case to be crowned as the greatest Laker of all time:
"I would never get into that, to be honest with you. There's been so many unbelieveable players in Los Angeles, maybe the best of the best. And I just don't think you can get into those areas, I don't. Earvin Johnson, [Kareem] Abdul-Jabbar ... what an incredible player he is and doesn't get enough credit. Earvin ... one of the most unique players I've ever seen in my life. Shaquille O'Neal, my goodness, I'm going to miss somebody.
"(Kobe's) right at the top of the list, but he's also right at the top of the list of the NBA in all-time greats. To have the pleasure to be around him for so long and to watch him make (his way) into this world and particularly the thrills he's left with all the fans, Laker fans are not going to see a player like him for a long time."