When owner Jerry Richardson arrives at Panthers training camp, one of his rituals is to slowly drive his golf cart along the sideline to thank the media for making the trek to Spartanburg. Early Monday morning he did just that as his team was in the middle of workouts on the back field at Wofford College, but he was not alone as a sports icon was riding shotgun.
Jerry West played his entire career with the Los Angeles Lakers and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1980, but it’s his image that is incorporated into the NBA logo that puts him into a class all by himself. He was invited by Richardson to come down and was dressed to the nines in a Panthers’ polo and matching cap.
“I’ve been around professional football a little bit and I know how incredibly tough these kids are and more importantly how hard they have to play every game,” West said. “I think Mr. Richardson expects them to have a really good year. He’s really one of the great guys, a tremendous owner. I think at the end of the day the one thing that players of all sports remember is how they were treated by management and ownership. He’s just an incredible gentleman and a pleasure to be around.”
West said he met Richardson a couple of years ago and they got to talking football and how frustrated he was that the Panthers were not more successful on the field. The now 75 year old West told him the toughest thing to do is try to win in any league.
“I know he’s worked his fanny off to bring the best players and coaches here,” he said. “It’s a tribute to him, not only as a man, but more importantly his enormous desire to compete and excel. I was asking how many people they’ve had here watching and it’s surprising to me how many come down to just watch guys going through the motions.
“If you go to a basketball practice you have no one watching and I think with people around it makes you more enthusiastic and makes you more likely to work harder. You don’t want to look bad with the real fans out here.”
West believes it takes an element of luck to build a championship team. One player can make a difference in basketball, but you need players around him to compliment his skills. In football there are two teams in one – offense and defense – and one mistake can lose a game.
“I watched two games [the Panthers] played last year that looked like they had them won and on the last play they lost to Detroit and one to Washington,” said West. “Washington they played great. Those are the kinds of things that drive people crazy, particularly the fans. I know what Jerry wants to do. He wants to build a real great team here. He has a lot of components in place to make that happen.”
The former player, coach and NBA executive was asked if he was doing any recruiting, like considering quarterback Cam Newton as a power forward.
“I know Cam a little bit, he’s not quite big enough to be a power forward. He’s lost 18 pounds,” he said, drawing laughs. “He’s a really nice kid and I think his best years are ahead of him. Obviously Mr. Richardson thinks the world of him. It’s up to him to start to grow as a player and make everyone around him better.”
After practice head coach Ron Rivera was asked who he though was the best basketball players on the team and his response was one for the books.
“We have a lot of guys who can play,” he began. “We have a lot of guys who think they can. That’s a big part of the problem. Probably the worst one is Captain (Munnerlyn). He probably thinks he can play better than anybody. I kid you not. Ask him about it.
“We’ve got some guys who can really play. Obviously our quarterback is one of those guys. Charles Johnson actually has a pretty good game and I know Ted Ginn can jump off the building as can Brandon LaFell, but we got a number of great athletes and thank goodness they’re here playing football.”
Notes: Joining Richardson and West on the cart was Showtime and Fox broadcaster Jim Gray.