Gordon Monson: Here’s the compliment the great Jerry Sloan once paid the great Jerry West

The NBA legend died Wednesday at the age of 86.

At the news of the death of Jerry West, one of the NBA’s greatest stars, a star that shined bright enough as a player never to have been washed out by subsequent luminaries in the half-century since his days spent torching bygone opponents, one story with a Utah angle about the legendary Lakers guard stands out.

Before we get to it, it’s worth pointing out what everyone already knows — that West not only was the league’s logo, a representative for the league that gave the NBA buoyancy through some years when it needed whatever floatation it could get, back before massive numbers of fans were drawn in by the players’ remarkable athleticism and talent and competitiveness, he also went on to become a respected basketball mind, an executive who recognized talent and knew how to piece it together into championship form.

OK, so there was all of that, the stuff many others will narrate and illustrate and illuminate in the hours of honoring West that are sure to come.

The tribute I pass along here comes by way of another Jerry — Jerry Sloan.

The fact that it comes from Sloan is part of what makes it so extraordinary, so exceptional. As was Sloan’s way, words, especially the complimentary kind, didn’t carry enough authentic weight for him to throw them around much. He was a leathery-tough version of Yoda long before the Star Wars variety arrived on the scene, saying: “No. Try not. Do or do not, there is no try.” The way Sloan saw it, the only thing worse than simply trying, and using it as an excuse to fail, was talking. Talking about trying. Talking about what you were going to do. None of that meant much to the dirt farmer from Southern Illinois. In fact, such talk often was an indication of some combo-pack of weakness and fear. For him, it was do or do not, with the actual emphasis on the doing.

When Sloan spoke highly of anyone, then, it was like the old E.F. Hutton commercials, the ones in which a group of potential investors sat or moved around in a large room or gathering of some kind, chit-chatting about this and that, blathering really, and then two guys would start a conversation, the first saying, “My broker says in the long run that kind of investment could be a good idea. What’s your broker say?” And the second dude would say, “Well, my broker is E.F. Hutton, and E.F. Hutton says …” Just then, the room, the gathering would stop and fall silent, everyone focusing in on the advice coming next. Then, the big-voice guy came in, declaring: “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”

Same with Sloan, especially on matters of basketball.

So one day I asked Sloan after a Jazz practice about his old matchups with West, back when the Bulls guard and the Lakers guard went at it like two schnauzers on the same piece of meat. What I really wanted to know was Sloan’s opinion on how good a player West was.

He stopped, turned and looked me straight in the mug, putting those dead-dark lasers he had for eyes on high beam, the corners of his mouth turning slightly up and then down, and he uttered six of the most humble, most serious words I’d ever heard.

Sloan said: “He kicked my ass every time.”

That’s how great a player Jerry West was, in case anyone never knew or, for whatever reason, had forgotten.