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In My Opinion

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Panthers go West, find NBA legend

By Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for 20 years and has been at the paper for 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.

The golf cart rolls down the Wofford hill Monday morning and takes a shortcut across an empty practice field. The driver cuts across the field as if he owns it.

The driver is Jerry Richardson, who owns the Carolina Panthers. Next to him in the front seat is the man on the NBA logo, Jerry West. Richardson and West have been friends for decades. In the backseat is broadcaster Jim Gray, a good friend of West and a friend of Richardson.

Richardson, who wears a gray striped Panthers shirt and appears to have lost weight, pulls behind the players and stops the cart. Many of the players who sit out a particular play or series approach the cart.

The appearance is Richardson’s first in training camp this season and his first since July 16 when his son, Jon, died after a long fight with cancer.

Jon, the former Panthers president who ran Bank of America Stadium, was 53. To dislike Jon, you would have to make an effort, and why would you? Players are gracious and respectful as they talk to Richardson.

Receiver Steve Smith is one of the first players at the cart. He spends time with Richardson and with West. Smith, who is beginning his 13th season with the Panthers, is from Los Angeles. West played 14 seasons for the Los Angeles Lakers and later became their coach and, after that, general manager.

West was a fantastic shooter and defender and winner, and he still doesn’t like the Boston Celtics.

Lean, fit and tall, West is 75. He retired in 1974. There are 90 players in training camp and not one of them was born in 1974. To ensure they are aware of West’s legend the team left a two-page West biography in the locker of every player.

West, who wears a white Panthers shirt with a blue Panthers logo, meets individually with players and coaches. The expression fans wear when they approach a player is not unlike the expression coaches and officials wear when they meet West.

“He’s a sports icon you grow up idolizing and watching,” says Rivera.

You did. You’re from California. What if you were born in, say, Boston and are a lifelong and hardcore fan of the Celtics?

Yes, you, Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman. Gettleman might have acknowledged to West that he was a fan of the Celtics. One senses he did not emphasize how big.

Several players asked West if he’ll pose with them for a picture.

A quick story: I called West, then the Lakers’ general manager, decades ago for a column. West promptly called back. I thanked him at the time and I thank him again Monday.

“I return every call I get,” says West, as personable as you’d hope and expect. “You have to.”

West would later address the team. The subject: Winning.

When the high-profile cart stops on the field, intensity rises. Players dive for the football, block with passion, and play defense as every play is the biggest play there has ever been.

I ask linebacker Thomas Davis if players are trying to show off for Richardson.

“If your owner showed up, you’d probably come up with some really good questions,” Davis says.

Wait. Are you implying the last question wasn’t?

Richardson got to know West when he attended basketball games in Los Angeles with the late Lakers owner Jerry Buss.

Richardson says he read “John Quincy Adams,” the biography of the former statesman and President, and he found it depressing. Then he read West’s autobiography “West by West,” and found it even more depressing.

Richardson would read 20 pages, call West to see when the biography was going to become upbeat and West would ask, “Did you get to the X part yet?” And the X part would be even more depressing than the pages that preceded it.

Both Rivera and Gettleman read “West by West” and say it’s a book you have to read.

Meanwhile, back at the cart, linebacker Luke Kuechly is invited to join Richardson, West and Gray. So is quarterback Cam Newton. Almost everybody gets a turn.

But only Rivera gets a post-practice ride up the hill.

“You look like you could still play,” West says.

“Yes, sir,” says Rivera.

Rivera pauses a moment and adds that with what NBA players are paid today, he’d like to try.

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