BEIJING – After he survived the steep half-mile walk that could have taken the place of an NBA conditioning session, after he endured a gauntlet of vendors shouting from both sides of the incline and stepping in front of shoppers to take a charge if it meant selling the kitsch, and after the uneasy gondola ride another 1,900 feet into the grey sky, Jerry West stood on the Great Wall.
He stared out over the valley lush with green and fall accents of red and gold. He smiled.
The Sunday visit with the Warriors, in his role as a minority owner with a voice in basketball operations while making appearances around the Bay Area, was an escape. A vacation, one of his former players, A.C. Green, called it.
A vacation from being Jerry West.
Fans scream for the attention of current players, not the man who became the logo for the entire NBA. Security forces dressed in black army boots, black pants and black shirts with white lettering and with black ear pieces are everywhere in cushioning the rosters of the Warriors and Lakers, the teams that play here Tuesday and in Shanghai on Friday as part of the league’s Global Games. While all this is happening, one of the greatest players in history is mostly unrecognized.
“You know what?” he said, standing on the Wall. “It’s really fun. It is. It’s nice.”
In an hour of walking among hundreds of Chinese residents with wife Karen as the Warriors toured the Mutianyu section of the historic structure, and mostly roaming away from the security detail, West is stopped three times. Two of the times are by American fans. One of those times, by a couple from Los Angeles.
“I was there when you made your 55 footer, by the way,” the man from Los Angeles tells West while walking away, referring to the famous buzzer-beater against the Knicks in the 1970 Finals.
West smiles in acknowledgement but also knows the truth: If everyone who said the same thing actually was there, capacity inside the Forum would have been 100,000.
Only near the end of the tour is West approached by an Asian, a man appearing to be in his early-20s. West smiles, shakes his hand and signs an autograph.
“I think coming to a foreign country and seeing people who are enthusiastic about it (the NBA) but not crazy-crazy, it refreshes him,” said Green, the former West first-round pick who is here as an ambassador for the league. “…. This is a vacation for him. He can really enjoy being here with Karen and just take in the culture and embrace that without a super-demanding schedule or interacting with demanding people.”
West is in good spirits as he takes the gondola ride back down the mountain, followed by the return trip through the rowdy venders to get to the bus for the two-hour drive through traffic to the team hotel. The history buff, in China for the first time, got to see the famous Wall. And he got to see it as a normal tourist.
He got his vacation.