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Jerry West: He shoots, he grills!

August 3, 2009 |  2:10 pm

It took basketball legend Jerry West a while to warm up to food. Raised as one of five children in a West Virginia mining family, his idea of a good dinner was one where he got to the food before any of his brothers. Even after he joined the NBA, he said he was slow to discover restaurants. He couldn’t afford them, he said. In the early 1960s, when he started, salaries were so low players had to work summer jobs.

“I couldn’t afford to go to restaurants, because I didn’t have any money,” he said. “Professional basketball wasn’t quite as glamorous in those days as it is now.”

Now, seemingly much to his surprise, West is getting into the restaurant business … in a way. He’s lending his name and a bunch of memorabilia to a steakhouse being opened by the Greenbrier resort back in his home state. The goal is to have the as-yet unnamed restaurant up and running this fall.

“I certainly wasn’t looking for a job,” said the 71-year-old West. But when his old friend Jim Justice asked him to help out after he bought the struggling property this spring, West pitched in. He has a vacation home on the Greenbrier property and lives there three months out of the year, when he’s not at home in Bel-Air. “So I figured, what the hell, I’ll do it.”

For non-basketball fans, West is a icon in his sport, literally. An all-NBA selection in 14 years of the 15 years, he played for the Los Angeles Lakers and was named to the league's 50th anniversary All-Star team. A silhouette image of him driving to the basket is the center of the NBA logo (in fact, that’s his nickname: “The Logo”). After retiring as a player, he became general manager and built both the "Showtime" Lakers that featured Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, as well as the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant team that won three straight titles in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Of course, you shouldn’t expect West to be manning the broiler at his new place. His role will mostly be stopping by and shaking hands when he’s on the property. But as a lover of steakhouses, he has some definite opinions about what he wants his place to be. As part of his research for the project, he hosted a couple of visitors from the resort on a weekend tour of several Los Angeles restaurants: steakhouses Cut, Boa (where he liked the meat) and Mastro’s (where he liked the sides) as well as his old favorite Dan Tana’s (“I’m practically a piece of the furniture there,” he said.)

A great steakhouse, West said, has to have three components. “The first thing and most important is you have to have great meat. And I think the ambience is so important. Then there’s the service, the feeling of congeniality. I love Dan Tana’s and I’d love to have that kind of clubby feeling, but maybe with a little more elegance.”

West is also a compulsive collector of wine, mostly first-growths and Wine Spectator- and Robert Parker-approved reds. He keeps fully stocked cellars at his homes both here and at the Greenbrier. “I’m crazy about it,” he said. “I’ve got more wines than I’ve got sense.”

--Russ Parsons