Nicknamed "Mr. Clutch" and "Mr. Consistency,"Jerry West (born 1938) is considered one of the best shooting guards in National Basketball Association (NBA) history. He excited fans during his playing career with the Los Angeles Lakers, and later enjoyed great success as an executive for the team.
Ina NBA.com Features article profiling Jerry West, Tom Scharpling wrote: "His game was heaven-sent, striking a balance between lunch pail grit and fluid beauty. He was an automatic scorer, lethal on defense, and could pass, rebound-whatever his team required." Scharpling continued, "And while basketball was something West excelled at, it was also something that frustrated him, tormented him, never gave him a moment to appreciate it as just a game."
Jerry Alan West was born on May 28, 1938, in the quiet town of Cheylan, West Virginia, near the state capital of Charleston. He was one of six children of Howard Stewart and Cecil Sue West. As noted in his biography on the NBA.com website, tragedy struck the family, and 12-year-old Jerry, when his older brother David, was killed in the Korean War. His biography noted, "The tragedy turned young Jerry inward, forcing him to develop his own coping mechanisms."
West's NBA.com biography noted that he was a small and shy boy, who did not make any of his junior high sports teams. He began a regimen to improve his basketball skills. West practiced in the rain, mud, and snow. He would forget to go home to eat dinner, and would practice shooting until his fingers bled. Eventually, West's hard work paid off. He made the varsity team at East Bank High School, and excelled in his senior year, becoming the first high school player in state history to score 900 points in a season. West then led his team to a state championship. In his book Basketball Superstars-Three Great Pros, Les Etter added, "In his honor, East Bank High School changed its name to West Bank for one week."
Collegiate and Olympic Star
Although recruited by many schools, West opted to attend and play basketball for West Virginia University. Etter noted, "The change from a small high school to a large college full of strangers wasn't easy for West. His classroom work dropped, and that was discouraging. But on the basketball court, it was a different story." As a West Virginia Mountaineer, West was twice named an All-American. In 1959, he led his team to the NCAA basketball tournament championship game. Even though they lost, West was selected the most valuable player for the tournament. In 1960, as co-captain of the U.S. Olympic basketball team, he won a gold medal. Reflecting back, West shared with Scharpling: "Winning a gold medal was a watershed moment for me. None of the players today would understand, but to win the Olympics as an amateur was an incredible thrill."
Entered the NBA
Writing for Sports Illustrated, Richard Hoffer noted that after West won an Olympic gold medal, he "was astonished when the Lakers, just then picking up to move from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, drafted him in the first round in 1960." West recalled, "I didn't think I was good enough to play in the NBA." He signed a $15,000 contract with the Lakers. However, West did not have an overly impressive rookie season. In "The NBA at 50," a May 1996 interview for NBA.com, West recalled, "I was like a fish out of water."
West's second year went much better. Scharpling noted, "West nearly doubled his scoring output, pumping in 30.8 points per game (ppg), and adding 7.9 rebounds and 5.4 assists a game. West and [Elgin] Baylor became the Lakers' dynamic duo." That season, West played in his first NBA finals. The Lakers played the Celtics, but lost. In his NBA.com biography, West called the loss "particularly heartbreaking." West's strong ethic and dedication were legendary around the league. Etter observed, "He was always the first player out to practice and the last to leave." In his biography on the NBA.com, website, it stated, "Equally legendary was West's tolerance for pain. Not blessed with great size, strength or dribbling ability, West made up for these deficiencies with pure hustle and an apparent lack of regard for his body. He broke his nose at least nine times."
As noted in his biography on the NBA.com, website, "most of West's legendary exploits came during the postseason." In the 1965 finals, he averaged 46.3 points per game, that remains the highest ppg average for any playoff series. During the 1969 finals against Boston, West was awarded most valuable player honors, the first and only time the award has gone to a member of the losing team. In "The NBA at 50" interview, West recalled, "I thought we should have won in '69-I felt we had the better team. Those are the ones that leave emotional scars." Despite the fact that he had yet to win an NBA championship, West was still highly-regarded by his peers. Etter commented, "All the coaches and players who know Jerry think he's one of basketball's best. He's got everything. He can shoot, he has quick hands, and he's fast as lightening. Add courage and dedication to the game, and you've got Jerry West." In his career, West and the Lakers lost eight of nine times in the NBA Finals. As noted in his NBA.com biography, West described his feeling as "unbelievable frustration," and commented, "It would almost be better not to get to the playoffs at all than to go so far but no further."
The 1971-72 Lakers
"The Los Angeles Lakers weren't getting any younger as they entered the 1971-72 season," noted the NBA.com website article "Lakers Win 33 in a Row." The team's core players were in their mid-30s, and Baylor would retire eight games into the season because of bad knees. However, the article noted, "New coach Bill Sharman, made several key moves to invigorate the Lakers." Prior to the start of the season, West had contemplated retirement. In his NBA.com biography, it noted that West was frustrated by the thought of injuries and losing in the finals. The biography recounted that "West returned and helped make history." On November 5, 1971, the Lakers began a 33 game winning streak. At year's end the team was 69-13, the best single-season record in NBA history. The Lakers, and West, were determined to win the NBA title.
In the finals against the Knicks, the Lakers won the series in five games. In "The NBA at 50" interview, West reflected, "The '71-72 season was the culmination of an awful lot of frustration for the people I had played with in Los Angeles. It was a year that everything just seemed to go perfectly. It was an opening in the clouds. There were no injuries at all. It was almost a perfect season."
However, West was disappointed with his own performance in the playoffs. In the The Official NBA Encyclopedia, edited by Jan Hubbard, West commented, "I played terrible basketball in the Finals, and we won. That didn't seem to be justice for me personally because I had contributed so much in other years when we lost. But may be that's what a team is all about." West would play for two more seasons.
Retired From the NBA
At the end of the 1972-73 season, the Lakers again lost in the NBA Finals. The following season, an injury sidelined West. He was only able to play in 31 games. In 1974, at the age of 36, West retired. At that time, he was the NBA's third-leading career scorer, with 25,192 points in 932 games, and was the fifth player in NBA history to score 20,000 points. He would be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979. Despite the accolades, he was unhappy.
Life Away From Basketball
With marriage to his wife, Jane, in trouble, and his career over, West was, according to Hoffer "essentially lost." A friend shared with Hoffer, "What would he do now that the cheering had stopped? He was searching for something. It was a depression that all great actors and athletes go through." West eventually turned to golf. Hoffer noted, "The golf was necessary therapy during a strange time, when West seemed frantic to shed his past life, layer by layer." He even gave away some of his personal possessions, both athletic awards and clothes.
In the midst of this turmoil, West met a young woman, Karen Bua. She shared with Hoffer, "He was just starting a divorce and was not a happy person. Very famous, had done everything and was just empty." The couple would later marry and have two sons.
After being away from the NBA for two years, West became the head coach of his Lakers in 1976. In three seasons, they went 145-101 and returned to the playoffs. Despite a winning record, West was not happy. Jack Kent Cooke, then owner of the Lakers, commented, "He was only moderately successful as a coach, because he could never understand why average players couldn't do the things he did so easily." Eventually, West quit, never to return to coaching. He became a successful scout for the Lakers, and was soon to find his niche in the NBA.
Began Second Career as NBA Executive
In 1982, West became the general manager for the Los Angeles Lakers. Scharpling wrote that West "went on to become one of the masterminds of the Lakers' return to dominance in the '80s, first as a GM, then as a VP of Basketball Operations." West, always modest, told Scharpling, "I live my life by my instincts solely. That's the way I was as a player, and that's how I am as an executive." Hoffer noted that West was a man who took chances. In the 1989 NBA draft, he selected Yugoslavian player Vlade Divac, considered by some to be "strictly a novelty act." Instead, Hoffer noted, he "came up with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's successor for the next decade." He also "took chances" on players like Byron Scott, A.C. Green, Mychal Thompson, and Orlando Woolridge. All proved to be good moves for West.
Refusing to take credit for the Lakers success throughout the 1980s and 1990s, West told Hoffer, "We've been fortunate." He attributed much of the team's success to Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar. He added, "Two of the greatest players to ever play the game, on one team, and that rarely happens. Our job is so much easier when those people have been around."
In 1996, West made his biggest moves as an executive. He traded the popular Divac for 17-year-old Kobe Bryant. West then, as Earl Bloom described in a report for Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, "pursued Shaquille O'Neal with the same guile and intensity he displayed in his Hall of Fame playing career." Bloom continued, "West was the one who wanted to take a last shot at the biggest prize on the NBA free-agent market." He would sign O'Neal to a seven-year, $120 million contract.
Despite the addition of the two superstars, West still worried about the details. In an article for Los Angeles Magazine, Chris Connelly wrote, "Rest assured, in West's basketball world, there is no such thing as "small stuff," and he sweats every single bit of it-the players, the team, the coaches, the competition." However, it all paid off. After a shortened season due to a strike, the Lakers won the 2000 NBA championship. West took it in stride, and then announced his retirement a short time later. As noted in his official statement on NBA.com, West stated: "I have been blessed with the privilege to play for and work for the best athletic franchise in all of sports, and I will always treasure that experience. As I watch their progress with great interest and pride, I will remain their biggest fan."
Time will tell if West returns to the NBA in some capacity, but he will always be remembered. As his NBA.com biography states: "Combine a deadly jump shot, tenacious defense, obsessive perfectionism, unabashed confidence, and an uncompromising will to win, and you have Jerry West, one of the greatest guards in NBA history."
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