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Fran Blinebury

In 14 seasons with the Lakers, Jerry West always seemed to drive L.A.'s offensive attack.
Wen Roberts/NBAE via Getty Images

Nothing calmed West's nerves like playing the game

Posted Aug 31 2011 9:58AM

Like the fat kid on the playground getting called "Slim" or the way the guy with the shaved head winds up being known as "Curly," it just never seemed to fit.

The Laker known down through the years as "Mr. Clutch" has always been a bundle of nerves.

Even the glory days when he was the general manager and architect of the "Showtime" Lakers in the 1980s, he could not bear to sit through any of the games in those five championship seasons. Instead, he'd hide in an upper hallway of the arena or sometimes even get into his car and drive around the L.A. freeways rather than watch.

One time, when he was still coaching the Lakers, he didn't speak to his wife for three weeks during the first year of their marriage. No cold feet or regrets, he later told her. It was just playoff time.

But put the ball into Jerry West's hands and he was always the coolest customer out on any court. Give it to him late in the game and he'd find a way to drive through traffic to get to the basket for a layup. Or he'd use his great leaping ability to get the ball off the glass. Or he'd pull up and calmly drill a long jumper that would have been way behind the 3-point line if they'd have had one his day.

How does a guy get a bronze statue of himself erected outside Staples Center and also have his silhouette become the official logo of the NBA?

By being simultaneously cooler than the other side of the pillow and more fiery than a volcano.

"If you didn't come into the game breathing fire every night, Jerry couldn't understand it," said former Lakers teammate Tommy Hawkins. "And I never saw him have back-to-back bad nights. Until he could replace a bad performance with a good one, his soul was not at rest."

There were far more good ones over a 14-year career that earned All-NBA First Team honors 10 times, four picks on the All-Defensive First Team, 14 All-Star selections and the distinct notoriety as the only player from the losing team ever named MVP of the Finals (1969). He played Game 7 of that series with an injured hamstring, but still finished with 42 points, 12 assists and 13 rebounds. But the Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics by a bucket.

It was the Finals that too often seemed to define and torture him during his playing days. His lost in each of his first seven trips to the Finals, six times to the Celtics, four times in Game 7.

Jerry West was "Zeke from Cabin Creek," after the creek near his birthplace of Chelyan, W. Va. (pop. 776). He was the fifth of six children, his father a coal-mine electrician. He was short, shy and not particularly athletic growing up and was cut from the football, baseball and track teams during his junior year in high school.

"I think I became a basketball player because it's a game you can play by yourself," West once said. And he drilled himself relentlessly on a dirt court in a neighbor's yard.

A blossoming West led his high school team to the 1956 state championship and became to fan the flames of his legends at West Virginia University. He led the Mountaineers to the 1959 NCAA championship game, losing the final. Then he teamed up with Oscar Robertson to win a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics, a lineup that -- Dream Team be damned -- some maintain was still the best ever.

There was hardly fanfare when the Lakers, in the midst of their move from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, made West the No. 2 pick in the 1960 draft. Nobody from the organization even bothered to call him on the phone for two days to tell him that he'd been drafted. Then the Lakers promptly gave him a $15,000 salary, a $1,500 spotlight to display his talents.

West joined a roster that already featured the splendid Elgin Baylor, who promptly nicknamed him "Tweety Bird" for his high-pitched, nasal voice. While his bashful personality hardly seemed fit for Hollywood, West quickly had the kind of star power that could own the red carpet at the Oscars. He was a loner among the minglers in LaLa Land, but he dazzled on the court as "Mr. Outside" to Baylor's "Mr. Inside."

He averaged 27 points per game for his career, fifth best in NBA history. He led the league in assists (9.7 per game) in the 1971-72 season, when the Lakers ran up their record 33-game winning streak on their way to their first championship since moving to the West Coast. And in every game, he was a hustling, driving, smoldering competitor. It was his attitude in striving and his frustration at not being able to pile up number of championships as the Lakers that became emblematic of the franchise long before West's outline became the logo of the league.

He called himself "an average guy" when his accomplishments were always so far above. He always said he'd "rather not be in the newspapers" when his feats as one of the all-time great players and then the general manager who delivered eight championships to the Lakers screamed out for headlines.

Inside that hard, bronze statue outside the Staples Center has always been that jumble of nerves.

"You'd think the more successful a team is, the more relaxed you'd be," West said. "I'd say it's the opposite."

He took the floor every night and performed like a piano virtuoso who could find every key and hit every note just right, yet still never be completely satisfied.

Late in his playing career, the Lakers held a night to honor West and his long-time Celtics nemesis Bill Russell, then retired, took the court to say: "Jerry, you are, in every sense of the world, truly a champion ... If I could have one wish granted, it would be that you would always be happy."

For Mr. Clutch, it was always just the playing that did that.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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