Combine a deadly jump shot, tenacious defense, obsessive perfectionism, unabashed confidence, and an uncompromising will to win, and you’ve got Jerry West, one of the greatest guards in NBA history.
During his 14-year playing career with the Los Angeles Lakers, West became synonymous with brilliant basketball. He was the third player in league history to reach 25,000 points (after Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson). He was an All-Star every year of his career and led Los Angeles to the NBA Finals nine times. He left the game holding records for career postseason scoring and the highest average in a playoff series.
West’s statistical record only begins to tell his story. When the chips were down, West, with his lightning-quick release, was the guy the Lakers turned to for the big basket. Many players have been tagged with the nickname “Mr. Clutch,” but none of them lived up to it as well as West did. He was responsible for perhaps the most famous buzzer-beater of all time: a 60-foot swish that tied Game 3 of the 1970 NBA Finals against the New York Knicks.
West was motivated by a relentless drive to succeed. Years after a game in which he hit 16 of 17 shots from the field, sank all 12 free throw attempts, and notched 12 rebounds, 12 assists and 10 blocked shots, West told the National Sports Daily, “Defensively, from a team standpoint, I didn’t feel I played very well. Very rarely was I satisfied with how I played.” This obsessive quest for perfection was a constant during West’s playing years, and it continued in his later roles as coach and general manager of the Lakers and in similar front-office roles he held with the Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors and LA Clippers.
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. On more than one occasion West had to be helped to the court before games in which he ultimately scored 30 or 40 points.
Despite a level of intensity so high it could melt lead, West was one of the NBA’s most admired and well-liked figures. His ferocity rarely, if ever, rubbed players, coaches or fans the wrong way. After the Lakers’ heartbreaking loss to the Boston Celtics in the 1969 NBA Finals, John Havlicek walked up to West and said, “Jerry, I love you.” Such comments were not uncommon.
Like many NBA stars, West came from humble beginnings. His first nickname, “Zeke from Cabin Creek,” was actually based on faulty information. He grew up in Cheylan, West Virginia, although his family got its mail in Cabin Creek. He was the son of a coal mine electrician who could afford no luxuries and who was usually too drained from work to play with his children. Jerry’s closest brother, David, was killed in the Korean War when Jerry was 12. The tragedy turned young Jerry inward, forcing him to develop his own coping mechanisms.
A smallish youth, West didn’t make his junior high football, baseball or track teams. His only outlet was a basketball hoop nailed to a storage shed outside a neighbor’s house. The dirt-covered court became his domain. In the rainy spring he dribbled in mud. When it snowed West played wearing gloves. He practiced shooting until his fingers bled. He taught himself his quick shot release by bouncing the last dribble hard off the ground. Until he got it right, the ball would frequently hit and bruise his face. After practice he would listen to West Virginia basketball games on the radio.
West completely immersed himself in practice, often neglecting to eat. His mother lashed him when he showed up hours late for dinner and he became so thin that he had to receive vitamin injections.But the practice paid off. He made the varsity squad at East Bank High School, although he mostly sat on the bench during his junior year. Over the next summer he grew six more inches. As a 6-foot senior, West became the first prep player in state history to score 900 points in a season, averaging 32.2 points. With West’s hot hand leading the way, East Bank won the 1956 state title.
Naturally, West enrolled at WVU, where he was a two-time All-American and averaged 24.8 ppg. The team reached the NCAA championship game in 1959 but lost to the University of California. In five postseason games that year, West scored a total of 160 points, presaging his NBA playoff heroics. The following year he and Oscar Robertson led an extremely talented U.S. squad to a gold medal at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.
The Minneapolis Lakers chose West with the second overall pick behind Robertson in the 1960 NBA Draft. Emboldened by the success of the westward-bound Brooklyn Dodgers and faced with the dilemma of finding a site for its home games, the Lakers franchise moved to Los Angeles for the 1960-61 season. The team had posted a 25-50 record in its last season in Minneapolis.
With Elgin Baylor (“Mr. Inside”) scoring nearly 35 ppg and West (“Mr. Outside”) contributing 17.6 ppg, the Lakers improved to 36-43 and finished in second place in the Western Division. They edged the Detroit Pistons in the division semifinals but then lost to the St. Louis Hawks in the division finals.
During has remaining 13 seasons, the Lakers missed the Finals only four times. However, the Lakers and West came out on the losing end in eight of those nine Finals. Six of the losses came at the hands of the powerhouse Celtics.
No one was affected more by those defeats than West. “He took a loss harder than any player I’ve ever known,” said longtime Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn in the National Sports Daily. “He would sit by himself and stare into space. A loss just ripped his guts out.”
It’s no wonder. West held himself to seemingly impossible standards. “I’m surprised when the ball doesn’t go into the hoop,” West said toward the end of his career. “I think I should make every shot.”
Unrealistic or not, West the perfectionist propelled the Lakers to The Finals repeatedly in the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1961-62, West established himself as a deadly scoring threat and averaged 30.8 ppg, marking the first of four seasons in which he 30 ppg or more. The Lakers had risen from third place in the division to first since West’s arrival, posting a 54-26 record and in the playoffs, West upped his scoring average to 31.5 ppg.
The Lakers’ seven-game defeat at the hands of the Celtics in the 1962 Finals was particularly heartbreaking. After taking the series lead on Baylor’s then record 61-point performance in Game 5, Los Angeles dropped the next two. In Game 7, a 15-foot Frank Selvy jumper at the buzzer that would have won the game in regulation bounced off the rim. Boston won in overtime, 110-107.
Although West enjoyed great individual success during his prime, the team’s record is a study in frustration — “unbelievable frustration” is how West described it to the Los Angeles Times Magazine. From 1962-70, the Lakers reached the Finals six times, losing to Boston five times and to the Knicks once.
Three of the Finals went seven games, with the Lakers losing two of those Game 7s to the Celtics by a single basket. In 1969, as in 1962, the Lakers led Boston after five games only to drop the last two contests.
Despite the Lakers’ failure to win more titles, most of West’s legendary exploits came during the postseason. In the 1965 playoffs, West averaged 40.6 ppg over 11 contests; his 46.3 ppg average against Baltimore in the division finals was a record for a six-game series.
In 1965-66, West had another stellar year, averaging 31.3 ppg and finishing behind only Chamberlain in the scoring race. He also ranked fourth in both assists (6.1 apg) and free- throw percentage (.860). In the playoffs he kept up his torrid scoring pace, averaging 34.2 ppg over 14 contests. Boston won another NBA Finals matchup, prevailing in Game 7 at Boston Garden, 95-93.
In the 1969 Finals against Boston, West became the only member of a losing team to be named Finals MVP. And in the 1970 NBA Finals against New York, West launched the famous bomb that, at least briefly, resuscitated the Lakers. The Knicks’ Walt Frazier recalled thinking as West let the miracle shot fly, “The man’s crazy. He looks determined. He thinks it’s really going in!” It did, sending Game 3 into overtime. New York, however, won the game and the title. “It was a beautiful thing wasted,” West later said.
As players on a perennial bridesmaid team, West and Baylor were frequently eclipsed by Chamberlain, Robertson and Bill Russell, who collectively won virtually every MVP during West’s and Baylor’s most productive years. Although both ranked among the top four leading scorers in history when they retired, neither man ever won an MVP. Still, West was named to the All-NBA First Team 10 times in his career, and he was selected to the NBA All-Defensive First Team in four of his final five seasons.
Prior to the 1971-72 season, the 33-year-old West was considering retirement. He thought of the broken noses, the broken hands, the pulled muscles and the lost championships. West returned, however, and helped make history. With Chamberlain now in the middle and Gail Goodrich pitching in on offense, the Lakers won a record 33 games in a row under new coach (and former Celtics star) Bill Sharman.
They were 39-3 at midseason and finished at 69-13, the best single-season record in NBA history until the 1995-96 Bulls (72-10) bested it.. Despite his age and physical problems, West kept averaged 25.8 ppg while leading the NBA in assists with 9.7 per contest.
Having come this far, West would not be denied an NBA title. The Lakers swept the Bulls and beat the Bucks in six games to reach The Finals. Once there, the Lakers lost Game 1 to the Knicks, but then won four straight by relatively large margins. Including playoff games, the Lakers’ record for the year was 81-16.
West’s long wait had ended. He had finally won a championship, in one of the greatest seasons ever for an NBA team. Revitalized, he played two more seasons. The 1972-73 Lakers lost to the Knicks in The Finals while in 1973-74, a pulled groin limited West to 31 regular-season contests and only one playoff game.
“I’m not willing to sacrifice my standards,” West told the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner when he retired. “Perhaps I expect too much.”
In 1974, the 36-year-old West left the game as the NBA’s third-leading career scorer, behind Chamberlain and Robertson, with 25,192 points in 932 games. His average of 27.0 ppg game stands as the fourth highest among retired players, behind Michael Jordan, Chamberlain and Baylor. His 31.2 ppg in 1969-70 (at age 31) is the highest average ever for a player over 30. And his 6,238 career assists (6.7 apg) rank among the best ever. Only Jordan had a higher career scoring average in the playoffs, and only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tallied more career points in the postseason.
After two years away from basketball, West became the Lakers’ coach before the 1976-77 season. In three campaigns with West at the helm, the Lakers went 145-101 and returned to the playoffs after missing the postseason during West’s retirement. He stayed on as a scout for three years and became general manager in 1982, helping to build the Lakers’ dynasty of the 1980s.
West remained as uptight in the front office as he had been on the court. “If I’m not nervous, if I don’t have at least a little bit of the same self-doubt and anxious feelings I had when I started playing, then it will be time for me to go on,” he told the Orange County Register in 1990. “I must have that tension.” West was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979. West was named the NBA Executive of the Year for 1995 after the Lakers posted their best record in four seasons.
He was also at the forefront of rebuilding the Lakers into championship shape by adding Shaquille O’Neal as a free agent and trading for Kobe Bryant, who entered the NBA out of high school in 1996. Those two players formed the nucleus of three consecutive championship teams beginning with capturing the 2000 NBA Finals.
After being employed by the Lakers for over 40 years, West retired but soon became the president of basketball operations of the Memphis Grizzlies on April 30, 2002. He spent five years at that post, helping build Memphis into a playoff team in 2004, ’05 and ’06 before stepping down in 2007.
On May 20, 2011, West was hired by the Warriors as one of the team’s executive members, where he assisted the team in basketball and non-basketball related decisions. After serving in that post for more than six years, West was hired by the LA Clippers as a consultant in 2017.