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NBA icon and Hall of Famer Jerry West passes away at 86

The 12-time All-NBA guard was a member of the NBA's 50th and 75th anniversary teams and one of the league's most iconic players.

A defining figure in the NBA, Jerry West left a monumental legacy as a player, executive and stalwart in the game.

He was the first significant player in Los Angeles basketball history whose all-around skills took him to the Hall of Fame and then whose success in basketball management made him the measurement for general managers.

Jerry West was known by an honorable title that underlined his legend, both on the court and in the front office: Mr. Clutch.

And so, the NBA is now missing a major contributor who helped shape the league. West died Wednesday at age 86.

“I valued my friendship with Jerry and the knowledge he shared with me over many years about basketball and life.” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “On behalf of the NBA, we send our deepest condolences to Jerry’s wife, Karen, his family and his many friends in the NBA community.”

His NBA life was largely uninterrupted since 1960 when he was drafted second overall by the Lakers, where he teamed with All-Star Elgin Baylor just as the franchise moved from Minneapolis, then later as general manager of the Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies and consultant for the Golden State Warriors and LA Clippers, one of the longest tenures in league history. Along the way, West collected nine championship rings through his stellar work on the court and in the front office.

Already in the Hall of Fame as a player and member of the 1960 U.S. Olympic Team, he will be enshrined for a third time later this year as a contributor.

Both blessed and cursed by a need for perfection, West drove himself hard and held himself, and the teams he worked for, to a high standard. Because of that, West never experienced a poor or mediocre season as a player, and most of the teams he steered as a GM were in contention for conference or NBA titles.

He played 14 years, was an All-Star 14 times and made All-NBA a dozen times. He averaged 27 points, 5.8 rebounds and 6.7 assists for his career. At the time of retirement in 1974, he was the franchise leader in scoring at 25,192 points. But that only defined his play on offense.

West was also considered one of the game’s best defensive guards. For example, the NBA didn’t recognize steals until his final season (1973-74) and he averaged 2.6 per game. Likewise, the All-Defensive Teams weren’t selected until 1968-69, five years before he retired. In those five years, West was named to the first team four times and the second team once.

He had two signature moments, and coincidently both came in losing situations: In 1969, he was named the first and only player on the losing team to earn MVP honors for the NBA Finals. And his 60-foot half-court heave in the 1970 Finals won by the Knicks is often cited as one of the most famous shots in league history.

In his autobiography, West by West, he wrote: “Those losses scarred me, scars that remain embedded in my psyche to this day. You would have to be able to see the tissue under those scars to really know and fully understand what I am talking about because I can’t adequately articulate to anyone what it actually feels like. The thing about scar tissue is that it keeps building, and pretty soon it’s awfully sizable.”

In a 2019 interview with, West said: “I really, really hated losing. I hated losing more than I enjoyed winning. It was just something inside of me, the competitor who felt that if my team didn’t win then it was something I failed to do. So, I was driven to be my best every time I walked on the court.”

Jerry West was a 12-time All-NBA performer who knew how to elevate his game when the lights shined the brightest.

West was born May 28, 1938 in small town Chelyan, West Virginia. His father was abusive toward him and there was never a close relationship with the son. To escape a troubled household, West migrated to basketball, often playing on an outdoor hoop, alone, in the snow and cold.

In high school in the 1950s, West perfected the art of the jump shot — then still a novelty in the game — making him one of the most recruited players in the nation. He stayed local and chose West Virginia University, quickly becoming elite in the college ranks.

Once, he broke his nose in a game against Kentucky, then played the remainder of the contest while breathing through his mouth, refusing to leave for treatment. Throughout adulthood, West sported a nose that was never properly fixed.

He was a member of the stellar U.S. men’s Olympic team in 1960 and won a gold medal in Rome while sharing the captain honors with Oscar Robertson.

He was chosen after Robertson in the NBA Draft that summer and Robertson and West are arguably the finest No. 1 and 2 picks in NBA history. West immediately teamed with Baylor to form a potent 1-2 punch for the Lakers. The duo spent the rest of the decade carrying the Lakers to multiple playoff berths and elevating the sport in Los Angeles.

However, West had the misfortune of bad timing, for his prime was spent during the great Celtics dynasty. Therefore, West reached the NBA Finals nine times but won just once as a player, losing six times to Bill Russell and Boston.

West was usually brilliant in the postseason. In the 1965 playoffs, West averaged 40.6 points. In Game 7 of the 1969 Finals, he posted a triple-double (42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists) while playing with a limp in the loss to the Celtics.

West retired in 1974. He was named to three exclusive teams — the NBA’s 35th, 50th and 75th Anniversary Teams.

Yet West stayed with the Lakers, first as coach for three seasons, then as a scout, and finally the GM. The Lakers won five championships in the 1980s with West in the front office and introduced excitement and style with their “Showtime” approach to winning and entertainment.

With the sudden retirement of Magic Johnson and the aging of key players from that era, West and the Lakers endured a handful of unspectacular seasons and then West did perhaps his greatest work. In one swoop during the summer of 1996, he lured free agent Shaquille O’Neal from the Orlando Magic and swung a Draft-day trade for Kobe Bryant.

The shine returned for the Lakers immediately, and within a few years they became the leaders in the NBA once again. The O’Neal-Bryant dynasty produced three straight titles and cemented West as the game’s most astute team builder in the NBA if not all professional sports.

He then was credited with saving basketball in Memphis soon after he signed on as GM and built a string of respectable teams, winning the second of his two Executive of the Year awards.

Then, after temporarily retiring, West became a consultant to the Warriors and put that dynasty on pace to win three titles in four years. One of his key decisions was convincing the Warriors to keep Klay Thompson instead of trading him to Minnesota for Kevin Love.

West left that position in 2017 to join the Clippers in a similar capacity. In the summer of 2019, he was part of the executive team that signed Kawhi Leonard and traded for Paul George and put the Clippers into title contention. All told, West had a say in the signing of O’Neal, Kevin Durant and Leonard in free agency.

There was always stirring debate about whether West was a better player than GM or vice versa. Regardless of the correct answer, West was good enough to span generations. Old basketball fans fondly remembered West dashing through defenses or stripping his man of the ball. Younger fans know him as the architect of championship teams.

Jerry West shares his thoughts on what LeBron James and Stephen Curry bring to the NBA.

West was a man of quirks. As GM of the Lakers, he was famously nervous before games and often watched from the tunnel or on TV. He also rarely attended road games in his front office role because he hated to fly, even if that meant missing playoff games.

He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2019.

Clippers owner Steve Ballmer said of West: “He was absolutely my basketball sage: wise, loyal and so much fun. If you were in his presence, you felt his competitiveness and his drive. He cared about everything and everyone. From the first day I met Jerry seven years ago, he inspired me with his intellect, honesty and enthusiasm.

“He never stopped. I spent a lot of time with him, some of the best times of my life. He always lent an ear, and he always had a quip. He always left me laughing. I will miss him.”

So will the NBA. As a player and then executive, the excellence of West was unmatched, the finest basketball combo the game has ever seen.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

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