American basketball player
One of the best shooting guards in professional basketball history, Jerry West went on to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to basketball dominance during the last quarter of the twentieth century as first a coach and later general manager and executive vice president. After nearly four decades with the Lakers organization, West stepped down in 2000, but it did not take him long to decide that retirement was not for him. In October 2002, West hired on as president of the Memphis Grizzlies, a young team that had not yet made it into the playoffs. Nicknamed "Mr. Clutch" for his reputation for saving the game with last-minute heroics, West is the model for the silhouetted figure who is the focal point of the National Basketball Association (NBA) logo. As a player from 1960 through 1974, West became only the third player in NBA history to reach the 25,000-point plateau. He still holds the NBA record for the most free throws (840 in 1965-66) made in a single season. Only five years after leaving the game as a player, West was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 1979. As his biography on the NBA's Web site states, West brought to the
game "a deadly jump shot, tenacious defense, obsessive perfectionism, unabashed confidence, and an uncompromising will to win."
Born in Cheylan, West Virginia
He was born Jerome Alan West in Cheylan, West Virginia, on May 28, 1938. One of six children of Howard Stewart (a coal mine electrician) and Cecil Sue West (a homemaker), he was kept out of sports as a boy because of his small stature. He spent much of his free time shooting basketballs at a hoop nailed to a neighbor's storage shed, gradually perfecting his shooting style. So preoccupied was the young West with his home-based basketball practice that he often forgot to eat. He dropped so much weight that he eventually was forced to take vitamin injections to preserve his health. Although he finally managed to win a spot on East Bank High School's varsity basketball team, he spent most of his junior year on the bench. The summer between his junior and senior years in high school, West experienced a much welcomed growth spurt, shooting up six inches. During his senior year, West became the first high school player in West Virginia history to score 900 points in a single season. He also led his high school team to a state championship, prompting a thankful East Bank High School to rename itself West Bank High School (for one week) in his honor.
Recruited by a number of colleges, West decided upon West Virginia University in Morgantown. The transition from a small high school to a large college full of strangers was a difficult one for West. He had drawn inward six years earlier after learning of the death of his older brother, David, in the Korean War. Although he found it difficult to handle his academic workload, he seemed to have no such difficulty on the basketball court. During his years as a West Virginia Mountaineer, West twice was named an All-American, and in 1959 he led his team to the championship game of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament. Although the Mountaineers lost the NCAA championship to the University of California, West was named the tournament's most valuable player. The following summer, he joined with another dynamic guard, Oscar Robertson , to lead the U.S. Olympic basketball team to gold at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.
Picked by Lakers in NBA Draft
The late-blooming West was the number one pick in the first round of the 1960 NBA draft, tapped by the Minneapolis Lakers on the eve of their move to Los Angeles. Although he helped the Lakers to improve their record from a dismal 25-50 in 1959-60 to 36-43 in 1960-61, his rookie season, West years later admitted that he did not yet feel truly comfortable in the NBA. "I was like a fish out of water," he told an interviewer for NBA.com. West's comfort level must have improved significantly his second year with the Lakers, as he nearly doubled his points per game from 17.6 in his rookie season to 30.8 during the 1961-62 season. He also averaged 7.9 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game. Largely on the strength of play by West and Elgin Baylor , dubbed the "dynamic duo," the Lakers made it to the NBA finals but lost to the Celtics.
|1938||Born in Cheylan, West Virginia, on May 28|
|1956-60||Attends West Virginia University|
|1960||Picked by Minneapolis Lakers in first round of NBA draft|
|1974||Steps down as a player|
|1976||Rejoins Lakers as head coach|
|1979-82||Serves as special consultant to the Lakers|
|1982||Named general manager of the Lakers|
|1995||Named executive vice president of the Lakers|
|2000||Retires as executive with the Lakers|
|2002||Hired as president of the Memphis Grizzlies|
West began to acquire a reputation as a perfectionist. Looking back on 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." He also showed a remarkable ability to withstand physical pain. According to his biography on the NBA's official Web site, West was "not blessed with great size, strength, or dribbling ability," but "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."
Shines in Playoffs
As good as he was as a player overall, West really shone in the playoffs. In the Lakers' 1965 finals against the Celtics, he averaged 46.3 points per game, the highest points-per-game average for any playoff series. When the Lakers again faced off against the Celtics in the 1969 finals, West was named most valuable player, the first and only time such honors have gone to a member of the losing team. In an interview West did with NBA.com on the occasion of the NBA's 50th anniversary, 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 West's brilliance on the basketball court, the record of the Lakers through 1970 was a study in frustration. In the nine seasons from 1962 through 1970, the Lakers made it into the finals six times but lost all six times—five times to the Celtics and once to the New York Knicks. Half of the finals in which the Lakers played went to seven games, and in two of them against the Celtics, Boston won the seventh and deciding game by a single basket.
In the 1970 finals against the Knicks, West launched his famous bomb, dazzling not only the opponents but his own teammates as well. Walt Frazier of the Knicks recalled thinking: "The man's crazy. He looks determined. He thinks it's really going in!" Much to the amazement of Frazier and others, it did, sending Game 3 of the finals into overtime. In the end, however, the Lakers again came up dry, with the Knicks taking not only Game 3 but the series as well to win the NBA championship.
Briefly Considers Retirement
As much as West wanted to win an NBA championship, the toll taken by numerous injuries had forced him to seriously consider retirement prior to the 1971-72 season. In the end, he returned to the Lakers and helped the Los Angeles team to write a new chapter in NBA history. With Baylor largely sidelined by injury, the Lakers looked to West, Wilt Chamberlain , and Gail Goodrich to carry them through. And carry them through, they did. The trio helped power the Lakers to a 33-game winning streak under new coach Bill Sharman, a former star of the Celtics. At the middle of the season, the Lakers had an unprecedented record of 39-3. The team ended the season with a record of 69-13, the best single-season record in NBA history. Throughout the regular season, West, though increasingly hampered by injuries, managed to average 25.8 points per game while leading the NBA in assists with 9.7 per game.
It began to look as though the Lakers were finally on track to win the NBA championship that they had sought for so long. In the playoffs, the Lakers demolished the Chicago Bulls in four games and took the Milwaukee Bucks in six. Facing off against the Knicks in the finals, the Lakers lost the first game to New York but came back to win the next four games in a row, all by relatively large margins, taking the team's combined record for the regular season and playoffs to a remarkable 81-16. Not only had West finally won an NBA championship, but he had done it with a team enjoying one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. Thus revitalized, West went on to play another two seasons for the Lakers. In the 1972-73 season, the Lakers again made it into the NBA finals but lost the championship to the Knicks. A pulled groin injury during the 1973-74 season kept West out of all but 31 games during the regular season and a single game in the playoffs. At season's end, West announced his retirement, telling the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner: "I'm not willing to sacrifice my standards. Perhaps I expect too much." Always high-strung, West was increasingly bothered in his later years as a player by a nervous condition.
Steps Down as Player in 1974
West left professional basketball in 1974 as the third highest career scorer in NBA history, with a total of 25,192 points in 932 games. Only Chamberlain and Robertson had better records at that time, although in the years to come five other NBA players would surpass him. His career average of 27 points per game is the fourth highest ever, behind Michael Jordan , Chamberlain, and Baylor. West still retains the record for the highest average points per game for a player over the age of 30, for 31.2 points per game during the 1969-70 season, when he was 31.
|NBA Regular Season||932||25192||27.0||.474||.814||4449||6238||81||23|
|NBA All-Star Games||12||160||13.3||.453||.720||47||55||—||—|
West's absence from basketball was relatively brief. He returned as the Lakers coach for the 1976-77 season
and over the next three years coached Los Angeles to a 145-101 record and the team's first return to the playoffs since he had left the team as a player. After three years as coach, West worked for another three years as a special consultant and scout for the Lakers and in 1982 signed on as the team's general manager. In that post he played a pivotal role in building the Lakers dynasty of the 1980s. West found that even off the court he was unable to shake the nervous condition that had troubled him in his years as a player. But he found that it was an essential part of who he was and how he operated as an executive. In a 1990 interview with the Orange County Register, West observed: "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. I must have that tension."
Named Executive Vice President
In 1995 West was named executive vice president of the Lakers. During his years as an executive with the Lakers organization, the team made it into the playoffs eight times and won the NBA championship four times (1985, 1987, 1988, and 2000). In 1995 West was named the NBA Executive of the Year. Increasingly troubled by an irregular heartbeat caused by nervous tension, West retired from basketball in the summer of 2000. After two years of relaxation away from the game, he returned to basketball again, signing on as president of the Memphis Grizzlies in October 2002.
Whipping the hapless Grizzlies into a world-class basketball team will pose a major challenge for West, but if anybody can pull it off, he can. Shortly after moving into his new post in Memphis, West told USA Today: "I'm excited about going forward with this team in terms of trying to have a team here that would be a playoff team. In many ways, that would be something that maybe would bring as much joy as I had when I worked in Los Angeles as a player and as an executive."
Address: c/o Memphis Grizzlies, 175 Toyota Pl., Ste. 150, Memphis, TN 38103. Fax: (901) 205-1235. Phone:(901) 888-4667.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1959||Named most valuable player at NCAA Final Four basketball tournament|
|1960||Wins gold medal as member of U.S. Olympics men's basketball team|
|1969||Named most valuable player in NBA Finals|
|1972||Named most valuable player in NBA All-Star Game|
|1979||Inducted into Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame|
|1995||Named NBA Executive of the Year by Sporting News|
SELECTED WRITINGS BY WEST:
(With Bill Libby) Mr. Clutch: The Jerry West Story. New York: Prentice Hall, 1969.
"Jerry West." Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, Volume 21. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001.
"Jerry West." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, 5 volumes. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000.
Ballard, Chris. "Memphis Grizzlies: The Franchise Player Here Is New Boss Jerry West, Who Is Trying to Recreate the Magic (and Kareem) He Possessed with the Lakers." Sports Illustrated (October 28, 2002): 156.
Boeck, Greg. "Jerry West Enjoying New Challenge." USA Today (October 28, 2002).
"Bill Sharman." Basketball Hall of Fame. http://www.hoophall.com/halloffamers/Sharman.htm (December 8, 2002).
"Jerry West's Career Highlights." CBS SportsLine.com. http://cbs.sportsline.com/u/ce/feature/0,1518,2644466_54,00.html (December 6, 2002).
"NBA Legends: Jerry West." NBA. http://www.nba.com/history/west_bio.html (December 6, 2002).
Sketch by Don Amerman
Related Biography: Basketball Coach Bill Sharman
An outstanding basketball player himself, Bill Sharman won NBA Coach of the Year honors in 1972 for coaching the Los Angeles Lakers to their first NBA championship ever. An important element in Sharman's winning strategy for the Lakers during the 1971-72 season was Jerry West.
Born in Abilene, Texas, on May 25, 1926, Sharman was a four-year letter winner at the University of Southern California (USC) under Hall of Fame coach Sam Barry. He was named by the Sporting News to its All-America first team in 1950 after setting a new conference scoring record of 18.6 points per game. After being graduated from USC, Sharman played for the NBA's Washington Capitols during the 1950-51 season before moving on to the Boston Celtics for 10 years, from 1951 to 1961. His last year as a pro player was spent with the Los Angeles Jets of the American Basketball League (ABL) during the 1961-62 season.
After coaching briefly with the ABL's Jets and Cleveland Pipers, Sharman took over coaching duties at California State University, Los Angeles, where he coached from 1962 through 1964. He returned to the pros in 1966 as coach of the NBA's San Francisco Warriors, moving on to the American Basketball Association's Los Angeles Stars in 1968 and the Utah Stars in 1970. Sharman's greatest glory, however, came during the five years he coached the Los Angeles Lakers, from 1971 to 1976. Sharman was the only coach in history to win championships in three different leagues.
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."
Basketball—Professional Sports Team Histories, Edited by Michael L. LaBlanc, Gale Research, 1994.
Etter, Les, Basketball Superstars-Three Great Pros, Garrard Publishing Company, 1974.
Great Athletes—The Twentieth Century, Salem Press, 1992.
The Official NBA Encyclopedia, Edited by Jan Hubbard, Doubleday, 2000.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, May 22, 1995; July 19, 1996.
Los Angeles Business Journal, February 9, 1999; August 14, 2000.
Los Angeles Magazine, June 1998.
Sport, October 1995.
Sporting News, January 16, 1995; May 22, 1995.
Sports Illustrated, April 23, 1990; August 17, 1992.
Time, August 21, 2000.
"How West Won," NBA.com,http://www.nba.com/features/IS-jerrywest-aprilmay00.html (January 28, 2001).
"Laker Legends: Jerry West" Legends—Los Angeles Lakers,http://www.geocities.com/Colosseum/Field/1844/past-west.html (January 25, 2001).
"NBA History: Lakers Win 33 in a Row," NBA.com,http://www.nba.com/history/lakers33-moments.html (January 27, 2001).
"NBA History: Mr. Clutch Sinks a 60-Footer," NBA.com,http://www.nba.com/history/mrclutch-moments.html (January 27, 2001).
"NBA History: West Averages 46.3 PPG," NBA.com,http://www.nba.com/history/65west-moments.html (January 27, 2001).
"Statement from Jerry West," NBA.com,http://www.nba.com/Lakers/west-statement-000807.html (January 27, 2001).
"The NBA at 50: Jerry West," NBA.com,http://www.nba.com/history/west-50.html (January 28, 2001). □