Very few NBA players have had a game that can be called flawless. Michael Jordan is one of the only players in history to ever be “perfect”; even Wilt Chamberlain has his pathetic free throw percentage to hold him back. Jerry West, however, preceded Jordan as the first player ever to be called immaculate. He is one of the leading scorers in the history of the game and was regarded as one of the top defenders of his time. He could glide through competition for an easy lay up, use his superb ball handling abilities for an easy assist, or stay back and hit shots from “downtown” with deadly accuracy. No player short of Dave DeBusschere can come close to West’s tolerance for pain. He broke his nose nine times and his hands even more through his blatant disregard for his own well being in all out attempts to make plays. For three games, West had injured himself so badly that he needed assistance walking onto the court before a game. He scored more than 30 points in all three. As a result, Jerry West is regarded as one of the finest all around guards of all time.
In addition, Jerry West’s image is more recognizable than any other player in NBA history. Confused? You know the NBA logo of a silhouette of a guy dribbling a basketball? Of course you do. That outline belongs to Jerry West.
“Zeke from Cabin Creek”
Jerry Alan West was born May 28, 1938 to a coal mine electrician. Jerry’s father would work over twelve hours a day, leaving no time for attention to his children. One of West’s early, more erroneous, nicknames was “Zeke from Cabin Creek.” He actually grew up in Cheylan, West Virginia, and only received his mail from Cabin Creek. Young Jerry was too small and weak for football or baseball. As a product of his lack of attention and his restrictive size, he spent literally every day, whether it was raining, sunny, or snowing, shooting at his neighbor’s basketball hoop. West later recalled that on a few occasions he shot until his hands bled. He developed his quick shot release, debatably the fastest and most accurate in history, at this home-made hoop, bouncing the ball so hard and fast that early on the ball would bounce up too fast and smack him in the face. The innumerable number of hours West spent practicing would result in innumerable beatings from his mother.
However, West did not make Easy Bank High School’s basketball team until his senior year (he grew 6 inches between his junior and senior year of high school). Now six feet tall, West became the team star, averaging 32.2 points a game and becoming the first player in the state’s history to score over 900 points in a single season. Despite many offers from colleges, West had only one school in mind: West Virginia University, his favorite team as a child. His brilliance was continuously revealed as he averaged 24.8 points a game through his four years and led the team to the NCAA championship game, where they lost to the University of California. During the playoffs, where they played some of the most talented teams in the country, West scored 160 points in five games: an average of 32. This dazzling performance was a prophecy of his future nickname: “Mr. Clutch.” His performance was impressive enough to earn him a spot on the Olympic team. West played in Rome alongside Oscar Robertson in the 1960 Olympics while they co-led the team to the gold medal.
The Minneapolis Lakers, who would move to Los Angeles before the start of the 1960-1961 season, chose West as the second overall draft pick in the 1960 NBA draft (Robertson was the first). West and teammate Elgin Baylor became one of the scariest combinations in the league; no one knew who to guard more. West became known as “Mr. Outside” and Baylor as “Mr. Inside.” The two led the Lakers team, in danger of going bankrupt, to the division finals and saved the team’s future.
The 1961-1962 season established West as one of the best guards in the league. He averaged 30.8 points a game and would not drop below an average of 30 for the next three seasons. If not for Wilt Chamberlain, West would have earned a couple of scoring titles. Baylor and West combined to score an average of almost 70 points a game. With a 54-26 record, the Lakers had gone from last place to first in their division in a period of two years. They reached the NBA finals where they played the Boston Celtics, who had started the most powerful dynasty in the history of any sport. The series went to seven games and overtime. The Lakers would have clinched the game at the end of regulation if not for a missed shot by clumsy Frank Selvy. They lost after a dramatic overtime 110-107. Still, West had averaged 31.5 points through a long playoff run against a couple of the best NBA teams to ever walk a basketball court.
The Lakers became one of the best teams in the NBA under West’s guidance. They made it to the championship game five of the next eight seasons. Unfortunately, while West excelled under pressure, his team folded like a Frenchman. They lost all five: four more to the Celtics and one to the New York Knicks. Three of the finals went to a full seven games and two of them (both against the Celtics) were decided by a single basket. In addition to their frustrating playoff appearances, both West and Baylor were often outshadowed by some of the other extraordinarily talented players. Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Oscar Robertson took every MVP Award throughout West’s basketball career.
Despite his team’s frustrating performance, West performed many of the greatest feats in playoff history. He earned the highest average for a six-game playoff series against Baltimore in the division finals with 46.3 points per game, in addition to averaging over forty points in the team’s entire playoff run. In 1969, Jerry West became the only player of a losing team to ever win the Finals MVP Award. He made perhaps his most famous shot, a half-court bomb to win the game, against the Knicks in 1970 (and it may have been the longest shot ever made in a basketball game).
In 1971, after nine frustrating seasons and too many injuries to count, West was considering retirement. Because of the coercion of new coach Bill Sharman, however, West decided to stick around for one more year. It proved to be a smart move. The Lakers acquired Wilt Chamberlain in center in addition to the deft Gail Goodrich. They made a record season, winning an unheard of 33 games in a row. West led the league in assists averaging 9.7 per game and was no slouch in scoring either with a 25.8 average. The Lakers ended the season with a 69-13 record: the best in NBA history. They made it to the championship, where they trounced the Knicks in four straight after losing the first game. West, now nourished with his first championship, went on to play two more seasons. Unfortunately, they proved unfruitful due to a ridiculously large number of injuries.
Retirement and Post-NBA Activities
Jerry West retired in 1974 as the third-leading scorer in NBA history behind Chamberlain and Robertson with 25,912 points and with the third-highest points per game average with 29, behind Chamberlain and teammate Baylor. Since then, only Michael Jordan has retired with a better average. He also has the highest points per game average for a player over thirty with 31.2. His 6,238 assists (6.7 a game) also rank among the highest in history. True to his nickname, Mr. Clutch garnered both the highest playoff points per game average (quite a feat for how many games he played in), which has only been broken by Michael Jordan, and the most postseason points, broken solely by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
In 1967, West returned to the Lakers to become the head coach and, eventually, general manager. Under his direction, the Lakers, who had played two losing seasons in his absence, would become the most powerful dynasty since the Boston Celtics incredible streak. He would retire after forty years of service for the Lakers only to return to basketball as the President of Basketball Operations of the Memphis Grizzlies in 2002.
Awards and Honors:
Olympic Gold Medalist (1960)
Ten time All-NBA team
Four time All-NBA defensive team
Fourteen time NBA All-Star
NBA All-Star MVP (1972)
NBA Finals MVP (1969)
NBA Championship with the Los Angeles Lakers (1972)
NBA 35th Anniversary Team (1980)
NBA 50th Anniversary Team (1996)
Elected to Hall of Fame (1980)
Points per game: 29.0
Assists per game: 6.7
Rebounds per game: 5.8
Field goal percentage: .474
Free throw percentage: .814
Games played in: 932