RIP Jerry West

Kliq

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Mar 31, 2013
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I know people have mentioned Jerry West died today at the age of 86, but wanted to make a new thread.

Jerry West is one of the most impactful, influential sportsman of one of the last 75 years, and when I first started reading about him when I was a teenager in high school, I wanted to model my limited playing abilities after the way West conducted himself. He was known for his class and elegance, but more than anything what stood out was his tenacity. His peers would rave endlessly about how he never gave up on a loose ball, how he always went as hard to the basket as possible, and never conceded an easy bucket. He supposedly broke his nose nine times during his career, and any random photo taken from his playing career will have a good shot of showing him wearing a medieval-style face guard to protect his broken nose.

West grew up in a house of abuse. He grew up in poor, West Virginia coal country, and wrote in his book "West by West," which everyone should read, that he was so afraid of his father that he slept with a gun underneath his bed because he was convinced he would have to kill his father in self-defense one day. His life changed forever when he was 13, when his older brother and hero, David, was killed in Korea. West by his own admission, never got over that traumatic event. Even with all the joy that his playing career and post-playing career brought him, he never truly got over losing his brother in 1951.

Basketball was the only thing West seemed to enjoy. He spent all day and night shooting on a neighbors basket, with his mother whipping him when he came home late for dinner. Through the West Virginia wind and snow, and the abuse, West shot hoops by himself all year round. Basketball was a religion in small town West Virginia, not unlike in Indiana, and as a teenager West modeled himself after his future Laker teammate, Hot Rod Hundley, who like West, was from West Virginia and grew up in an abusive household.

West would become the legend of West Virginia basketball, as big as Larry Bird would be in Indiana. His sophomore season, he led West Virginia to a 26-2 record and the #1 ranking in the final AP Poll, but the Mountaineers were upset by Manhattan College in the first round of the tournament. The next season, West would average 26 ppg and 12 rebounds per game, and lead West Virginia all the way to the National Championship game, where they lost by a single point to California, in what would become a frustrating theme for West as his career progressed. The following year West average 29 points and 16 rebounds per game, but against West Virginia lost in the second round to NYU.

Then it was off to the NBA, where West was drafted second overall in the 1960 draft, behind Oscar Robertson. That season the Minneapolis Lakers had moved to Los Angeles, and perhaps nobody was more poorly suited for the glitz and glamor of LA than an introverted kid from coal country that kept sharp memories of childhood abuse and traumatic incidents. Yet West would become THE defining figure in the history of the Los Angeles Lakers--not Magic, not Kareem, not Riley, not Kobe, not Shaq. West would build one of the most iconic brands in global sports in Los Angeles.

He paired with Elgin Baylor, four years his senior, and one of the best players in the NBA. Together, they would form the first ever super-pairing of explosive scorers, and probably still the model every dynamic offensive duo in basketball should be seeking. In their first season, they brought the Lakers to the West Conference Finals, were they lost in seven games to perennially contending St. Louis Hawks. The Lakers led the series three games to two heading into Game 6, but lost Game 6 by a point and Game 7 by two, despite West and Baylor combining to average 61 points per game over the course of the seven game series.

The history has been repeated a lot over the years; seven times West and the Lakers reached the NBA Finals during the 1960s, and seven times they were defeated by the Celtics. West played brilliantly every time, peaking in 1969 where West carried a gimpy Baylor and a choking Wilt Chamberlain to a seven game series against Boston, averaging 38 points per game and being the first and still only player in history to be named Finals MVP on a team that lost the Finals.

Despite the fact that no rational person blamed West for the Lakers not getting over the hump, West carried those disappointments with him for the rest of his life. Much like the abuse he suffered as a child and the loss of his brother, West battled the depressing aspects of his life for his entire career and post-playing career. Even when he finally won his NBA title, in 1972 when West, and not Wilt Chamberlain, as people tend to frequently say, was the best player on his team, it didn't totally stop West's depression over all of his losses. There is something very sad, yet relatable, in West's focus on how despite his absolute best efforts, he was haunted by the moments where he wasn't quite good enough.

I want to take a moment to talk about just how good of a basketball player Jerry West was. Most people know about the 1969 Finals, and his famous half-court buzzer beater in the 1970 Finals, but I don't think a lot of people understand just how insanely good West was. In the 1965 Western Conference Finals, West playing without Baylor, beat the Bullets (yes, Baltimore was in the Western Conference back then) by himself, averaging 46-6-7 over six games. He shot an incredible 86-95 from the free throw line over the course of six games, good for 16 attempts per game. The Lakers would then be fodder for the Celtics in the next round, although not before West stole Game 3 with a 43-12-7 game.

West averaged 27 points per game for his career, 8th all time, and four of the people in front of him (LeBron, Durant, Embiid and Luka) will likely fall below West by the time that they retire. When he retired he was third all time in scoring, behind Wilt and Oscar. Only Kobe scored more points as a Laker. He is almost assuredly the best player ever to never win the MVP award, having the misfortune of playing during a time when it was virtually impossible for a guard to win the award, with Oscar Robertson's 1964 award being the exception. He was an all-star in all 14 seasons he played, and made first team All-NBA 10 times--only LeBron, Kobe and Karl Malone have made it more. The 840 free throws he made in 1966 are the most free throws anyone has ever made in a single season, making 86% of his 977 attempts.

He did it all without a three point line, and by every estimation West would have been a lethal three point shooter, regarded as the best pure shooter of his day. He entered the league as a shooting guard and scoring machine, but gradually evolved into more of a pure point guard role, eventually leading the league in assists per game in 1972. He was arguably the best defensive guard of his generation, a 6'3" guard with a 6'9" wingspan that could swallow up offensive players. The All-Defense team didn't start until 1969, when West was already 30, but he made four straight first team all defenses from his age 31 to age 34 seasons. The speed of his hands were legendary--they only kept track of steals in his final season, and even them a washed West averaged 2.6 steals per game.

West would retire and immediately become a head coach, and later a general manager for the Lakers, building the 80s and 2000s dynasty teams through his front office roles. West was a transcendent player evaluator, and worked diligently to get the most of the various personalities of his star players, from the brooding Kareem to the needy Magic to the immature Shaq to the egotistical Kobe--West got the best out of all of them. In his biography he wrote with Jackie MacMullan, Shaq wrote about how he was throwing a tantrum after the Lakers were knocked out of the playoffs in the late 1990s, and West came in and gave him a reality check--shouting about how he had lost eight times in the Finals before winning his lone ring as a player. "It's supposed to be HARD!" West yelled.

Nobody knew more about that then West, who grinded throughout his entire life. Even as he entered his eighth decade, he still had a sharp mind for basketball, playing a hand in developing the 2010s Warriors, a fitting aspect for the NBA's original superstar shooter. The last few seasons, he would see himself disrespected by the franchise that he put on the map. A classless portrayal of him on the Jeannie Buss-produced HBO show "Winning Time" was coupled with Buss revoking West's lifetime season tickets to the Lakers in 2022 over comments West made about Lakers management. Right up until the end, West was still not enough for some people.
 
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mauf

Anderson Cooper × Mr. Rogers
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Jun 22, 2008
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Fucking hell, that's a great post.
Seconded (edit: thirded). Thanks @Kliq.

Seems like the greatest athletes hate losing more than they enjoy winning, so it doesn’t surprise me to learn that West wasn’t able to enjoy his success as much as most of us would in his shoes.
 

ElUno20

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+1 on the kliq praise.

I would recommend his autobiography If anyone is remotely interested in him as well. It's not a "fun" read but gives tremendous insight into what and why he became the man he did.
 

Eck'sSneakyCheese

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The respect you have for West bleeds through that post and makes it contagious. I was unaware of the hardships and adversity he went through only knowing him as a foundational piece of todays NBA. What a life. Thanks Kliq. We mourn together.
 

Eric1984

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Jun 14, 2001
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I don't remember West as a player -- he retired when I was 4. But I first started paying attention to basketball a couple years later as a first grader (the 1976-77 season where Walton, Lucas and the Blazers took it all, beginning my lifelong obsession with the Mountain Man) and I remember him still being a huge name even if he was recently retired. For some reason, even though he was no longer playing, he seemed more contemporary in my mind than Robertson and Baylor, who seemed like characters from history books.

I actually had a Jerry West basketball as a kid -- a cheap rubber playground basketball. A few years later, it was replaced by a David Thompson ball. I looked up DT today and was amazed and gratified to see that he's still with us, given his lifestyle. But the passing of a legend like West, barely a week after Bill's passing, which has absolutely crushed me, is making me feel a deep sense of mortality. All those names from my earliest days following the game -- West, Walton, Lucas, Moses, Pistol, The Human Eraser, Dawkins, DJ, McGinnis, Hondo, Jo Jo, Lanier and Westphal -- all no longer with us. Of those immortal names -- only Doc, Kareem, Iceman, the Big E, the Pearl, DT, Rick Barry and Rudy T remain (and Slick Watts -- one of the players I remember most vividly, with the shiny dome and cockeyed headband). But sadly in many cases probably not for long. All those guys were just so much larger than life and it's impossible to believe that at the time, the league was teetering on the brink of collapse.

Mr. Clutch. Zeke from Cabin Creek. The Logo. May his memory be a blessing.
 

mauidano

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What an amazing post. Gave me the goosebumps.

I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. West many times. The Lakers would hold their training camp in Hawaii and on Maui for a number of years in the mid 80's. They trained at the local high school gym in Lahaina (where the Maui Invitational is now held). He was fun to talk to, and very approachable. Took pictures with my son and the other kids running around. I was in awe of him them and remain so to this day.
 

oumbi

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RIP Mr. West. He was my absolute favorite non-Celtic. I always thought he should have been a Celtic.
 

Mystic Merlin

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He really seemed like a Christy Mathewson type as a player in terms of being a brilliant performer, among the best to do what he did, yet a class act respected by all. And then, of course, he went on to have a great career as an executive.

@Kliq I learned some things about West from your post that I didn’t know. Much appreciated.
 

Gene Conleys Plane Ticket

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What a beautiful and moving post. Thanks, Kliq! And your post doesn't even mention how West took over the Memphis Grizzlies in 2002, an expansion team that had never won more than 28 games in a season (and had played mostly in Vancouver), and in his second year turned them into a 50-win team that made the playoffs three years in a row. Just awe-inspiring.
 

Norm Siebern

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What a tremendous post, @Kliq. I learned a great deal that I did not previously know (particularly regarding the abusive household he had to grow up in) and as a result have increased my respect for Jerry West.Thank you for your passion and effort. RIP and Godspeed, Jerry West.
 

benhogan

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Nov 2, 2007
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I had a Walton encounter, running into Bill in Del Frisco's in NYC

Here is my Jerry West/LA encounter...

I was taking a golf lesson at Bel Air CC. The Pro leaves me off at the range to hit balls by myself. The place was empty, middle of the week, no one was there, so no big deal. All of a sudden an old guy walks up and asks hey young fella you mind if I hit balls next to you? It's fukn Jerry West (he owned a course record there on the front 9, so I kind of knew he may be around). He could still play.

Of course, I'd chime in with nice one or that will work on 10 (hard Par 3). Gets better though. I'm talking Jerry's game up and all of sudden his playing partner shows up on the range. It's Pete Sampras. Pete is hitting balls on the other side of me. They are talking relentlessly about all the money they lost in poker the night before.

Needless to say, I stuck around hoping they needed me as their 3rd.

Not to be.

RIP Logo
 

RG33

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Man, what a tribute @Kliq . I thought I was reading a NY Times obituary, but way better.

RIP to Mr. West, and I really mean that, I hope is finally at rest - he earned it.
 

CaptainLaddie

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Man, what a tribute @Kliq . I thought I was reading a NY Times obituary, but way better.

RIP to Mr. West, and I really mean that, I hope is finally at rest - he earned it.
Seriously. That was as good of an obit as I've ever read. Honestly, I wish we could find a way for it to end up in West's families hands. It's really so wonderful.

AND from a Celtics fan!
 

StupendousMan

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Jul 20, 2005
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Thanks very much, @Kliq! You told me much more about Jerry West than I'd known -- and gave me many reasons to admire him.