Jerry West, 1938-2024

The legendary basketball player and executive is gone at 86.

New York Times, “Jerry West, One of Basketball’s Greatest Players, Dies at 86

Jerry West, who emerged from West Virginia coal country to become one of basketball’s greatest players, a signature figure in the history of the Los Angeles Lakers and a literal icon of the sport — his is the silhouette on the logo of the National Basketball Association, died on Wednesday. He was 86.

The Los Angeles Clippers announced his death but provided no other details. West was a consultant with the team in recent years.

For four decades, first as a player and later as a scout, a coach and an executive, West played a formidable role in the evolution of the N.B.A. in general and the Lakers in particular, beginning in 1960 when the team moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles and he was its first draft choice.

He won championships with several generations of Laker teams and Laker stars and was an all-star in each of his 14 seasons, but except for his longtime teammate, the great forward Elgin Baylor, who retired without a championship, there may have never been a greater player who suffered the persistent close-but-no-cigar frustration that followed West for the bulk of his career on the court.

During his tenure, the Lakers buzzed almost perpetually around the championship, but West had the misfortune to play while the Boston Celtics, with Bill Russell at center, were at the height of their indomitability — they beat the Lakers in the finals six times.

It wasn’t until the Lakers acquired their own giant, Wilt Chamberlain, that they triumphed, but even that took four seasons — and a seventh defeat in the finals, to the Knicks in 1970 — to accomplish.

The 1971-72 Lakers won 69 games, a record at the time — the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls won 72 and the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors won 73 — including a still unequaled streak of 33 in a row. When they avenged their loss to the Knicks, winning the 1972 championship, West spoke after the last game with a colossal sense of relief, recalling that his thirst for the ultimate victory began before he entered the pros. In 1958, his junior year at West Virginia University, his team made it to the national finals against California, only to lose by a single point.

“The last time I won a championship was in the 12th grade,” West said after he scored 23 points as the Lakers beat the Knicks 114-100 to capture the series in five games. He added: “This is a fantastic feeling. This is one summer I’m really going to enjoy.”

As the Lakers general manager, West succeeded more often. He led a team that included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and James Worthy to a championship in 1985 — at last sweet revenge against the Celtics — and again in 1987 and 1988.

In 2000, as executive vice-president (his role was as a super-general manager, with the authority over personnel), he won again, having brought aboard Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. West left the Lakers after that season, but the team built largely on his watch won two more championships in a row.

Los Angeles Times, “Jerry West, Lakers legend and architect of ‘Showtime’ era, dies at 86

Jerry West, the legendary Lakers player and later coach and general manager who took the team to stunning heights season after season but could never quite satisfy his own impossibly high standards, has died.

Regarded as a near deity through the NBA, West died Wednesday with his wife, Karen, by his side, the Los Angeles Clippers announced. AP also confirmed his passing. He was 86.

As a player, he ranked — and still ranks — as one of the best ever to play in the NBA. That his silhouette would come to be featured on the NBA logo that adorns every uniform and every NBA-related piece of merchandise only seemed fitting.

As a coach, he never had a losing season and took his team to the playoffs in each of the three years he was in command.

As a general manager, in establishing the Lakers as a dynasty, he built some of the greatest teams in Lakers history, from refining the already fluid Magic Johnson-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar “Showtime” unit to engineering the sniping Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O’Neal bunch. The Lakers went to the NBA finals eight times and won four championships in his 18 seasons as a Lakers executive, and teams he’d built won two more titles after he’d retired.

His statue — it looks a lot like the logo — stands in front of Crypto.com Arena , silent testimony to his Olympic gold medal, his NCAA Final Four most-outstanding-player award, his niche in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, his 14 All-Star game appearances, his 27-point scoring average, his most-valuable-player awards in both the NBA Finals and the All-Star game, his executive-of-the-year awards, his game-tying 63-foot shot against the New York Knicks in the 1970 Finals, his “Mr. Clutch” nickname, and on it went.

Impressive accomplishments, most would agree. West thought otherwise. With him, it wasn’t so much what he’d done. The missed shots, the lost games, the almost-but-not-quite championships, these were the things that stuck with him, that turned basketball, the thing he loved most and did best, into daily torture.

“I have a hole in my heart, a hole that can never be filled,” he acknowledged in his 2011 autobiography, “West by West: My Charmed and Tormented Life,” written with Jonathan Coleman.

Washington Post, “Jerry West, NBA legend who helped the Lakers dominate, dies at 86

Jerry West, who made the Los Angeles Lakers a dominant force in pro basketball for three decades, first as a high-scoring guard whose graceful dribbling silhouette inspired the NBA logo, then as the team’s astute general manager, died June 12 at 86.

[…]

Mr. West forged one of the most successful overall careers in National Basketball Association history. He was widely regarded as one of the league’s greatest players, and his late-game heroics for the Lakers earned him the nickname “Mr. Clutch.”

His most famous shot came against the New York Knicks in Game 3 of the 1970 NBA Finals. With three seconds remaining and the Lakers trailing by two points, Mr. West took an inbounds pass, dribbled three times, then from well behind the half-court line shot a 60-foot rainbow that dropped through the hoop. (It forced the game into overtime, in which the Lakers lost.)

“The crowd was in a frenzy, everybody was going crazy, and there we were looking up at the scoreboard wondering what happened? What the hell happened?” the Knicks’ Walt Frazier, who guarded Mr. West for most of the game, later told the Los Angeles Times.

After hanging up his No. 44 uniform in 1974, Mr. West engineered an even more triumphant second act as the league’s preeminent executive. His prescient draft picks, timely trades and knack for massaging talent helped the Lakers dominate the NBA in the 1980s then again in the early 2000s, a run that included eight trips to the Finals and four championships.

Yet for all his accolades, Mr. West was his own fiercest critic and one of the sport’s most anguished figures.

[…]

Later, his accomplishments as the Lakers general manager and executive vice president seemed to produce more distress than elation and at one point landed him in the hospital with nervous exhaustion.

He once called his perfectionism “a horrible burden because you’re never really satisfied with anything.”

In his memoir, Mr. West revealed that he suffered from lifelong depression after growing up in rural West Virginia with a reclusive mother and a father who beat him. After one especially violent thrashing, Mr. West threatened to kill his father with a shotgun he kept hidden under his bed.

This brutal upbringing, he wrote, “almost certainly made me into the determined person and sick competitor that I became. A tormented, defiant figure who carries an angry, emotional chip on his shoulder and has a hole in his heart that nothing can ultimately fulfill.”

[…]

Mr. West was at his best when the stakes were highest: His playoff average of 29.1 points per game has been surpassed only by Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson — both of whom played decades after Mr. West and took advantage of the three-point shot. Chick Hearn, the late Lakers play-by-play announcer who coined the “Mr. Clutch” moniker, said Mr. West always wanted the ball when the game was on the line.

[…]

Mr. West retired as a player in 1974, at age 36, but returned to coach the Lakers in 1976. His teams made the playoffs all three years, but he harangued his players for lacking his own work ethic and brooded over losses. In “West by West,” Pat Riley, a former Lakers player and coach, recalled Mr. West contemplating suicide.

“One time in Kansas City when he was coaching, we were out on the balcony of our hotel, 15 floors up, and he was looking over and I simply said: ‘Don’t do it,’ ” Riley said.

The front office proved a better fit for Mr. West, who after serving for three years as a Lakers scout was named the team’s general manager in 1982. Led by point guard Earvin “Magic” Johnson and center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the team had developed an entertaining, run-and-gun style known as Showtime and had won two more NBA titles by the time Mr. West took over. His shrewd deals kept Showtime on track.

Because of the team’s success, the Lakers usually picked near the bottom of the annual NBA draft by which point most of the best prospects were gone. Nevertheless, Mr. West found overlooked gems including James Worthy and A.C. Green and traded for key role players such as Mychal Thompson and Byron Scott who helped bring the Lakers three more NBA titles in the 1980s.

“West saw what others didn’t. It’s his gift,” said Sports Illustrated basketball writer Jeff Pearlman who wrote two books about the Lakers.

In summer 1996, in what Mr. West called his greatest front-office coup, he engineered trades for high school sensation Kobe Bryant, who had been drafted by the Charlotte Hornets, and Shaquille O’Neal, then the league’s dominant center. That set up the Lakers for another championship run under Coach Phil Jackson, who had led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles and who Mr. West hired as coach in 1999.

But the better the Lakers played and the higher the expectations of the fans, the more Mr. West appeared to suffer.

I don’t remember West’s playing career, which ended before I turned 9, and wasn’t really playing attention to the sport during his brief tenure as a coach. So, I mostly know him as “The Logo” and for his long tenure as an NBA executive.

It’s a shame that, despite being one of the all-time greats, he was unhappy. A large part of that was certainly depression. But it’s often a curse of those who are obsessed with greatness that they dwell on their failures far more than they enjoy their successes.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Slugger says:

    They are calling the Ws into Heaven. West, Walker, and Walton have passed. I have been a basketball fan since my Dad took me to a Harlem Globetrotters game when I was nine. I was dazzled! I was in grad school in 1969 living in a ramshackle college duplex with two roommates, a highly intelligent guy and a guy capable of drinking all the beer in the world. We were Celtics fans cheering for Bill Russell and Havlicek. The guys downstairs were Lakers cheering for Jerry West and Chamberlain. We won in a truly thrilling game seven. My roommates and I jumped around on the floor to make sure the guys below us could hear our happiness. Mr. West, I am full of respect for you, Zeke from Cabin Creek is immortal, but your loss in 1969 has a big spot in my heart.

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  2. al Ameda says:

    Jerry West had the best career in basketball history, most certainly NBA history.

    He was flat out brilliant: an all time great player, an excellent coach, a great general manager, a first rate evaluator of talent, and a valuable consultant. There was nothing that Jerry West did in his 6-plus decades in the NBA that was less than excellent. Nobody else comes close.

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @al Ameda: The only comparison that comes to mind is Larry Bird: Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, Finals MVP, All-Star MVP, Coach of the Year, and Executive of the Year. But nothing like the same longevity as West.

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  4. steve says:

    I do remember him playing. A real competitor. His coaching career was short and not that great from my POV but he has been one of the best executives. Pat Riley was a much better coach but not even close as a player and as an exec he also falls short. Bird never had a championship as a coach or exec.

    Steve

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  5. Mister Bluster says:

    Jim Rome today ran some of the interviews with Jerry West.

    Rome: Jerry we’ve had a lot of rain, how’s that golf course look today?
    Jerry West: Oh it’s just gorgeous Jim! I was out there yesterday and I’ve often said I don’t like green and unfortunately it’s the color of the Boston green…
    Source

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