Jerry West obituary

Jerry West, who has died at the age of 86, was a unique force in basketball for the better part of seven decades. A star for the Los Angeles Lakers for 14 years, West is not only still considered one of the best players in National Basketball Association (NBA) history, but in his second career in management he built two separate dynastic Laker teams, which he turned around. the struggling Memphis Grizzlies, and played a role in the success of the Golden State Warriors as an advisor. As if that wasn’t enough, West also modeled the NBA logo, a silhouette of him dribbling the ball in his left hand, which led to his enduring nickname: “The Logo.”

Great players often need more than one nickname to fully define them; Los Angeles announcer Chick Hearn dubbed West “Mr. Clutch”, after his penchant for hitting game-winning shots. Yet West’s individual talent was often diminished by his teams’ inability to overcome the final hurdle. His most famous shot, an 60-foot ball that tied the New York Knicks in the 1970 NBA Finals and sent the game to overtime, still resulted in a Laker loss.

And no player took the loss more intensely. “He never learned to lose,” Jeff Coplon wrote in a profile titled The Man Who Loves Basketball Too Much, published in Men’s Journal in 1996. He was often regarded as a flighty, tightly wound man, who could be frustrated by imperfections in his skills. his own game and that of others.

West encountered this obsession the hard way. He grew up poor in the tough coal country of West Virginia, born in Cheylan, where his father, Howard, was a mine electrician and machine operator for an oil company. His mother, Cecile Sue (née Creasy), worked in a store. Jerry was a shy and sickly child who needed vitamin injections, and he wasn’t allowed to play sports, so he started shooting basketballs alone into a hoop on the side of a neighbor’s shed. His father was abusive; Jerry spent much of his childhood with a loaded shotgun under his bed. In 1951, his brother David, nine years older, was killed in the Korean War, and for Jerry basketball became an obsession.

After failing to make his high school’s basketball team, a growth spurt to 6-foot-4 led to his starting the following year, and he became a star in his third season, leading East Bank High took school to the state championship; every year thereafter, until the school closed in 1999, on the anniversary of that match, the East Bank was renamed the West Bank for a day.

A statue of West outside the Arena in Los Angeles. Photo: Richard Vogel/AP

In his freshman year at West Virginia University, the team won 26 games and lost two; in his second, they lost the national championship to the University of California 71–70, although West was voted the tournament’s “Most Valuable Player” (MVP). The following year, while ranked second in the country, they were upset by New York University in the tournament. In the 1960 NBA draft, West was selected second overall by the Lakers, behind Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson. That summer, California coach Pete Newell selected both players as the core of the U.S. Olympic team; in Rome, West and Robertson led them to eight wins and the gold medal.

West joined the Lakers before the 1960-61 season. His teammate Elgin Baylor heard his Southern accent and called him Tweety Bird, but the name that stuck was the hillbilly-sounding “Zeke, from Cabin Creek,” even though Cabin Creek was just down the road from Cheylan.

With Baylor’s ability to play above the basket and West’s shooting, the pair were dubbed “Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside” in tribute to Army football greats Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis. West, now listed at 6-foot-1 but actually almost two inches taller, with long arms and good jumping ability, could score, pass, rebound and defend. But he had an innate feeling for the sport. “It’s a game of speed,” he said, “and how your mind works.” And he was tough; his nose had been broken 14 times.

He and Baylor turned LA into the best team in the NBA’s west. But they couldn’t beat Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics, falling to them six times in the championship finals. In 1969, West, limping due to an injured hamstring, scored 42 points in the decisive game and repeated his feat in college: he was named MVP of a losing team, the only one in NBA history. Russell once said that his greatest wish was to “see Jerry happy.” In 1970, the Lakers added Wilt Chamberlain as center, and after losing to the Knicks, they came back to finally win a championship in 1972, with a team that won a record 33 straight games.

West retired two years later. He transferred his obsession to golf; at one point he set a course record 28 on the front nine at the Bel-Air Club in LA, but closed the round with a 65. In 1976, the Lakers brought him back as coach. He improved the team to the league’s best record in his first season, but was annoyed by the players’ selfishness and sloppiness and switched to scouting after three seasons.

He took over as Lakers general manager in 1982 and won four titles with the “Showtime” team led by Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. He then built a second dynasty around Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. Only Boston’s Red Auerbach had managed to build successive dynasties; no former star player ever has. But a rift with coach Phil Jackson led to West’s departure to Memphis in 2000.

He retired in 2007 and published an autobiography in 2011: West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life (with Jonathan Coleman). That year, he joined the Warriors’ board of directors, and titles followed in 2015 and 2017. He publicly offered to return to the Lakers, who were rebuilding their management; instead he went to the Los Angeles Clippers.

West’s first marriage, to his college sweetheart Martha Jane Kane, ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Karen Bua, whom he married in 1978, and their two sons, Ryan and Johnnie, and by three sons, David, Mark and Michael, from his first marriage.

Jerry Alan West, basketball player and director, born May 28, 1938; died June 12, 2024