Jerry West Was a Great Among Greats

The 12-time All-Star, seven-time champion and eternal silhouette of the NBA passed away Wednesday at the age of 86

June 12, 2024 6:36 pm
27 year old Jerry West makes a jump shot against the Cincinnati Royals (1965)
27-year-old Jerry West makes a jump shot against the Cincinnati Royals (1965).
Getty Images

Jerry West — 12-time All-Star, seven-time champion and eternal silhouette of the NBA — passed away on Wednesday morning. He was 86. In a press release issued by NBA Communications hours after his death, commissioner Adam Silver called West “a basketball genius,” a “defining figure in [the] league” and “one of the greatest executives in sports history.” 

Though he spent a lifetime in the Hollywood limelight, West’s earliest years were marked by adversity and apathy. At age 11, a previously outgoing West experienced immense trauma in response to his brother’s death in the Korean War. He quickly fell into a deep depression compounded by his father’s abuse, and spent time teetering between fates. In his darkest hour, West claimed he was pushed towards purpose: “When he died, there was a higher calling for me,” he stated on a 2015 podcast. “I said, ‘I’m gonna do something to make him proud.’” 

West, already a casual sharpshooter, dedicated all of his free time to basketball, practicing on a hoop mounted to his neighbor’s shed. In 1952, he joined East Bank High School’s freshman squad, where he improved his conditioning and hit a lucky growth spurt. He went All-State, then All-American his senior year, dropping a staggering 32.2 points per game. West’s dominance at the state level — he was the WV Player of the Year in 1956 — made him an attractive option for colleges nationwide. By the end of his senior year, he had received over 60 offers to join the finest collegiate squads in the nation. West parried by committing to West Virginia University. 

In the 1956/57 season, West’s freshman squad went undefeated. He was called up to varsity by legendary coach Fred Schaus, where he excelled, then dominated, then became an anomaly. Schaus later described West as introverted and driven, mentioning a two-week period at WVU in which West “never said a word.” Two years later, the silent sharpshooter was a top prospect for the NBA, with his contagious ambition, absurd stats and knack for hitting threes decades before the three-point shot was conceived. 

The summer after he graduated, West co-captained the American Olympic squad with Oscar Robertson — another top prospect out of Cincinnati. Under their joint leadership, the U.S. took home an easy gold medal, closing the tournament with a 90-63 victory over Brazil. 

Earlier that year, West had been picked second overall in the NBA draft (behind only Robertson) and prepared to join the Lakers upon his return home. There, he married his college sweetheart, Martha Jane Kane, and reunited with Schaus, who was poised to join the squad as a coach. In his freshman season, West became “Zeke from Cabin Creek,” the drawling Appalachian turned backcourt weapon. 

By the end of that year, he was a team personality, recognized for his quiet ambition and incredible finesse. In 1962/63, captain Elgin Baylor’s poor attendance granted him an opportunity to take on a principal role. That year, West’s stunning on-court presence and knack for hitting buzzer-beaters caused Lakers announcer “Chick” Hearn to nickname him “Mr. Clutch.” Despite masterful gameplay, that season ended in a Game 7 finals loss to the Celtics, fueling the already-brewing feud now called the “pinnacle” of NBA rivalries.

Over the next three seasons, West became increasingly dominant, breaking personal, then team, then league records. In 1965/66, Clutch posted a yet-to-be-broken 840 free throws, beating out Wilt Chamberlain’s 835 in the final games of the season. At this point, West was one of the most versatile players in the game, serving as an offensive weapon and defensive wall. He was perhaps the strongest playmaker of his era, and was comfortable playing the role of combination guard, with his incredible shooting skill, dexterity and aptitude for the game. The 1968/69 season was a pattern repeat for L.A., as they faced the Celtics in another championship series. This time, it took Boston only six games to pack the Lakers up. As the sun set on another ill-fated season, West steeled himself and prepared to train harder. Perhaps in response to that ethic, Celtics small forward John Havlicek approached West and said, “Jerry, I love you.”

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The next year, West took the Lakers back to the finals, where they faced the New York Knicks. This time, they pushed the series to the bitter end, partially thanks to a legendary 60-foot buzzer-bomb from Mr. Clutch. Though they lost in seven games, the stage was set for the 1971/72 season and West’s first ring. 

By 1972, West had reached his mid-30s, and, in the throes of the playoffs, been set upon by a devastating slump. Hobbling through the back half of the championship series against the Knicks, West managed to break the lifetime playoff points record, an omen for the Lakers’ impending victory. In five games, the Knicks were put away, making West, for the first time, an NBA champion. 

Following his retirement in 1974, West was briefly employed as the Lakers’ head coach, to mild success. He transitioned to scouting, then management, where he handcrafted the ’80s “Showtime” squad, including Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. Under his guidance, the new Lakers won five championships, shattering the standard set by the perennial finals-losers from his playing days. Following an interstate period, West acquired Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal on the eve of his retirement, setting the stage for a historic threepeat. In 2002, Clutch left retirement to return to the NBA. For the first time in his career, he was bound, not for the Lakers, but for the notoriously subpar Memphis Grizzlies. Though the team never found Showtime-level success, he made them into genuine playoffs contenders for the first time in years. 

In 2007, West retired, placidly stating, “I’m not a youngster anymore.” Though his days in the NBA circuit were not quite finished, it was clear that Zeke, Mr. Clutch and Jerry West had morphed into a single entity — the Methuselah of the NBA who had played, then perfected, then become the game. The NBA logo is West’s likeness, but also the ambition he embodied and the legacy he forged. Jerry West is survived by his wife, five children, and the logo; the silhouette which is still weaving around defenders and hitting buzzer-beaters, way upstairs.

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