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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

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

RIP - Jerry West, One of Basketball’s Greatest Players, Dies at 86

He was a sharpshooting, high-scoring Hall of Fame guard for the Lakers and later an executive with the team. His image became the N.B.A.’s logo.

Jerry West, wearing a purple and hold Lakers uniform with the number 44, holds a basketball with both hands and prepares to shoot. Walt Frazier, wearing a white and orange Knicks uniform with the number 10, reaches up to block his shot.
Jerry West was guarded by Walt Frazier in the 1972 N.B.A. finals against the New York Knicks. When the Lakers won the championship that year, avenging their loss to New York in the 1970 finals, West spoke after the last game with a colossal sense of relief.Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated, via Getty Images

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 for 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 2015-16 Golden State Warriors won 73 — including a streak of 33 in a row that remains unequaled. 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 1959, 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 — sweet revenge against the Celtics at last — 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 acquired Kobe Bryant in a trade and signed Shaquille O’Neal as a free agent. West left the Lakers after that season, but the team built largely on his watch won two more championships in a row.

As a long-armed sharpshooting guard, West, who played from 1960 to 1974, is on anyone’s short list of the finest backcourt players in the history of the game. At 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3 and well under 200 pounds, he wasn’t especially big, even by the standards of the day: His great contemporaries Oscar Robertson, John Havlicek and, a bit later, Walt Frazier were taller, brawnier men adept at posting up opposing guards. (Havlicek also played forward.)

But West, who routinely played through injuries — his nose was reportedly broken nine times — was a quick and powerful leaper with a lightning right-handed release, all of which allowed him to get his shot away against taller, stronger defenders.

He wasn’t the finest dribbler in the league, but he was among its finest passers, averaging nearly seven assists per game, and his nearly six rebounds per game was better than average for a guard. He had quick hands on defense, enormous stamina, a relentlessly active presence on the court — a quality now often described as a great motor — and superior court sense.

Excelling Under Pressure

He was probably best known, however, for excelling in tough situations and big games, for wanting the ball when the game was in the balance, and for making shots under pressure.

In the 1970 finals against the Knicks, West made one of the most memorable shots in league history. With the Lakers down by two and the clock ticking down, his buzzer-beating heave from beyond half court tied the game. The three-point shot was not yet in effect — the N.B.A. didn’t adopt it until 1979 — and the Lakers lost in overtime.

“If it comes down to one shot,” West said once, “I like to shoot the ball. I don’t worry about it. If it doesn’t go in, it doesn’t go in.”

West led the N.B.A. in scoring in the 1969-70 season with 31.2 points per game; he scored more than 30 points per game in four seasons; and he averaged 27 points during the regular season for his career, the eighth-highest figure in N.B.A. history and third-highest at the time of his retirement (behind Chamberlain and Baylor).

But he was even better in the playoffs, when he averaged more than 30 points a game seven times, including 40.6 in 1964. 

In the 1969 finals against the Celtics, he averaged 37.9 points, including 42 in the final game, in which he also had 13 rebounds and 12 assists and led a fourth-quarter comeback that fell, heartbreakingly, a bucket short. He was named the Most Valuable Player for the series, still the only time a losing player has been the finals’ M.V.P. Afterward the Celtics were agog with praise.

Bill Russell called West “the greatest player in the game,” and Red Auerbach, the renowned coach who was then the Celtics’ general manager, called West’s performance in a losing cause one of the most brilliant he’d ever seen.

“The guy I felt sorry for in those playoffs was Jerry West,” John Havlicek told the writer Terry Pluto for his book “Tall Tales: The Glory Years of the N.B.A.” (2000). “He was so great, and he was absolutely devastated. As we came off the court, I went up to Jerry and I said, ‘I love you and I just hope you get a championship. You deserve it as much as anyone who has ever played this game.’ He was too emotionally spent to say anything, but you could feel his absolute and total dejection over losing.”

Zeke From Cabin Creek

Jerry Alan West was born in Chelyan, W.Va., on May 28, 1938, and lived in several towns in the area southeast of Charleston along the Kanawha River, including Cabin Creek, the derivation of one of his later nicknames: Zeke from Cabin Creek. (With the Lakers, he was also known as Mr. Outside — Elgin Baylor was Mr. Inside — and Mr. Clutch.)

West was the fifth of six children of Howard and Cecile Sue (Creasey) West. His mother (her first name was pronounced Cecil) was a store clerk, and his father was a machine operator for an oil company and worked in the electrical shop at a coal mine. A fierce union man and a rigid disciplinarian, the elder West was portrayed in a 1960 article in The Saturday Evening Post, while Jerry was starring for West Virginia, as a “a salty man of strong convictions” and small-town country habits who was “inclined to brag more about his front porch — ‘biggest front porch in town, wouldn’t trade it for a pair o’ Missouri mules’ — than about his all-American son.”

Jerry West, who grew up shy and introverted — “an intelligent, intense, complicated young man of 21,” The Post wrote — was most affected by what he later said was a chilly household and the death of an older brother, David, in the Korean War. In a harshly introspective memoir, “West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life” (2011, with Jonathan Coleman), West spoke of being beaten by his father and “raised in a home, a series of them actually, that was spotless but where I never learned what love was.”

He played basketball at East Bank High School, and when the team won the 1956 state championship, the town renamed itself West Bank for a day.

Over three years at West Virginia University, he averaged nearly 25 points per game, shooting better than 50 percent and grabbing more than 13 rebounds per game. He was twice named player of the year in what was then the Southern Conference and twice picked as a consensus all-American. He was paired in the backcourt with Oscar Robertson on the gold medal-winning American Olympic team in 1960.

In his 14 pro seasons, West was named to the all-N.B.A. first team 11 times. But injuries finally caught up with him.

“With my different noses, my wife has been married to nine different guys,” he said. He missed the 1971 playoffs with a torn knee ligament and agonized through his final season with a persistent abdominal strain.

He had had salary squabbles with Jack Kent Cooke, the Lakers’ owner, and after saying he would play a 15th year, he decided on retirement shortly before the 1974-75 season, a move that exacerbated an already strained relationship.

In the spring of 1975, West sued, saying Cooke had failed to honor a $1 million, five-year agreement that covered both a playing contract and post-playing years. The Lakers countersued, saying West’s abrupt last-minute reneging on his promise to play doomed the team to a poor season. (They finished at 30-52.) Both suits were dropped a year later after the two men reconciled — to some degree; they saw eye to eye on very little — and Cooke hired West as the Lakers’ head coach in 1976.

In his first season as head coach, West led the Lakers to the N.B.A.’s best record, 53-29, with Abdul-Jabbar as the league’s most valuable player, but they lost in the playoffs to the eventual champions, the Portland Trail Blazers, led by Bill Walton, who died last month. Two years later, the Los Angeles once again lost to the eventual champs, the Seattle SuperSonics.

West’s won-lost record over three seasons as coach was 145-101 — a creditable résumé, especially given that he’d had no previous coaching experience at any level. But it was not a rewarding experience.

Among other things, he had been through two troubling incidents. In one, Abdul-Jabbar broke his hand when he punched the opposing center, Kent Benson of the Milwaukee Bucks, after Benson had elbowed him in the stomach. Several weeks later came one of the most shocking and upsetting episodes in league history: On Dec. 9, 1977, when an on-the-court melee broke out between the Lakers and the Houston Rockets, the Laker forward Kermit Washington delivered a punch to the head of the Rockets’ Rudy Tomjanovich that nearly killed him.

Becoming an Executive

In a 2010 biography of West, Roland Lazenby wrote that “West is certain that talent supersedes coaching in the business of basketball,” and even though Cooke sold the team after the 1979 season and the new owner, Jerry Buss, wanted West to stay on, he didn’t care for being on the bench. West did, however, have an interest in player evaluation and in having an executive role on the team, and in 1982, following a season that had brought the Lakers, led by Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, their second championship in three years, Buss named him general manager.

West was an active team builder His draft picks included several players who became Laker stalwarts: James Worthy (No. 1 overall in 1982, ahead of Dominque Wilkins), A.C. Green in the first round in 1985, and, to replace Abdul-Jabbar, who retired after 20 years as the game’s dominant player, Vlade Divac in the first round in 1989.

In a six-player deal with the San Diego Clippers (now the Los Angeles Clippers) in 1983, West traded a popular guard, Norm Nixon, and added Byron Scott. When Magic Johnson retired in 1991 after revealing that he had tested positive for H.I.V., West sought to create another one-two punch on the order of Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson or Chamberlain and West.

In the space of a week in 1996, he finally managed it, trading Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for a recent draftee just out of high school — Kobe Bryant — and signing a big man who had recently become a free agent, Shaquille O’Neal. The result: Over 20 seasons, from 1982 to 2002, the Lakers reached the N.B.A. finals 10 times, winning five championships and missing the playoffs just once.

After leaving the Lakers, West spent five seasons, from 2002 to 2007, with the Memphis Grizzlies, a team that had never won as many as half its games in its seven previous seasons. In West’s second year at the helm, the Grizzlies were 50-32, the first of the three consecutive seasons in which they qualified for the playoffs.

He later joined the board of the Golden State Warriors, who were league champions in 2015 but who, after a record-setting regular season, lost in the finals the next year to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Following that defeat, West was reportedly involved in acquiring the all-star free agent forward Kevin Durant.

West’s first marriage, to Martha Jane Kane, whom he met in college, ended in divorce. He married Karen Bua in 1978. West had five sons: David Mark, Michael, Ryan and Jonnie. Complete information on his survivors was not immediately available. 

In recent years West’s personality became the object of some scrutiny. Both Lazenby’s biography and West’s own book depict him as a troubled perfectionist and a relentless, pitiless self-examiner — someone who, in West’s own words, was “aloof and inscrutable,” possessed of “a demon-filled mind” and unable to fully enjoy his many successes.

In 2022, the HBO show “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” portrayed West (played by Jason Clarke) as an irrationally relentless and tantrum-throwing executive still brooding over past disappointments. In a statement after the show’s premiere, a lawyer representing West demanded a retraction and an apology in a statement that described his characterization in the show as “deliberately false,” “egregious” and “cruel.”

HBO defended the show, saying in a statement, “The series and its depictions are based on extensive factual research and reliable sourcing.”

West acknowledged that he had complicated personality. “I am not a conventional person or thinker, not someone who walks a straightforward line,” he wrote. “I am too rebellious and defiant for that, always have been. I am, if I may say so, an enigma (even to myself, especially to myself), an obsessive, someone whose mind ranges far and wide and returns to the things that, for better or worse, hold me in their thrall.”

West added that he wrote the book to “explain the mystery of that person” who is suggested by the logo of the N.B.A., which was created in 1969 and has a peculiar murkiness to its history. It shows a figure in white silhouette against a red and blue background, a slender player facing forward in midstride, dribbling with his left hand, his body angled gracefully.

The league has never acknowledged officially that it is West. It resembles him enough, however, that some critics have grumbled that the logo is out of date, and that because the league is mostly Black, the figure should be identifiable as a Black star, like Michael Jordan.

In 2010, The Los Angeles Times interviewed Alan Siegel, the man who designed the logo. Of course it’s West, he said, but he hadn’t chosen West as the model; he chose a photo of West that captivated him.

“It was perfect,” Siegel said. “It was vertical and it had a sense of movement. It was just one of those things that clicked.”

As for West himself, he told The Times that he felt awkward commenting, but that if he was indeed the model, it would be flattering. He recalled that when he first saw Siegel’s drawing, he thought, “That looks like somebody familiar.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

Corrections were made on 

June 12, 2024

An earlier version of this obituary misstated when the Golden State Warriors won 73 games. It was the 2015-16 season, not the 2014-15 season.

An earlier version of this obituary misstated the year West’s West Virginia University team lost to California in the national finals. It was 1959, not 1958. 

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this obituary referred incorrectly to West’s career average of 27 points per game during the regular season. It is the eighth-highest figure in N.B.A. history, not the sixth-highest. 

How we handle corrections

Bruce Weber retired in 2016 after 27 years at The Times. During the last eight he was an obituary writer. He is at work on a biography of the novelist E.L. Doctorow. More about Bruce Weber"

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

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