When Jerry West wore No. 12 at East Bank High
It’s a typical West Virginia setting. The road is narrow. It has to be because a stream is ever so close and the low slung mountains hover just a stone’s throw away. That ever-present stream borders as a backdrop to back yards and weather-beaten buildings alike. And then there is a brick building that was years ago the high school where Jerome Alan “Jerry” West made famous the Pioneers of East Bank in Kanawha County.
Jerry West. West Virginia’s most famous athlete. A colossus in the National Basketball Association. An example of success used even on the world stage.
But it wasn’t always so when West was growing up in Chelyan as one of six children of his coal-mining father and housewife mother.
West did not dominate high school basketball in the state until his senior year at East Bank. In fact, he barely played at all as a reed-thin junior whose small stature kept him on the bench for the most part.
Toward the end of his junior year, West began to grow. By September of 1955, he had grown about six inches in six months and was 6-foot-3 instead of the 5-foot-9 he had been the season before.
When the basketball season began in December, Jerry West was about to bring state-wide attention — and a fistful of wins — to a school that had never been much of a problem for the opponents on the Pioneer schedule.
Black and white photos shown him in his No. 12 uniform with “East Bank” stenciled on the front of the white cotton shirt. The uniform top had sleeves — unlike most uniforms of the mid 1950’s. His black, high-topChuck Taylor Converse sneakers were a little unusual also.
For a player his height, West had very long arms and his legs were stronger than most teens weighing about 145 pounds.
After years of practice on a muddy hillside next door at a neighbor’s shed where a basket was well-used, West had become a superb dribbler and could launch himself into the air so quickly that guarding his jump shot was nearly impossible for other high schoolers.
The Pioneers of Coach Roy Williams would lose some games during the fleeting 1955-56 season, but they became the kings of Kanawha County and eclipsed the season had that year by Charleston High.
In the West Virginia Area playoffs, the Pioneers eliminated Huntington East and climbed into the four-team state tournament to be staged at West Virginia University’s Field House in Morgantown.
East Bank’s semifinal opponent was Mullens, the history-making Rebels and their 6-foot-5 center Willie Akers.
With West scoring a staggering 43 points, the Pioneers trimmed the Rebels, 77-73, and moved into the championship game against Morgantown High.
A crowd estimated at 6,500 crammed into the lofts and rimmed the playing floor in the Field House, an edifice that the fire marshal said had room for only 6,000 basketball buffs.
East Bank scored 16 points in the second quarter . . . and West scored 14 of those points.
Foul trouble began catching up to the Pioneer star. He stayed in the game with four fouls, obviously helping East Bank extend its halftime lead over the Mohigans.
With fully 5:27 remaining in the last quarter, West fouled out . . . taking his 39 points to the sidelines where he could only watch as the Pioneers completed the 71-58 win that became Kanawha County’s first big-school state championship since Charleston had won back in 1924.
That deluge of 82 points in two games at the state tournament left West with a scoring average of 34.3 points a game that season.
Much is made of players who score 1,000 points in a career. West scored 926 points his senior season alone.
When the team arrived by automobiles back at East Bank High, they were about two hours late because Coach Williams’ car had oil line problems and had to be repaired before the caravan of celebrators could finally be engulfed by nearly the entire town.
A tradition was started in East Bank the next day.
On March 24, 1956, the town changed its name to “West Bank”. And in every year since that state championship season, on March 24 the name is changed again for one day to “West Bank”.
The storied career at West Virginia University of the son of mountainous Cabin Creek/Chelyan/East Bank has been chronicled now for more than 55 years.
Another one of West’s accomplishments came in 1960, after his senior season at WVU.
He was selected to play on the United States Olympic team that would soon destroy the world’s basketball teams in Rome.
Coaching the USA was Pete Newell, the head man at California, the team that nipped the Mountaineers, 71-70, in the NCAA national championship game in 1959.
Fellow college players on that 1960 team were Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas, Terry Dischinger, Walt Bellamy, Darrell Imhoff and Jay Arnette. The others came from the Amateur Athletic Union ranks or military teams and included Adrian Smith, Bob Boozer, Lester Lane, Allen Kelley and Burdie Haldorson.
All participants in the 1960 Olympics were amateurs. There was no “Dream Team”.
The United States won all eight games it played. It defeated Brazil in the tournament finals, 90-63, and won its games by an average of 42.4 points.
In the fall/winter of 1960, West joined his coach at West Virginia, Fred Schaus, with the newly transplanted Los Angeles Lakers of the NBA.
Lucas, Robertson, Arnette, Smith and Boozer of the Olympic team all were united on the roster of the Cincinnati Royals.
From a frail-appearing 16-year-old to a gangling 17-year scoring machine to a soon-to-be two-time All-America forward at WVU, Jerry West had captured the imagination of coal miners, college professors, moonshiners, blue collar workers and medical personnel at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown alike in just five short years.
And he has kept their praise, gratitude and warm wishes for more than 55 years now that he is 77 years old and still active in the front office decision-making of the Golden State Warriors of the NBA.