Jerry West still contributing to winning teams
Jerry West is now 78 years young.
His legacy includes high school, college and professional basketball championships — team accomplishments that he always cherished more than any individual statistics.
His number 44 has been retired by West Virginia University and the one NBA team he played for, the Los Angeles Lakers.
A road near the WVU Coliseum was named “Jerry West Boulevard.” “Boulevard” instead of the more routine “Road” or “Street.”
There is a large, bronze figure of him dribbling in front of an entrance to the Coliseum. Another such bronze figure sits just outside the Staples Center where the Lakers play their home games.
Before it closed its doors for good in 1999, East Bank High School in Kanawha County always changed its name to “West Bank” on every March 24 in honor of the big-school basketball state championship it won in 1956 when West was a senior. The acknowledgement of West’s accomplishment lasted only for a day — but that was enough to remember the heritage he left when moving on to West Virginia University and guiding the Mountaineers to unprecedented success in the old Southern Conference.
He had averaged 32.2 points per game as a senior when there was no three-point line to increase the scoring of players.
Courted by scores of colleges, West was most tempted by Maryland and its cavernous Cole Field House, which held about 16,000. But on a visit to see the Terrapins in action, West thought they played too slow . . . and he wanted an up-tempo, fast break style of play that best suited his quickness and fundamentally sound game.
He choose West Virginia with Coach Fred Schaus and its penchant for run-run basketball, a style adored by the raucous crowds that came to the Fieldhouse on campus.
NCAA rules forbade freshmen from playing on varsity teams. So West and friends Willie Akers and Bucky Bolyard and company showed a perfect 17-0 record on the 1956-57 freshmen team.
Three varsity seasons at WVU brought three Southern Conference regular season titles and three Southern Conference tournament championships. The team held the country’s No. 1 ranking when he was a sophomore, came in second in the 1959 NCAA championship tournament and was highly ranked in his last season.
West was the second player taken in the 1960 NBA draft and joined with Schaus when the Minneapolis Lakers moved to Los Angeles for the 1960-61 season.
Before joining the Lakers, West had won a gold medal in the 1959 Pan American Games and another gold in the 1960 Olympics.
One of his accomplishments showed him being named the Most Outstanding Player in the 1959 NCAA Tournament. No other player on a team not winning the tournament had ever been named the Most Outstanding Player. He had averaged 32 points a game in West Virginia’s five tournament games.
West played his 14-year NBA career with the Lakers, winning one championship . He scored 25,192 points for a 27.0 average for all those seasons. At age 23 in his second year as a professional, he averaged 30.8 points and was the ring leader on a team ravaged by a season-ending injury to Elgin Baylor.
After retiring as an active player, West eventually coached the Lakers for three years, reaching the playoffs every year.
His legacy was further burnished by his successful years as the Lakers’ general manager.
West assembled high-caliber teams that won six NBA titles while he was the general manager. Los Angeles championship teams had luminaries such as Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, James Worthy, Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Jamal Wilkes.
In 2002, West became the general manager of the downtrodden Memphis Grizzlies and got them into the playoffs for two seasons.
The Golden State Warriors hired West as a member of their Board of Directors in 2011. His acumen for judging talent, and vision for seeing where any player would be in the future were particularly useful to the Warriors.
Klay Thompson is a Golden State player West saw as having a promising future.
With no accompanying fanfare or flourish, West returns to West Virginia at regular intervals, staying at The Greenbrier where he has a steak house and residence.
Jerry West has been many things to the state — the best basketball player ever born here, maybe the best athlete ever to play at WVU, a lifetime ambassador for the state and an unpaid public relations scion for the state and its warm and always helpful people.