Written by John Antonik
The most famous athlete to ever wear the Gold and Blue, Jerry West is universally considered one of basketball's all-time greats. Whether shooting a long jump shot, making a big steal or pulling down a clutch rebound, Jerry West could do it all for the West Virginia University Mountaineers and the Los Angeles Lakers.
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West’s inspirational journey from East Bank High to professional sports stardom is a source of great pride to West Virginians everywhere. Owner of 17 WVU records, West led the Mountaineers to three of their greatest seasons on the hardwood, winning 81 of 93 games while West was in the lineup, and coming within two points of winning the national championship in 1959.
During West's sophomore year in 1958, West Virginia finished ranked No. 1 in both the AP and UPI polls with a 26-1 record after winning the KIT and the Southern Conference titles. Then the Mountaineers were defeated by Manhattan in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Madison Square Garden in one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history.
But West and his teammates made up for it in 1959 by marching through the NCAA tournament, defeating Dartmouth, St. Joseph's, Boston University and Louisville to get to the finals where they lost to Pete Newell and Cal, 71-70. That Mountaineer team is still considered the best in school history. West tied the NCAA five-game tournament record of 160 points (32.0 points per game), including getting 28 points and 11 rebounds in the championship game. He was named Most Outstanding Player of that year's Final Four. Later, he was named to the U.S. Pan American Games team which won the gold medal.
A three-time scoring leader for the Mountaineers, West earned second-team All-America honors from the Helms Foundation and Converse for averaging 17.8 points and 11.1 rebounds per game during his sophomore season in 1958. The next two seasons in 1959 and 1960, he earned consensus All-America honors, including a senior season in which he averaged 29.3 points and 16.5 rebounds per game. West was co-captain of the 1960 Olympic team along with Oscar Robertson, the duo leading USA to a 5-0 record and a victory over Russia to claim the gold medal at Rome.
West was taken in the first round of the NBA draft by the Lakers (No. 2 overall) and spent 14 outstanding seasons with them. During his NBA career, he compiled just about every honor possible. An all-NBA first team selection seven times, West also made the all-NBA defensive team four straight years from 1970-73.
He set the NBA single game scoring record for guards on January 17, 1962 with 63 points against New York. Also an NBA record holder for the most free throws made in a single season in 1965-66 with 840, West led the league in scoring four years later in 1970 with an average of 31.2 points per game.
In the seventh game of the 1969 NBA Finals West played with a leg injury but still scored 42 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and made 12 assists in a losing effort. Nine times during his 14 seasons West's Laker teams made the NBA finals, but Los Angeles lost eight of them before finally getting the franchise’s first NBA title in 1972. Despite his team's lack of success in the finals, West remains one of the game's greatest postseason players, his 29.1 career postseason scoring average ranking second only to Michael Jordan's 33.4 scoring average.
West made one of the most memorable shots in NBA history in 1970 -- a game tying 60-footer at the buzzer against the New York Knicks - before the Lakers lost that game, too, in overtime. He was selected to play in the NBA all-star game 14 times, winning MVP honors in 1972 while also winning playoff MVP honors in 1969; West at one time held the NBA record with 3,708 playoff points.
West was the fifth player in NBA history to surpass the 6,000 assist mark and when he chose to retire in training camp before the start of the 1975 season he ended his career ranked among the NBA's top 10 in scoring, minutes, field goals and field goal percentage.
The Cheylan native was elected to the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame in 1980, and in 1997, West was named one of the NBA's 50 greatest players to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the league.
In 2007, before West Virginia’s game against Seton Hall, the school officially unveiled a statue of West created by artist Jamie Lester outside the WVU Coliseum. Four years later on Feb. 16, 2011, a 1,500-pound bronze statue of West dribbling a basketball was dedicated at the Staples Center in Los Angeles where the Lakers play. The statue at Staples, built by sculptors/artists Julie Rotblatt Amrany and Omri Amrany, joins likenesses of Magic Johnson, Wayne Gretzky, Chick Hearn and Oscar De La Hoya at Star Plaza.
West's jersey number 44 was official retired by West Virginia University on Nov. 26, 2005 prior to the Mountaineers' basketball game against LSU.
For years, West was known in NBA circles as "The Logo" for the belief that he was the player depicted on the logo. Recently, graphic designer Alan Siegel confirmed that he did chose a photograph of West dribbling a basketball as his depiction of the NBA's logo when he created it in 1969.
"As you all know, Jerry is the logo man, but to us [players], Jerry was not a silhouette. He was a man with a soul," said Boston Celtics great Bill Russell.
West later served as general manager and president of the Lakers, helping them to five NBA titles in the 1980s and six overall (he was named NBA Executive of the Year in 1995) before retiring after the 2000 season. West came out of retirement to become general manager of the Memphis Grizzlies in 2002, earning NBA executive of the year again in 2004 before retiring a second time in 2007.
West's son Jonnie completed a five-year career at WVU in 2011 and was a member of the Mountaineers' 2010 team that reached the Final Four.