#44 Jerry West (aka "Mr. Clutch", "The Logo", "Zeke From Cabin Creek")
Position: Guard ▪ Height: 6-3 ▪ Weight: 175 lbs.
Born: May 28, 1938 (Age 74) in Chelyan, West Virginia
High School: East Bank in East Bank, West Virginia
College: West Virginia University
Draft: Los Angeles Lakers, 1st round (2nd pick, 2nd overall), 1960 NBA Draft
NBA Debut: October 19, 1960
Hall of Fame: Inducted as Player in 1980
The Minneapolis Lakers chose West with the second overall pick behind Oscar Robertson in the 1960 NBA Draft. Emboldened by the success of the westward-bound Brooklyn Dodgers and faced with the dilemma of finding a site for its home games, the Lakers franchise moved to Los Angeles for the 1960-61 season. The team had posted a 25-50 record in its last season in Minneapolis.
With Elgin Baylor ("Mr. Inside") scoring nearly 35 ppg and West ("Mr. Outside") contributing 17.6 ppg, the Lakers improved to 36-43 and finished in second place in the Western Division. They edged the Detroit Pistons in the division semifinals but then lost to the St. Louis Hawks in the division finals.
During the remaining 13 seasons of West's playing career the Lakers missed the Finals only four times. However, the Lakers and West came out on the losing end in eight of those nine Finals. Six of the losses came at the hands of the powerhouse Celtics. A few months before winning the title against the Knicks in 1972, West told Family Weekly, "It would almost be better not to get to the playoffs at all than to go so far but no further."
No one was affected more by those defeats more than West. "He took a loss harder than any player I've ever known," said longtime Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn in the National Sports Daily. "He would sit by himself and stare into space. A loss just ripped his guts out." It's no wonder. West held himself to seemingly impossible standards. "I'm surprised when the ball doesn't go into the hoop," West said toward the end of his career. "I think I should make every shot."
Unrealistic or not, West the perfectionist propelled the Lakers to the Finals repeatedly in the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1961-62 West established himself as a deadly scoring threat in only his second year in the league. That year he averaged 30.8 ppg, the first of four seasons in which he averaged better than 30 points. The Lakers had risen from third place in the division to first since West's arrival, posting a 54-26 record. In the playoffs West averaged 31.5 ppg.
The Lakers' seven-game defeat at the hands of the Celtics in the 1962 NBA Finals was particularly heartbreaking. After taking the series lead on Baylor's then record 61-point performance in Game 5, Los Angeles dropped the next two. In Game 7 a 15-foot Frank Selvy jumper at the buzzer that would have won the game in regulation bounced off the rim. Boston won in overtime, 110-107.
Although West enjoyed great individual success during his prime, the team's record is a study in frustration -- "unbelievable frustration" is how West described it to the Los Angeles Times Magazine. During the nine seasons from 1962 to 1970 the Lakers reached the Finals six times, losing to Boston five times and to the Knicks once. Three of the Finals went seven games, with the Lakers losing two of those Game 7 contests to the Celtics by a single basket. And in 1969, as in 1962, the Lakers led Boston after five games only to drop the last two contests.
Despite the Lakers' failure to win more league titles, most of West's legendary exploits came during the postseason. In the 1965 NBA Playoffs, West averaged 40.6 ppg over 11 contests; his 46.3 ppg average against Baltimore in the division finals was a record for a six-game series.
In 1965-66, West had another stellar year, averaging 31.3 ppg and finishing behind only Chamberlain in the scoring race. He also ranked fourth in both assists (6.1 apg) and free- throw percentage (.860). In the playoffs he kept up his torrid scoring pace, averaging 34.2 ppg over 14 contests. Boston won another NBA Finals matchup, prevailing in Game 7 at Boston Garden, 95-93.
In the 1969 NBA Finals against Boston, West became the only member of a losing team ever to win the Finals MVP Award. And in the 1970 NBA Finals against New York, West launched the famous bomb that, at least briefly, resuscitated the Lakers. The Knicks' Walt Frazier recalled thinking as West let the miracle shot fly, "The man's crazy. He looks determined. He thinks it's really going in!" It did, sending Game 3 into overtime. New York, however, won the game and the title. "It was a beautiful thing wasted," West later said.
As players on a perennial bridesmaid team, West and Baylor were frequently eclipsed by Chamberlain, Robertson and Bill Russell, who collectively won virtually every Most Valuable Player Award during West's and Baylor's most productive years. Although both ranked among the top four leading scorers in history when they retired, neither man ever won the award. Still, West was named to the All-NBA First Team 10 times in his career, and he was selected to the NBA All-Defensive First Team in four of his final five seasons.
Prior to the 1971-72 season the 33-year-old West was considering retirement. He thought of the broken noses, the broken hands, the pulled muscles and the lost championships. West returned, however, and helped make history. With Chamberlain now in the middle and Gail Goodrich pitching in on offense, the Lakers won a record 33 games in a row under new coach and former Celtics star Bill Sharman.
At midseason they were 39-3. At year's end they were 69-13, the best single-season record in NBA history until surpassed by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (72-10). Despite his age and physical problems West kept scoring, averaging 25.8 ppg while leading the NBA in assists with 9.7 per contest.
Having come this far, West would not be denied an NBA title. In the playoffs the Lakers swept the Chicago Bulls in four games and beat the Milwaukee Bucks in six. In the 1972 NBA Finals against the Knicks, Los Angeles lost Game 1 but then won four straight by relatively large margins. Including playoff games, the Lakers' record for the year was 81-16.
West's long wait had ended. He had finally won a championship, in one of the greatest seasons ever for an NBA team. Revitalized, he went on to play for two more years. In 1972-73 the Lakers lost yet another Finals to the Knicks. In 1973-74 a pulled groin limited West to 31 regular-season contests and only one playoff game. "I'm not willing to sacrifice my standards," West told the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner when he retired. "Perhaps I expect too much."
In 1974, the 36-year-old West left the game as the NBA's third-leading career scorer, behind Chamberlain and Robertson, with 25,192 points in 932 games. His average of 27.0 ppg game stands as the fourth highest among retired players, behind Michael Jordan, Chamberlain and Baylor. His 31.2 ppg in 1969-70 (at age 31) is the highest average ever for a player over 30. And his 6,238 career assists (6.7 apg) rank among the best ever. Only Jordan had a higher career scoring average in the playoffs, and only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tallied more career points in the postseason.