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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Jerry West, one of basketball’s greatest players, dies at 86

The basketball legend Jerry West, at the Los Angeles Clippers training facility on April 9, 2018. (Emily Berl/The New York Times)

By Bruce Weber

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 NBA, died 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 NBA 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 New York 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 1960-74, 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.

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.

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 MVP for the series, still the only time a losing player has been the finals’ MVP.

Zeke from Cabin Creek

Jerry Alan West was born in Chelyan, West Virginia, 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.

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.

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% 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 U.S. Olympic team in 1960.

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

After a lawsuit filed by West and then a reconciliation between the two men, Cooke hired West as the Lakers’ head coach in 1976.

In his first season as head coach, West led the Lakers to the NBA’s best record, 53-29, with Abdul-Jabbar as the league’s MVP, 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, 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.

Becoming an executive

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

After leaving the Lakers, West spent five seasons, from 2002-07, 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.

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.

NBA Finals


Game 4 (Boston leads series 3-0)

Boston Celtics at Dallas Mavericks,

8:30 p.m. ET (ABC)

Wednesday’s Game 3

Celtics 106, Mavericks 99

Game 2

Celtics 105, Mavericks 98

Game 1

Celtics 107, Mavericks 89

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