The also-ran was a champion
By Bob Carter
Special to ESPN.com
Season after season, the Boston Celtics won the championship trophy, and Jerry West took home the consolation prize: praise for the runner-up. West would play brilliantly in the National Basketball Association playoffs, only to finish short of his goal.
In the seventh game of the 1969 Finals, West played with a leg injury and had 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists -- and his Los Angeles Lakers lost. The performance moved Celtics center Bill Russell to say, "Los Angeles has not won the championship, but Jerry West is a champion."
Nine times in his 14 seasons West's Lakers made the finals: They lost eight, the first six times to the Celtics. He got his only NBA title in the Lakers' record-setting 1971-72 season, but championships never defined him. The 6-foot-3, 180-pound West was peerless as a clutch shooter, a player who could score, pass and defend and who raised his game in the playoffs. He averaged 29.1 points in the postseason, second all-time only to Michael Jordan's 33.4.
Fred Schaus, his coach at West Virginia University and later with the Lakers, viewed West as the perfect guard: "He is the man that has everything -- a fine shooting touch, speed, quickness, all the physical assets, including a tremendous dedication to the game."
West never played a perfect game, but that didn't keep him from trying. He made one of the most memorable shots in history, a game-tying 60-footer against the New York Knicks in the 1970 Finals, but was reluctant to talk about it. The Lakers lost in overtime, and the outcome was West's bottom line.
Years after retiring, West recalled a regular-season game in which he made 16-of-17 shots from the field, all 12 of his free throws, and contributed 12 rebounds, 12 steals and 10 blocks. "Defensively, from a team standpoint, I didn't feel I played very well," he said. "Very rarely was I satisfied with how I played."
The perfectionist averaged more than 20 points per game in every NBA season but his first, and when he retired in 1974, he ranked high in the record books. He was third in scoring with 25,192 points, fourth in average (27.0), fifth in assists (6,238) and second in free throws (7,160).
West, the NBA's scoring champion in 1969-70 (31.2), was first-team all-league 10 times and made the all-defensive team four years. He was chosen for 14 All-Star Games, winning the MVP in 1972.
He was born on May 28, 1938 in Cabin Creek, W. Va., and grew up in nearby Chelyan, the son of a coal-mine electrician.
West practiced basketball incessantly at a neighbor's house, wearing gloves in the cold and developing a quick-release shot that became a trademark. He played so hard and so long his body looked frail and he had to take vitamin injections. As a senior at East Bank High School, he became West Virginia's first player to score more than 900 points and lifted his team to the state title.
More than 60 colleges showed interest in him before he chose his home state university. At West Virginia, he played for a 17-0 freshman team. On the varsity, he averaged 17.8 points as a sophomore, 26.6 as a junior and 29.3 as a senior, winning All-American honors his final two seasons.
He led the Mountaineers to three Southern Conference titles and an 81-12 record. In 1959, his junior season, West Virginia lost 71-70 to California in the NCAA final, and West won the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player award after scoring 28 points in the title game.
In the summer of 1960, "Zeke from Cabin Creek" and "The Big O" -- Cincinnati star Oscar Robertson -- led the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in Rome. West frequently was compared to Robertson, who was two inches taller and similarly talented.
West was drafted in the first round that year by the Lakers, who moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles before the start of the season. West and high-scoring forward Elgin Baylor, a fellow Hall of Famer, helped the franchise take off in Los Angeles. The Lakers were 25-50 in their Minneapolis finale and 36-43 in West's rookie year, when he averaged 17.6 points.
That losing season, though, didn't rest easily with West, who had played with big winners in high school and college. He just couldn't accept losing.
"He took a loss harder than any player I've ever known," said Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn. "He would sit by himself and stare into space."
The Lakers went 54-26 in his second season, buoyed by West's 30.8 scoring average. They met the Celtics in the 1962 Finals, a series in which West made what he considers his play of plays. At the end of Game 3, with the series tied at 1-1, West sank two last-minute jump shots to tie the game, and with three seconds left he intercepted Sam Jones' inbounds pass, dribbled and scored a layup to give the Lakers a 117-115 victory.
"I've never forgotten it," West said. "Everyone wants to hit a home run in the ninth inning to win a big game. That was my home run."
He capped a similar rally the next season in a division finals game against the St. Louis. Hawks. The Lakers trailed by seven with 70 seconds remaining and tied the score with seven seconds left. West then stole the ball from Cliff Hagan and sank the winning jump shot. His most famous basket was the long-distance pitch in the '70 Finals. Trailing the Knicks by two points in Game 3, West took an in-bounds pass and shot from beyond midcourt at the buzzer.
Knicks guard Walt Frazier remembers thinking: "The man's crazy. He looks determined. He thinks it's really going in!"
The shot did go in, but the Lakers lost in overtime. A dejected West had trouble talking about his shot after the game, saying, "It doesn't really matter, does it, because we lost."
West was renowned for his ability to overcome injuries -- he broke his nose at least eight times -- and perform under pressure. When Baylor got hurt in the opener of the '65 Western Division finals, West scored 40 or more points in all six games (averaging 46.3, a record for a playoff series) to lead the Lakers past the Baltimore Bullets. He averaged 40.6 points that postseason.
In the '69 Finals, he averaged 37.9 points against Boston and was voted the MVP. Three decades later, no other player from a losing team has yet to be so honored.
He got his NBA title in the glorious 1971-72 season, during which the Lakers -- coached by Bill Sharman and led by West, Wilt Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich -- won a record 33 straight games over a two-month span.
West averaged 25.8 points, led the league in assists (9.7) and the Lakers finished with a 69-13 record, the NBA's best until Chicago's 72-10 mark in 1995-96. Their .816 road winning percentage (31-7) remains the best of all time. In the playoffs, they won 12 of 15 games, beating the Knicks 4-1 in the Finals.
In his last season, 1973-74, West became the third player in NBA history to reach 25,000 points, following Wilt Chamberlain and Robertson. But a groin injury limited him to 31 games and, despite a 20.3 scoring average, he retired. "I'm not willing to sacrifice my standards," West said. "Perhaps I expect too much."
He coached the Lakers three seasons (1976-79), guiding them to a 145-101 record and into the playoffs each year. West was a Lakers scout for three years before serving as the team's general manager from 1982-94. He has been the Lakers' executive vice president since 1995, when he was chosen as the NBA's Executive of the Year.