Monday, July 15, 2024

Jerry West, Hall of Famer and inspiration for the NBA’s logo, dies at age 86

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Jerry West, the high-scoring Hall of Famer whose silhouette is used for the NBA logo, died Wednesday morning, the NBA announced. He was 86.

West left his mark on the NBA as a player, coach and team executive after entering the league in 1960.

“Jerry West was a basketball genius and a defining figure in our league for more than 60 years,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “He distinguished himself not only as an NBA champion and an All-Star in all 14 of his playing seasons, but also as a consummate competitor who embraced the biggest moments.  He was the league’s first Finals MVP and made rising to the occasion his signature quality, earning him the nickname ‘Mr. Clutch’.”

Known for his great jump shot, West was consistently one of the top scorers in the league every season he played. He led the NBA in 1969 with a 31.2 points-per-game average. He is fourth among retired players with a 27.03 career scoring average, behind Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor. 

But it was in the playoffs where West seemed to play his best. Four times, he averaged more than 30 points per game in the postseason, his best being in 1965 when he averaged 40.6. He still holds the record for highest scoring average for a series when he scored 46.3 points per game against the Baltimore Bullets in the Western Division Finals.

As good as he was in the playoffs, those also were the times of his biggest frustrations. West’s Lakers played in the NBA Finals nine times, but won just once, in 1972 against the New York Knicks. They fell six times to the Boston Celtics in the 1960s, with three of those losses in seven games.

Probably the most frustrating was the loss to the Celtics in 1969. The Lakers took a 3-2 lead in the series and lost Game 7 at home. West had 42 points in the final game and became the only player to ever win Finals MVP for a losing team.

After the game, Celtics general manager Red Auerbach said, “I want to say that Jerry West was absolutely fantastic. That was one of the greatest exhibitions I ever saw in my life.”

West’s frustrations over those losses never went away. After the Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the 2016 NBA Finals, West found himself defending LeBron James, who at the time had lost four of the six Finals in which he had played. 

“He carried teams on his shoulders. They’ve been in the Finals six straight times. How many times have they been the favorite? None. Zero, OK? Grossly unfair to him,” West told reporters in a response that seemed to be also aimed at defending his own record. “It’s hard for me to believe that someone doesn’t recognize his greatness. It’s hard for me to believe. This guy does everything. He’s like a Swiss Army knife. He does everything, and he’s competitive as hell and frankly I wish people would leave him alone.”

The one title West did win almost didn’t happen for him. After years of battling through various injuries and continued frustrations about not winning a title, West almost retired. He was glad he didn’t. With Chamberlain and guard Gail Goodrich, the Lakers won an NBA-record 33 games in row during the regular season and finished with a record of 69-13, which stood until broken by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ 72-10 mark. 

Even though he might have had one of the worst series of his career, the Lakers won the Finals against the Knicks in five games, avenging a loss from the season before. After all those years, he finally won a championship on a team that had one of the best seasons in NBA history. 

When West retired, he was the third-leading scorer in league history. He stayed away from the game for two years before coming back as the Lakers coach in 1976. In his three years, West’s teams were 145-101 and in his first season, the Lakers won the Pacific Division and went to the playoffs for the first time since he retired.

He became the Lakers general manager in 1982, a job he held until 2002. During that time, the Lakers won eight championships. West took over the Memphis Grizzlies in 2002 and stayed there until 2007. He joined the Golden State Warriors as an adviser in 2011 and took a similar role with the Los Angeles Clippers in 2017.

West finished his playing career with 25,192 points, 6,238 assists and 5,366 rebounds. He made 14 All-Star appearances and 12 All-NBA teams.

Editorial note: Spain was a former employee at USA TODAY Sports

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