Jerry West, NBA legend who helped the Lakers dominate, dies at 86




Mr. West was one of the greatest athletes of all time on the basketball court, and his graceful, dribbling silhouette inspired the NBA logo.



Los Angeles Lakers’ Jerry West, No. 44, is fouled as he tries to get around Houston Rockets’ John Vallely during a game at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., in 1971. (AP)







Jerry West, who made the Los Angeles Lakers a dominant force in pro basketball for three decades, first as a high-scoring guard whose graceful dribbling silhouette inspired the NBA logo, then as the team’s astute general manager, died June 12 at 86.


The Los Angeles Clippers announced his death. Other details were not immediately available.


Mr. West forged one of the most successful overall careers in National Basketball Association history. He was widely regarded as one of the league’s greatest players, and his late-game heroics for the Lakers earned him the nickname “Mr. Clutch.”




His most famous shot came against the New York Knicks in Game 3 of the 1970 NBA Finals. With three seconds remaining and the Lakers trailing by two points, Mr. West took an inbounds pass, dribbled three times, then from well behind the half-court line shot a 60-foot rainbow that dropped through the hoop. (It forced the game into overtime, in which the Lakers lost.)


“The crowd was in a frenzy, everybody was going crazy, and there we were looking up at the scoreboard wondering what happened? What the hell happened?” the Knicks’ Walt Frazier, who guarded Mr. West for most of the game, later told the Los Angeles Times.


After hanging up his No. 44 uniform in 1974, Mr. West engineered an even more triumphant second act as the league’s preeminent executive. His prescient draft picks, timely trades and knack for massaging talent helped the Lakers dominate the NBA in the 1980s, then again in the early 2000s, a run that included eight trips to the Finals and four championships.


Yet for all his accolades, Mr. West was his own fiercest critic and one of the sport’s most anguished figures.


Playing in the 1960s and early ’70s, he led the Lakers to the NBA Finals nine times, only to lose eight times. Six of those Finals defeats came at the hands of the Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics, leaving Mr. West repelled by the color green and unwilling to visit Boston for the rest of his life.


“Those losses scarred me, scars that remain embedded in my soul to this day,” he wrote in “West by West,” his 2011 memoir co-authored by Jonathan Coleman. Even his miracle shot against the Knicks was all for naught as the Lakers lost the championship in seven games.


Later, his accomplishments as the Lakers’ general manager and executive vice president seemed to produce more distress than elation and at one point landed him in the hospital with nervous exhaustion.


He once called his perfectionism “a horrible burden because you’re never really satisfied with anything.”


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In his memoir, Mr. West revealed that he suffered from lifelong depression after growing up in rural West Virginia with a reclusive mother and a father who beat him. After one especially violent thrashing, Mr. West threatened to kill his father with a shotgun he kept hidden under his bed.


This brutal upbringing, he wrote, “almost certainly made me into the determined person and sick competitor that I became. A tormented, defiant figure who carries an angry, emotional chip on his shoulder and has a hole in his heart that nothing can ultimately fulfill.”


Hunting, fishing and basketball provided refuge from his home life. As a youngster he began shooting at a wire basket attached to the side of a bridge. Accuracy was key because if the ball didn’t go in, it would roll down the riverbank. He practiced constantly, even in the rain, mud and snow, and sometimes shot the ball so much that his fingers bled. In doing so, he developed what would become his trademark: a technically flawless jump shot.



Mr. West, of West Virginia University, shoots a jump shot against George Washington University during a Southern Conference game in 1958. (Harvey Georges/AP)

Though the NBA had yet to adopt the three-point shot, the 6-foot-3 Mr. West still averaged 27 points per game, which remains the fourth-highest in league history, and he made the all-star team in each of the 14 seasons he played for the Lakers. He also was a defensive stopper and played with such ferocity — crashing the boards, lunging for steals, taking charges — that he broke his nose nine times.


“Watching him forty-plus years later is like watching a human basketball camp,” sports journalist Bill Simmons wrote in “The Book of Basketball.” “His jumper is perfect. His defensive technique is perfect. His dribbling is right out of an infomercial.”


Mr. West was at his best when the stakes were highest: His playoff average of 29.1 points per game has been surpassed only by Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson — both of whom played decades after Mr. West and took advantage of the three-point shot. Chick Hearn, the late Lakers play-by-play announcer who coined the “Mr. Clutch” moniker, said Mr. West always wanted the ball when the game was on the line.


“He figured he could make any shot in the last five seconds,” Hearn told the Press-Enterprise. “So many times, I saw him pull up, take a 20-foot jumper and keep running, right toward the locker room, because he knew it was going in.”



Mr. West is pressed by Boston’s Emmette Bryant in the NBA championship playoff in April 1969. The Lakers’ Wilt Chamberlain is in the background. (Harold P. Matosian/AP)

During his second season with the Lakers, he single-handedly saved his team in Game 3 of the 1962 NBA Finals against the Celtics. Mr. West, who had hit the two previous baskets to tie the score, stole an inbounds pass and made a buzzer-beating layup for the victory.


“Jerry West will rip your heart out,” Celtics Coach Red Auerbach said in 1965. Referring to Mr. West’s boyish, clean-cut appearance, he added: “And who would expect it from such an innocent-looking guy?”


Still, Mr. West’s talent-laden teams always seemed to come up just short. In 1969, Mr. West became the first — and still only — member of a losing team to win the Finals’ most valuable player award.


Though he averaged nearly 38 points per game, his heavily favored Lakers squad, featuring future Hall-of-Famers Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor, fell to the Celtics in seven games.


The defeat left Mr. West so depressed that he considered quitting the sport and using a stick of dynamite to destroy the green Dodge Charger he received as MVP. Even a few of the Celtics felt some cosmic injustice had been done. After the final buzzer sounded, Celtics forward John Havlicek told him: “I love you, Jerry. I just hope you get a championship. You deserve it as much as anyone who has ever played this game.”



In what he described as “that one opening in the clouds,” the Lakers finally broke through in 1972. By then, Baylor had retired and Chamberlain and Mr. West were past their prime. Still, the team won 69 of its 82 regular season games and put together a 33-game winning streak, still a league record. In the NBA Finals, the Lakers crushed the Knicks in five games, and Mr. West finally had his ring.


Yet Mr. West paid little attention to his growing collection of mementos.


“Dad used to have hundreds of trophies, but he threw most of them out,” one of Mr. West’s sons, Mark, told a reporter, according to the Press-Enterprise. “The basketball he got when he scored his 20,000th point, he let us take it outside and play with it when we were kids.”


Expert collector of overlooked gems

Mr. West retired as a player in 1974, at age 36, but returned to coach the Lakers in 1976. His teams made the playoffs all three years, but he harangued his players for lacking his own work ethic and brooded over losses. In “West by West,” Pat Riley, a former Lakers player and coach, recalled Mr. West contemplating suicide.


“One time in Kansas City when he was coaching, we were out on the balcony of our hotel, 15 floors up, and he was looking over and I simply said: ‘Don’t do it,’” Riley said.


The front office proved a better fit for Mr. West, who after serving for three years as a Lakers scout was named the team’s general manager in 1982. Led by point guard Earvin “Magic” Johnson and center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the team had developed an entertaining, run-and-gun style known as “Showtime” and had won two more NBA titles by the time Mr. West took over. His shrewd deals kept Showtime on track.


Because of the team’s success, the Lakers usually picked near the bottom of the annual NBA draft by which point most of the best prospects were gone. Nevertheless, Mr. West found ways to acquire talent, including drafting James Worthy and A.C. Green and trading for key role players such as Mychal Thompson and Byron Scott who helped bring the Lakers three more NBA titles in the 1980s.


“West saw what others didn’t. It’s his gift,” said Sports Illustrated basketball writer Jeff Pearlman, who wrote two books about the Lakers.


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In the summer of 1996, in what Mr. West called his greatest front-office coup, he engineered trades for high school sensation Kobe Bryant, who had been drafted by the Charlotte Hornets, and Shaquille O’Neal, then the league’s dominant center. That set up the Lakers for another championship run under Coach Phil Jackson, who had led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles and whom Mr. West hired as coach in 1999.


But the better the Lakers played and the higher the expectations of the fans, the more Mr. West appeared to suffer.


Too nervous to watch the biggest games, he would kill time by stalking arena corridors or driving down the Ventura Freeway listening to music on his car radio. Rather than drinking in the applause at the Lakers’ numerous championship parades, he skipped the events and fretted about retooling for next season.


In 2000, Mr. West developed an irregular heartbeat prompting him to resign from the Lakers just weeks after the team won its first NBA title in 12 years.


But he wasn’t done yet.


Two years later, he shocked the basketball world by joining the Memphis Grizzlies as the team’s president of basketball operations. After so much success running the Lakers, he explained that he relished the challenge of turning around a struggling NBA franchise. After the Grizzlies made the playoffs in 2004, Mr. West was named NBA executive of the year for the second time. He spent his final years in the league as an executive board member for the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Clippers.


‘I didn’t think I was good enough’

Jerome Alan West was born May 28, 1938, in Chelyan, W.Va., the fifth of six children. His father was a mining electrician and union activist who bounced among jobs, leaving the family on the edge of poverty. Mr. West once described eating soup for dinner six days in a row and was initially small for his age because of vitamin deficiency.


He was deeply affected when his older brother David — whom he described as his parents’ favorite son — was killed in the Korean War. He said that one outcome of the death was Mr. West’s determination to succeed on the basketball court.


“I wasn’t jealous of him, but it was a lot to live up to,” he wrote in his memoir.


In 1956, he led his East Bank High School team to the state championship then earned a basketball scholarship to West Virginia University. He became a statewide hero in 1959 when he led the Mountaineers to the NCAA title game. Foreshadowing his frustrations in the pros, West Virginia lost by a point to the University of California at Berkeley.


In 1960, he co-captained, along with Oscar Robertson, the U.S. Olympic basketball team that won the gold medal by beating the Soviet Union. Shortly afterward, he was drafted by the Lakers, but his deep sense of self-doubt continued. “I didn’t think I was good enough to play in the NBA,” he later told Sports Illustrated. “No, really.”


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Mr. West’s first marriage, to his college sweetheart Martha Jane Kane, ended in divorce. In 1978, he wed Karen Bua. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.


By the time he retired for good, Mr. West had been involved in — as a player, consultant or team executive — 22 NBA Finals, more than fellow league icons Auerbach or Jackson. He was elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1980, was voted one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history in 1996 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by President Donald Trump in 2019.


Yet he seldom dwelled on his triumphs.


“The pain of losing,” he told Sports Illustrated, “is so much stronger than the joy of winning.”



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