Greatest sports figures in L.A. history No. 6: Jerry West
Continuing our countdown of the 20 greatest figures in L.A. sports history, as chosen in voting by our online readers, with No. 6, Jerry West.
No. 6 Jerry West (41 first-place votes, 3,961 points)
For all the immortal players, great coaches and colorful owners the Lakers have had, no man has exerted more influence over the franchise from more positions — player, coach, executive — over a longer period of time than Jerry West.
His career as a player was one of such sustained and ubiquitous brilliance in the face of circumstances many times star-crossed that it seems right and fitting his image makes up the NBA’s logo. He also became the third Lakers icon to be memorialized in a statue outside Staples Center, joining Magic Johnson and Chick Hearn when his statue was unveiled on Feb. 17, 2011.
Drafted with the second pick in the 1960 NBA draft, West, a two-time All-American at West Virginia, would be named to the All-Star team 14 times. From 1967 to 1973, he was named to the All-NBA’s first team every year but two; the two years he wasn’t — 1968 and 1969 — he was named to the second team.
He averaged 27 points and 6.7 assists during his 14-year career, but, fittingly for the man known as "Mr. Clutch," averaged more points — 29 — in the playoffs.
Still, what endears him most to Lakers fans was his ability to persevere in the face of basketball heartbreak as his hard work, drive and excellence went many times unrewarded, season after season. Consider that many of West's most spectacular performances came in games or series his team ultimately lost. He played brilliantly in the 1959 NCAA basketball tournament, leading the Mountaineers to the championship game and earning tournament MVP honors. But West Virginia lost to California in the final, 71-70.
In the 1969 NBA Finals, West averaged nearly 38 points a game against the Boston Celtics and was named Finals MVP. But the Lakers lost to the Celtics in a seventh game at the Forum — generally considered the worst loss in Lakers history — in a game in which West had 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists. West remains the only player to be named Finals MVP while playing for the losing team.
His half-court heave against the New York Knicks during the 1970 Finals the following year is probably the most enduring image most fans have of West's brilliance in the clutch. What many don't realize is that West's shot only tied the game, sending it into overtime. The Knicks would win that game and, eventually, the series.
For Lakers fans of a certain age, the team's 1972 championship remains their favorite not because it was the first in L.A. or that it came with a team that won a record 33 straight games but that it finally, officially, made West a champion, though he had always played that way.
After retiring in 1974, West was coaxed into coaching the team from 1976 to 1979 and compiled a 145-101 record, getting his team into the playoffs every year and once as far as the conference final. In 1982, he became the team’s general manager and built the Showtime Lakers, which had taken the 1980 title, into a stronger squad that would finally defeat the Celtics in the 1985 Finals and become the first team in 20 years to repeat as NBA champions in 1987 and 1988.
After the retirement of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and James Worthy, West went about rebuilding the team and, in 1996, accomplished the masterstroke of signing free agent Shaquille O'Neal and trading for a 17-year-old rookie named Kobe Bryant. When West was able to hire Phil Jackson out of retirement, the Lakers would go on to win three straight titles from 2000 to 2002.
— Steve Lowery