Big 12 Basketball

Jerry West: A Mountaineer Whose Fingerprints Cover the Sport of Basketball

Jun 12, 2024; Dallas, Texas, USA; A general view of a video presentation in memory of former NBA player Jerry West before game three of the 2024 NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

If you run into a West Virginia Mountaineers fan in the next few days, give them a hug. They’re hurting after the news of Jerry West’s death broke on Wednesday.

West isn’t a Big 12 legend, even if WVU is now a Big 12 school. Back in his day with the Mountaineers, they played in the Southern Conference. He’s just a legend. Period.


Try to write a book about the game of basketball and there’s no way West’s name doesn’t come up. Heck, he deserves a chapter of his own.

If you had told the kid from Chelyan, West Virginia, that he would one day play for, coach, and run the Los Angeles Lakers and walk away from his career with nine NBA titles while starting his collegiate career at his home state college, I doubt West would have believed you.

But that’s what happened. Basketball got him out of East Bank High School and the coal mining towns near Charleston. It got him to WVU, where he helped them to the Final Four his junior year (and was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player in spite of the Mountaineers losing to Cal) and left WVU with 2,309 points in three seasons. Remember — freshmen couldn’t play varsity back then.

Oh, and the summer after he graduated from WVU, he went to Rome and won a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics.

That would have been enough, right?


No, he was the No. 2 overall pick in the 1960 NBA Draft, back when few cared about the NBA. He and Elgin Baylor helped turn the Los Angeles Lakers into the best team out west, but one that consistently lost to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. Go watch “Best of Enemies,” the three-part Lakers-Celtics documentary, and listen to West talk about FINALLY winning a championship … against the Knicks.

The tone of his voice. It was hollow. He admitted it would have meant more beating the Celtics.

But an NBA title, an NBA Finals MVP award (again, for the losing team), 14 All-Star Game nods, 10 All-NBA First Team selections, and a spot in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

Heck, his silhouette is the NBA’s logo.

That would have been enough, right?

Nope. Eventually, he became the NBA’s top executive. He made the Lakers a dynasty not once but twice. He was a scout the year they drafted Magic Johnson. His first major move as general manager was to draft James Worthy. In one week in 1996, he drafted Kobe Bryant and signed Shaquille O’Neal. He was smart enough to get out of Pat Riley’s way when late Laker owner Jerry Buss tried to make them “co-coaches.”

He won eight titles as an executive — six with the Lakers and two more as a consultant with the Golden State Warriors. In between, he turned the Memphis Grizzlies into winners, too.

The outpouring all day from West’s passing reminded me that I never met him. In all my travels, in all of the games and events I got to cover, my path never crossed with “Mr. Clutch.” Or “The Logo.” Or “Zeke from Cabin Creek,” as some know him back home.

As a basketball fan, that’s an opportunity missed for me. But his fingerprints can be found all over the game. And his No. 44 can be found in the rafters of WVU Coliseum for everyone to see.

You can find Matthew Postins on Twitter @PostinsPostcard.

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