WVU shortcomings still linger for West
LOS ANGELES — For most long-retired athletes, an invitation to join a Hall of Fame is a major achievement. The induction ceremony is a chance to celebrate a life well-lived and a career maximized.
For Jerry West, it's just another reminder of everything that went wrong in his amazing career.
West plans to be in attendance when he's ushered into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame today in Kansas City, Mo., inducted in the founding class for his remarkable career at West Virginia. Yet West is sports' most notorious pessimist this side of Lou Holtz or Jerry Sloan.
When asked about the latest honor in a long series of enshrinements and accolades since he hung up his sneakers in 1974, the longtime Los Angeles Lakers guard and executive seemed to be anticipating the trip with something between cautious excitement and outright dread.
"I think they think I'm going to die right away," West said. "That's why they do these things. It's nice, but that doesn't define me as a player. ... I don't really embrace stuff like that."
At 72, the 6-foot-3 West still cuts an imposing figure in a crisp suit. He's fit and fluid, appearing easily capable of playing pickup basketball until sunset.
Much has been written and suggested about West's fatalistic bent. His intense streak of perfectionism is common to many elite players — from West and Sloan to Michael Jordan and Larry Bird — but perhaps its roots are planted in the Mountaineers' inability to win it all during West's peerless tenure.
Before West's silhouette appeared on the NBA logo, he was Zeke from Cabin Creek. The smaller-than-small-town West Virginia boy — actually from unincorporated Chelyan, not nearby Cabin Creek, where the West family got its mail — overcame a hardscrabble childhood to become a two-time All-American with the Mountaineers, leading them to the 1959 national championship game during three spectacular seasons.
Hot Rod Hundley preceded West by three years, and his No. 33 jersey hangs next to West's No. 44 as the only numbers retired by West Virginia.
"Jerry West, to me, was and still is one of the five best players ever to play," Hundley said. "That's how good he was."
West embraced basketball primarily as a solitary pursuit in his childhood, spending thousands of hours shooting into a hoop on a neighbor's shed. West Virginia's high school Player of the Year heeded his father's advice and attended college in his home state, where his thick Appalachian accent wouldn't stand out so prominently.
West still experienced a culture shock when he moved from his hometown of perhaps 500 people to busy Morgantown in the summer of 1956. Today, West's strongest memory of those first few months is "thinking I didn't belong there, No. 1, not having a lot of confidence in myself, then getting there and finding out pretty quickly I was better than I thought. But I wasn't going to tell."
West's doubts evaporated when he averaged 19 points and 17 rebounds for the Mountaineers' freshman team. Joining the varsity as a sophomore, West led a 26-2 team in scoring.
During a December tournament at Kentucky, West Virginia ended North Carolina's 37-game winning streak and beat the host Wildcats, who would go on to win the national title. The Mountaineers leaped to No. 1 in the national rankings but eventually lost to Manhattan in Madison Square Garden in their first game of the NCAA Tournament.
West's junior season was even better. He averaged 26.6 points and 12.3 rebounds before putting on a stunning show in the NCAA Tournament, averaging a record 32 points over five games. West Virginia lost, 71-70, to California in the final, but West was the Most Outstanding Player. It's no surprise to learn West doesn't recall it fondly, even 51 years later.
"It's my favorite nightmare," he said.
West averaged 29.3 points and 16.5 rebounds as a senior while making more than 50 percent of his shots. But West Virginia lost to NYU in an NCAA regional.
He left school in 1960 with just about everything but a championship.