There are a handful of basketball players who may have been better than iconic guard Jerry West. But a strong case can be made that no one in the history of the National Basketball Association has had a better overall career– even if, by his own admission, West has struggled his entire life to enjoy the journey.
Known as “Mr. Clutch” for his last-second shot-making, and the reluctant model for the NBA logo, West is an NBA Hall of Famer, a college star at the University of West Virginia and 1960 Olympic gold medalist who was an all-star in all 14 seasons he played for the Los Angeles Lakers. He is one of 11 players in NBA history to have 10 first-team All-NBA selections and one of six players to have led the league in scoring (1969-70) and assists (1971-72). He made four consecutive All-Defensive First Team appearances (1970-73) and nine times went to the NBA Finals, winning once. He remains the only player in NBA history to be named playoff MVP (1969) despite playing on the losing team.
Among retired NBA players, only three—Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor—averaged more than West’s 27 points a game, and only one, Jordan, surpassed his 29.1 playoff scoring average, West amassing his numbers before the NBA had a three-point shot.
Following his retirement in 1974, West enjoyed even greater success in his post-playing career. He coached the Lakers for three seasons (1976-79, taking the team to the Western Conference semifinals in 1977, but it was as the team’s general manager he flourished. West helped to created the dominant team of the 1980s, the winner of five NBA titles. Then in 1996, West’s trade for Kobe Bryant and signing of Shaquille O’Neal in free agency laid the groundwork for a Lakers squad that won three straight championships between 2000 and 2002, and he was twice named NBA executive of the year.
“I have never seen anybody so passionate and who cares so much,” James Worthy, one of the stars of the ‘80s Lakers, said in West by West. “He internalizes his thoughts so much, it looks like pain.”
After 40 years in the Lakers front office, West retired, but that was short-lived. He accepted a position as president of basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies, guiding them into the playoffs for three straight seasons. He later joined the Golden State Warriors’ executive board in 2011, and helped construct one of the greatest teams in NBA history, led by Steph Curry. In 2017, he joined the executive board of the Los Angeles Clippers as a consultant and remains active in his 80s.
But in a 2011 autobiography, “West by West, My Charmed and Tormented Life,” West laid out in searing detail his personal demons—a loveless childhood while raised in poverty in Chelyan, West Virginia (“I was afraid to go home,’’ he said, referring to the beatings administered by his father), and his frequent bouts throughout his life with depression that included suicidal thoughts.
“You feel like you’re in a forest at midnight,” he told Gary Smith of Sports Illustrated. “There have been a number of moments when I haven’t wanted to live, when I felt so hopeless. Nights I went to bed and hoped I wouldn’t wake up. Suicide? It isn’t a coward’s way out, like people say. It would take enormous courage. I’m not looking for sympathy. I’m just telling the truth. You’d probably never know I was in it, I mask it so well.”
He was devastated when his favored Lakers, who also featured Hall of Famers Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain, lost the 1969 Finals–the sixth time the Celtics had vanquished the Lakers for the title– even though he scored 42 points in Game 7 while playing on one good leg.
“I wanted to quit basketball in the worst way,’’ West wrote. “I honestly didn’t think I could endure any more pain. Every night I went to bed I thought about it. Every night. Every goddamn night. It was the most helpless feeling because I was sure I was going to be labeled a loser forever.’’
The 1972 Lakers team finally broke through and won a title, but West said he derived little satisfaction from finally playing for a winner.
“I never felt the fulfillment when we won,” he says. “All I thought about was all the times we’d lost. It’ll haunt me till I die.”
The Lakers erected a 14-foot bronze statue of West outside the Staples Center in 2011, but his relationship with the franchise to which he has given so much has suffered. The team in recent years revoked the lifetime season tickets they had given West and his wife, Karen, and the rift is one not easily healed.
“One disappointing thing (about my career) is that my relationship with the Lakers is horrible,” he told the Athletic. “I still don’t know why. And at the end of the day, when I look back, I say, ‘Well, maybe I should have played somewhere else instead of with the Lakers, where someone would have at least appreciated how much you give, how much you cared.’”
West, for all of his accomplishments, said he was never able to reconcile with failure.
“I always blamed it on me,’’ he said. “I’m still very much the same way, self-critical to a fault. I’m not a fan of myself, which is a story of its own. Self-esteem — I don’t have a lot of self-esteem. And it’s just something where everyone says, ‘Well, you should grow out of this.’ Well, I haven’t. I used to say to myself all the time, ‘What more can you do?’
“There has to be something more you can do. And it wasn’t. And it’s one of those things where I wish that I would have appreciated some of the incredible times I had as a player, some of the accolades I had as a player.”