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Jerry West: Mr. Clutch


photo by Malcolm W. Emmons, The Sporting News Archive, 1972, CC Public Domain

A player must be special to be featured on the official NBA logo for over 50 years. According to teammates and opponents alike, no one was more deserving of the honor than Jerry West.


The man behind the logo was an All-Star in all 14 of his NBA seasons, averaging 27.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 6.7 assists in 932 career games. The 6’2” combo guard was not only one of the game’s greatest jump shooters, he was also one of the league’s most tenacious defenders.


While West may have looked like a natural on the court, his success was due to years of hard work and a meticulous attention to detail. As a kid growing up in rural West Virginia, he practiced shooting on a dirt court in all four seasons. Later as a pro, he studied the rims at opposing arenas to see how the ball would bounce off, in the rare occasion he should miss a shot.


 

West’s hard work and dedication started to pay dividends during his senior year at East Bank High School, where he averaged 32.2 points and led the Pioneers to the West Virginia state championship in 1956.


The promising young guard stayed in his home state to play for West Virginia University, where he was a 2-time All-American. In 1960, West and fellow All-American guard Oscar Robertson led Team USA to a gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Rome.


After Robertson was chosen as the first overall pick of the 1960 NBA Draft, the Los Angeles Lakers selected West second. The 1960-61 season would mark the Lakers’ first in Los Angeles after spending their first 12 years in Minneapolis. It was also the beginning of one of the greatest one-two combos in NBA history in West and third-year All-NBA forward Elgin Baylor.


 

Following a solid rookie season in which he averaged 17.6 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists, West established himself as one of the league’s elite players in 1961-62. The second-year pro averaged 30.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 5.4 assists while shooting 49.5 percent from the field, and was named First Team All-NBA for the first time.


The 1961-62 season also saw the birth of “Mr.Clutch,” one of the NBA’s great big game performers. In a classic 7-game series against the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals, West averaged 31.1 points per game. Unfortunately, it also marked the first of many playoff disappointments for West, as the Lakers lost the series to Boston after going up three games to two.


The Lakers lost to the Celtics in the Finals again in 1962-63, despite averages of 29.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists for West.


 

After averaging 31.0 points on 49.7-percent field goal and 82.1-percent free-throw shooting in the 1964-65 regular season, West had a postseason for the ages. His average of 46.3 points per game in the Lakers’ Western Division Semifinal win against the Baltimore Bullets is the highest ever in a playoff series. In the NBA Finals, he averaged 33.8 points, but the Lakers fell again to the Celtics, this time in five games.


West averaged over 30 points per game (31.3) for the second straight season in 1965-66, and averaged over six assists (6.1) for the first time, but the Lakers experienced yet another playoff disappointment after losing to Boston in seven games in the NBA Finals.


In 1966-67, West was named First Team All-NBA for the sixth straight season, but the Lakers had their earliest playoff exit of West’s career after their franchise guard played only one minute of the Western Division Semifinals.


 

In 1968-69, the dynamic duo of West and Baylor was joined by the game’s greatest center, reigning MVP Wilt Chamberlain. The Lakers won the Western Division by seven games, and had home court advantage against the Eastern champion Celtics in the NBA Finals. The Lakers were primed to win their first NBA title since moving to Los Angeles.


West dominated the Celtics in the Finals, averaging 37.9 points and 7.4 assists in one of the greatest individual performances in postseason history. Unfortunately, with the Lakers up three games to two, Boston won games six and seven to deal Los Angeles another devastating playoff loss. It would be no consolation for the ultra-competitive West, but he became the only player from a losing team to be named Finals MVP.


In 1969-70, West won his first scoring title after averaging 31.2 points per game. He also averaged 7.5 assists, and shot 49.7 percent from the field and 82.4 percent from the free-throw line. The Lakers were only 46-36 in the regular season due to injuries to Chamberlain and Baylor, but they were full strength for an epic NBA Finals matchup against the New York Knicks.


“Mr. Clutch” had another outstanding performance in the Finals, averaging 31.3 points and 7.7 assists, including hitting a 60-foot shot in Game 3 to the send the game to overtime. However, it would be more heartbreak for the Lakers and their star guard, as Los Angeles dropped the series in seven games.


 

After years of close calls and disappointments, it all came together in 1971-72. The Lakers set NBA records with 69 regular season wins and a 33-game winning streak, and West led the league in assists for the first time with 9.7 per game while averaging 25.8 points. More importantly, the Lakers went 12-3 in the postseason, including a 4-1 series win over the Knicks in the NBA Finals.


West struggled from the field in the Finals, shooting only 32.5 percent while averaging 19.8 points, but he led the Lakers in assists with 8.8 per game and played outstanding defense. West’s strong all-around performance proved he was more than just a scorer.


After finally acquiring that elusive championship ring, West and the Lakers were ready for more in 1972-73. West was named to the All-NBA and All-Defensive First Teams for the fourth consecutive season. It was his 12th career All-NBA selection, and his 10th First Team honor.


It would be New York versus L.A. for the second straight year, and the third time in four years, as the two teams met in the NBA Finals. This time, the defending champs lost in five games, denying West a second ring.


The 1973-74 season was West’s last as a player in the NBA. He played only 31 games in an injury-riddled campaign, but averaged a respectable 20.3 points and 6.6 assists.


 

After 14 NBA seasons, West retired as the third leading scorer in league history behind only Chamberlain and Robertson. His 27.0 points per game still rank fourth all time. His 30.5 points per game in the NBA Finals rank third behind Michael Jordan and Rick Barry.


West was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1979.


Following his playing days, West established himself as one of the greatest executives in NBA history, winning four championships as Lakers General Manager from 1983-2000, and winning three more as an Executive Board Member for the Golden State Warriors from 2011-17.

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