Los Angeles Laker Legend Jerry West is one of the most inspirational stories to come out of West Virginia. He talks about his life and legacy
Jerry West is a man with many nicknames. He’s been called “Mr. Clutch.” As the clock ticked down, he was the go-to man who didn’t buckle under pressure. In fact, he thrived on it. He’s been called “Mr. Outside”—he had a quick-release jump shot that was unstoppable. He is referred to as “The Logo.” His dribbling silhouette against a blue and red background is the official NBA logo and has graced balls, jerseys, and clothing since 1971. And while others have named him “Zeke from Cabin Creek” in reference to his rural roots, West Virginians proudly call him their native son.
West grew up in the small coal town of Chelyan outside of Charleston. “Times were tough. Everyday life was a struggle,” he recalls. “We never went on family vacations. We didn’t even have a car. But people were always friendly and willing to help each other out.” His father worked a hardscrabble life in the coal mines, and his older brother, David, was killed in the Korean War when West was only 12 years old.
West, a small youth who didn’t make his junior high football, baseball, or track teams, found his salvation in a rusty basketball hoop nailed to a neighbor’s storage shed. “I was so little and skinny they didn’t have clothes that could fit me. I spent a lot of time alone. There are definitely things about my childhood that weren’t pleasant,” he says. “I think that when some people are denied access to a lot of things, they develop a drive and determination to achieve. And that’s what I did. I had a vivid imagination and a fierce desire to excel. At the time, I didn’t know what I would excel at, but something fell in love with me and I fell in love with it—and that was basketball.”
West’s love affair with basketball would take him to great heights and into the history books. In 1996, he was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. But for the young boy marking off free throw lines on a dusty dirt court in Chelyan, that achievement seemed like an unfathomable dream.
As a child, West practiced basketball incessantly, year round. He played outside in the rain and in the snow until his hands would go numb. And then the scrawny boy started to grow. By his senior year at East Bank High School, he was 6 feet tall and a leader on the varsity basketball team. He led East Bank to the 1956 state title and became the first high school player in state history to score 900 points in a season. College recruiters around the country took notice (he received more than 60 scholarship offers), but West Virginia University was West’s first choice.
“I always knew that I wanted to go to WVU. It was my dream,” West says. “I was so excited to come to Morgantown. College was the most positive experience of my life. I had to learn to care for myself. But one of the biggest lessons I learned was to become more social. Before then, I was socially inept. I was horribly shy and quiet. But I learned that you can’t hide behind a façade of shyness. I will always be grateful for the opportunities that the university gave me.”
In 1959, he led WVU to the NCAA Championship game and won Most Valuable Player. WVU lost by one point, and no one took it harder than West. “I hate losing. I mean, I really hate losing,” says West. “I play to win. That was a heartbreaking loss. I felt like I had let the entire state down.” Throughout his career, no one was harder on Jerry West than himself. He was a perfectionist who believed, “Why do something if you aren’t going to do it right?”
1960 was a big year for West. He was drafted by the Minneapolis Lakers, and during the summer he co-captained the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in Rome. “I had really hoped that I would get drafted by New York. A big city gave players more opportunities,” he says. But while he was in Rome, he got word that the Lakers franchise was moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. West was thrilled.
“At first, I was the butt of jokes—the hillbilly basketball player. But that didn’t go on for very long,” laughs West. The adage, “Actions speak louder than words” was never truer. West let his play quiet his critics, and soon he became one of the most beloved and respected basketball players to ever hit the courts.
“When I moved to LA, it was one of the greatest cultural changes of my life,” says West. “I had to learn to deal with more press. I had to learn that you couldn’t control what people write about you. You can only control what you do and your work ethic. I had a strong work ethic and high standards.”
West is quick to point out that professional basketball is much different today than when he was a player. “The challenges athletes face today are so different than when I was playing. For one thing, we didn’t have agents, and we didn’t make much money. In fact, we had to have summer jobs to support our families,” he says. “And back then, the press wrote about the games. Today, they are more interested in writing about personalities.”
West’s dogged determination and drive, and his unflinching will to win, inspired teammates, opponents, and fans alike. On the court, he was intense. He fed off the energy of the fans. He sought perfection, and he played through pain—nine broken noses, countless pulled hamstrings, and several concussions.
“I fiercely loved to compete,” says West. “It wasn’t about the paycheck. I played to win. The more stressful the situation, the better I played. I never was intimidated or afraid. I’ve seen too many things in my life to be afraid.”
West led the Lakers to the NBA finals nine times. In 1969, the Lakers suffered a heart wrenching lost to the Boston Celtics, but West was given the MVP award—the only time it was ever given to a member of a losing team. Every loss affected him deeply. “Losses were a horrible disappointment. Pure heartbreak,” says West. “When we lost, I felt like I let a lot of people down. Those losses have left unresolved issues in my life.”
However, in 1972, he achieved what had eluded him for so many years. He capped off one of his greatest NBA seasons with the ultimate accomplishment for any athlete— a championship title. But when West recalls the victory, it is hard for him to separate it out from the losses. “We only won one championship,” he points out. “The highs were never as high as the lows were low.”
Los Angeles loved West—and still does. He says, “I played for the fans. I knew what community pride was about. I didn’t play for the Lakers. I played for Los Angeles. “When the Lakers first moved to LA, basketball was the town’s least favorite sport. I’d like to think that I helped make the Lakers the most popular team in LA,” he says.
West retired from playing basketball in 1974 with a 25-point per game average, still one of the highest in league history. He is a 14-time All-Star and was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979. The Lakers retired his number 44 jersey four years later.
“The one thing I couldn’t defeat was age,” West says. “I had a lot of injuries, and I wanted to compete at the highest level. I knew what people expected of me, but more importantly I knew what I expected of myself. I wasn’t willing to compromise that. The game became a battle—physically. It was cheating the fans, so I decided it was time to stop.”
Karen, Jerry’s wife, first met him after he had retired. “My first memories of Jerry are of him being sad and lonely. Basketball had been his life and he didn’t know what direction to go in,” she recalls. “He was crazy sad.”
Karen helped him find direction. After a two-year break, West returned to the Lakers as the head coach. After spending three years coaching, he served as a scout. In 1982, he was promoted to general manager and then became vice president of basketball operations. He worked with some of the best players to ever play the game, like Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and was instrumental in bringing Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal to the Lakers. The teams he built won six more championships. West says, “As an executive you never stop. As a player, you have the summers off and you can recuperate, but when you are running a team, your job is never done.”
In 2000, West retired from the Lakers after working for them for 40 years. Two years later, he moved to Memphis, where he assumed the role of president of basketball operations of the Memphis Grizzlies for five years.
Jerry West is a basketball legend, although you won’t convince him to agree.
For those who visit The Greenbrier, you can walk down memory lane with West Virginia’s favorite son at his critically-acclaimed restaurant, Prime 44 West, a steakhouse that features the finest cuts of steak from area farms and fresh seafood. West’s favorite dessert, his wife’s Italian Cream Cake, is on the menu—as is Cathy Justice’s cornbread recipe. The décor is an incredible collection of West’s memorabilia, including a 25,000-point basketball, a sneaker cast in bronze, a gold medal from the 1960 Olympics, and West’s WVU and Los Angeles Lakers jerseys.
Until recently, West had a home at The Greenbrier Sporting Club. In August 2021, he sold it to Jay Justice, son of West Virginia Governor Jim Justice. The 7,500-square-foot home was featured in WV Living magazine in Spring 2010.
“As you get older, the things that matter most are family, giving, and being nice to others,” says West. He is proud of his children. “My children are uniquely different, but they all have a great work ethic. They are respectful and very giving. I’m most proud of that.”
In 2010, West published his autobiography, West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life. it delves into the unexplored areas of West’s life. “I’m at a point where I want to set the record straight and give an accurate account of my life and career. I think people will be surprised by what they’ll read. I hope that it is inspirational,” West explains. “You know, life isn’t always easy, but if you are determined enough, if you work hard enough, there’s always a way to make something of yourself. I’m living proof.”
PHotos of West’s former Greenbrier home