Jerry West, Lakers legend and architect of 'Showtime' era, dies at 86

Mike Kupper, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Basketball

LOS ANGELES — Jerry West, the legendary Lakers player and later coach and general manager who took the team to stunning heights season after season but could never quite satisfy his own impossibly high standards, has died.

Regarded as a near deity through the NBA, West died Wednesday with his wife, Karen, by his side, the Los Angeles Clippers announced. AP also confirmed his passing. He was 86.

As a player, he ranked — and still ranks — as one of the best ever to play in the NBA. That his silhouette would come to be featured on the NBA logo that adorns every uniform and every NBA-related piece of merchandise only seemed fitting.

As a coach, he never had a losing season and took his team to the playoffs in each of the three years he was in command.

As a general manager, in establishing the Lakers as a dynasty, he built some of the greatest teams in Lakers history, from refining the already fluid Magic Johnson-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar “Showtime” unit to engineering the sniping Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O’Neal bunch. The Lakers went to the NBA finals eight times and won four championships in his 18 seasons as a Lakers executive, and teams he’d built won two more titles after he’d retired.

His statue — it looks a lot like the logo — stands in front of Arena , silent testimony to his Olympic gold medal, his NCAA Final Four most-outstanding-player award, his niche in the Basketball Hall of Fame, his 14 All-Star game appearances, his 27-point scoring average, his most-valuable-player awards in both the NBA finals and the All-Star game, his executive-of-the-year awards, his game-tying 63-foot shot against the New York Knicks in the 1970 finals, his “Mr. Clutch” nickname, and on it went.

Impressive accomplishments, most would agree. West thought otherwise. With him, it wasn’t so much what he’d done. The missed shots, the lost games, the almost-but-not-quite championships, these were the things that stuck with him, that turned basketball, the thing he loved most and did best, into daily torture.

“I have a hole in my heart, a hole that can never be filled,” he acknowledged in his 2011 autobiography, “West by West: My Charmed and Tormented Life,” written with Jonathan Coleman.

Not that there weren’t ample reasons for frustration. Bill Russell and the rampaging Boston Celtics played major roles in that scenario. So did injuries. West playing despite a chronically broken nose was a given, and his knee, ankle and hamstring problems were as frequent as they were legendary. As a guard, West was always compared to Oscar Robertson, and although they played the same position, they played it much differently. As a coach, he could have used a Jerry West on the court. And nearing the end of a harrowing yet distinguished run as general manager-vice president, there was an aloof Phil Jackson on the sidelines.

Before all of that, though, there was that “underachieving” Jerry West. No matter what he did or how well he did it, he always figured he could have done more and done it better.

“I can’t tell you what the day of a game was for me,” he told The Times in 1999. “It was nervous, anticipation, coming to compete and, more importantly, to win. If we lost, it was always my fault; it wasn’t anyone else’s fault. I don’t care how well I played or how well I didn’t play, it was my fault. And if I did play very well, that made it even worse.”

And those were just his playing days. As general manager, he nervously watched games from an entryway in the stands, if he could make himself watch at all. Sometimes he wandered the parking lot; sometimes he went to a movie. And once, during a championship game, he left the arena, got in his car and drove around L.A., asking someone to call him on his cellphone when it was over. After Bryant and O’Neal had finally become Lakers, thanks to months of his machinations, he was hospitalized for treatment of nervous fatigue.

Fred Schaus, who coached West both in college at West Virginia and as a pro with the Lakers, once said, “He is a very complicated wound-up spring, a bundle of nerves. He is so high-strung that in all the time I have known Jerry, I have never once seen him fully relaxed.”

Schaus also noted, “If you sat down to build a 6-foot 3-inch basketball player, you would come up with a Jerry West. He is the man that has everything — a fine shooting touch, speed, quickness, all the physical assets, including a tremendous dedication to the game.”

That reference to “dedication” might have been massive understatement. West existed for basketball.

Born May 28, 1938, West was the fifth of Cecile and Howard West’s six children. They lived in Chelyan, West Virginia, a hardscrabble coal-mining town outside Charleston. His parent’s marriage was strained, work was often scarce and money was always a problem. West’s mother was a demanding perfectionist, and his father, although a gregarious, outgoing man, had a short fuse and was a firm believer in corporal punishment.

Recalled West in his book: “During one particularly hard stretch, we ate the same soup out of the same pot for six days until I told my mother I simply couldn’t do it any longer. Well, let me tell you, I took the most god-awful beating that day from my father and it turned me into a tough, nasty kid and it turned me even more inward than I already was.” West later revealed that he suffered from depression from that point forward.

“I never forgave him for it. ... But I promised myself I would do everything I could to make sure it never happened to me again. I screwed up my courage and told him so, told him that he’d better never lay another hand on me and reminded him that I had a shotgun under my bed and would damn well use it if I had to.”

West’s idol as a youngster was David, his older brother by nine years. From David, young Jerry got the attention he couldn’t get from his parents. But with few prospects in Chelyan or its twin town, Cabin Creek, David joined the Army after high school, then was killed fighting in the Korean War. Devastated, Jerry sought solace with David’s old basketball, shooting for hours at a neighbor’s house or a makeshift basket he’d put up in the backyard.

“I did it. I put it up myself,” West told author Roland Lazenby in “Jerry West: The Life and Legend of a Basketball Icon” (2009). “Back then, you learned to do things for yourself. I used to live near a bridge and underneath the bridge was an old hoop that was torn down. No one used it, so I took it. The backboard was plywood. Occasionally there’d be a net.

“I was in the fifth or sixth grade. I was little and skinny. The other guys wouldn’t let me play pickup football so I was all alone. I found out you could play basketball by yourself, so that started it.”

And play, he did — morning and night, winter or summer, through meals, before school, after school.

When he started high school, he was still short and skinny and was not seen as varsity material, but he hit a growth spurt one summer, came back to East Bank High in September half a foot taller than he’d been in June and, as a senior, led his team to the West Virginia state championship. Then, following in the footsteps of his favorite player, the exuberant, flashy Hot Rod Hundley, he accepted a scholarship to play for his favorite team, the Mountaineers of West Virginia University.

There, although he wasn’t as flashy as Hundley, he was every bit as deadly. As a shooter, he was in a class by himself. But he also played sneaky defense — stealing the ball from behind was his specialty — and, with quickness, strong leaping ability and long arms, he rebounded with the best of them.


It was in college, though, that West got an inkling that, perhaps, basketball didn’t love him as much as he loved basketball. In his three varsity seasons — freshmen were not eligible in those days — the Mountaineers were unbeaten at home and a sure-fire draw on the road. His junior season, they won the Southern Conference championship and a bid to the 1959 NCAA tournament, advancing to the title game against UC Berkeley, then coached by Pete Newell.

West had a great game, scoring 28 points, taking down 11 rebounds, leading a West Virginia comeback from a 13-point deficit while playing with four fouls — and losing, 71-70, on an awkward put-back shot by Cal’s Darrall Imhoff, later West’s Lakers teammate.

Years later, West recalled, “I had my hands on the ball about midcourt with no time left on the clock and I said, ‘If I could have just gotten one more shot.’” Even so, he was voted outstanding player of the tournament, a rarity, considering his team had lost.

West Virginia made the tournament again the next year but lost in the regional round. Still, West was an All-American for the second time and was named co-captain of the U.S. team for the 1960 Summer Olympics. In Rome, playing for Newell, he and Robertson led the USA to the championship then went their separate ways to the NBA.

A first-draft pick of the then-Minneapolis Lakers, West found himself heading instead to Los Angeles. The NBA in those early days was pretty much a sports afterthought, and owner Bob Short had moved the Lakers franchise to what he hoped would be greener pastures on the West Coast. But few in L.A. paid any attention.

Still, the Lakers had a burgeoning star in forward Elgin Baylor, and once Schaus, who had moved to the Lakers from West Virginia, decided that West would be as effective in the pros as he had been in college, the Baylor-West tandem went to town. The Lakers, with Los Angeles coming to realize that the team might be worth watching, won Western Division titles in 1962, ’63, ’65, ’66, ’68 and ’69. And each time were beaten by Russell and the Celtics in the finals.

The loss in 1969 was the most galling. With the series tied at three games apiece, the Lakers returned from Boston for Game 7 at the Forum. Jack Kent Cooke, who had bought the team from Short and built the new arena in Inglewood, sensed a Lakers championship at last. Before the game, he had thousands of inflated balloons suspended from the rafters, to be released with great fanfare when the Lakers won, which Cooke believed was a certainty.

West, playing despite a heavily taped pulled hamstring, scored 42 points but was not up to his usual defensive brilliance. Russell badly outplayed Lakers center Wilt Chamberlain, and the Celtics won the game, 108-106, and their 11th NBA title. The balloons stayed in the rafters. West, though, again in a losing effort, was voted MVP.

The Lakers played for the title again in 1970 but again were frustrated, losing to the New York Knicks, despite West’s, and perhaps basketball’s, most spectacular shot. With three seconds left in Game 3 at the Forum and the Knicks leading, 102-100, West took an inbounds pass from Chamberlain at the far end of the court, dribbled twice, then let fly two steps beyond the key, the ball swishing through as time expired. There was no three-point shot in the NBA then, so the long-shot basket merely sent the game into overtime. Then West missed all of his next five shots, the Knicks won the game and eventually the series in seven games.

The Lakers and West finally won the championship in 1972, beating the Knicks in five games to wrap up a spectacular 69-victory season that included a still-record 33-game winning streak.

West later recalled, “What’s so ironic about ’72 is that I played terrible in the finals. It didn’t seem to be justice for me personally. I had contributed so much in the years when we lost. And now when we win, I was just another piece of the machinery, so to speak.”

He played for two more seasons and was planning to play another when he changed his mind and retired in the fall of 1974. He and Cooke had a falling-out over money, West suing for back wages and turning his attention to golf, which he played nearly as well as basketball. He once shot a 65 at the Bel-Air Country Club, including 28 on the back nine. He and Cooke patched things up a couple of years later, then Cooke hired him as Lakers coach.

Coaching ate at West, though — he wanted perfection and, of course, couldn’t get it — and he was happy to leave it behind and become a scout-consultant after three seasons. There was an awkward occurrence several years later, after Jerry Buss had bought the Lakers and fired then-coach Paul Westhead. Buss announced that he was replacing Westhead with West and Pat Riley as co-coaches, but West demurred, saying he would only help the inexperienced young Riley get started, which he did for two weeks.

Riley went on to great success as a coach, and West went on to great success as a general manager, the Lakers becoming one of the most valuable franchises in sports. Still, even as he was preparing for retirement, there was turmoil. Jackson, by then, was very successfully coaching the Lakers, and clashing with West. At one point, Jackson, saying he wanted to speak to the team in private, asked West to leave the locker room. West later said that he believed Jackson had “absolutely no respect for me.”

“I told Jerry Buss to hire him,” West said of Jackson in an interview with The Times in 2011. “The only thing I cared about was winning, but you want a relationship with your coach. There was no relationship.”

So West went ahead with his retirement plans but was getting bored when the Memphis Grizzlies called two years later. He said yes to their offer and, in his five seasons as vice president at Memphis, turned the woeful Grizzlies into a playoff team.

Then, in his 70s — while also serving as executive director of the Northern Trust Open golf tournament — West signed on as a consultant with the Golden State Warriors and, making good use of his recommendations, they, too, became a championship team. In 2017, he signed on as a consultant with the Clippers, calling it the “last adventure” of his life.

West was indignant at his portrayal a raging, foul-mouthed and sometimes intoxicated executive in the 2022 HBO’s docudrama “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty,” a fly-on-the-wall look inside the team’s “Showtime” ere. West said his character, who is one seen is shown tossing a championship trophy through an office window, in the film was “cruel” and far removed from the truth. He demanded a retraction.

Times columnist Bill Plaschke agreed, saying — in L.A. circles — the portrayal would be akin to mocking Sandy Koufax, ridiculing John Wooden or trashing Vin Scully.

“Instead of exploring his issues with compassion as a way to better understand the man, they turn him into a Wile E. Coyote cartoon to be laughed at,” wrote Jabbar. “He never broke golf clubs, he didn’t throw his trophy through the window. Sure, those actions make dramatic moments, but they reek of facile exploitation of the man rather than exploration of character.”


Kuper is a former Times sport writer.

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