Men's Basketball, Sports, WVU Sports

COLUMN: Jerry West spent a lifetime tormented by failure and never recognized his own greatness

MORGANTOWN — It was the 1956 state boys’ basketball championship game when Jay Jacobs got his first introduction to Jerry West.

As the story goes, then-Morgantown High coach Jack Roberts was in the midst of his pregame speech, telling his players that East Bank was a one-man team, and no one-man team could beat his Mohigans.

“Well, that one man just happened to be Jerry West,” said Jacobs, a guard on that MHS runner-up squad who went on to play with West at WVU. “And one man did beat us.”

Final score: East Bank 71, Morgantown 58.

The legend that became Jerry West only grew from there, first by leading the West Virginia men’s basketball team to a No. 1 ranking and a shot at the 1959 national championship, before moving on to the Olympics, the L.A. Lakers and then as one of the greatest general managers in the NBA.

All of that you know and was well documented throughout the day Wednesday, the day West died at the age of 86.

He achieved legendary status from the shadows of little Chelyan, a coal mining town just outside of Charleston nestled in the heart of the Allegheny Mountains.

His story is truly one of rags to riches, from heartache to stardom, but none of it came without paying a price.

West, it seemed, paid that price of dealing with tremendous shyness as a youth to immense torment as an adult coping with losses at the highest levels for his entire life.

In his autobiography, “West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life,” West documented a childhood in which he felt unloved by his father, leaving West to feel useless and depressed.

During a 2011 press conference in Morgantown, West admitted members of his family did not want him to write about his childhood, but he felt it was important to do so, because the story could be seen as inspiring and motivating for other children feeling the same way.

When West was 12 years old, his older brother, David, was killed in the Korean War, only setting West into a deeper depression to where the game of basketball was his only escape.

“Jerry often talked about in his years after basketball that hard work and dedication were the answers,” Jacobs said. “He lived by those words. He was the first one in and always the last to leave.”

Maybe his first-ever jump shot was made through a rim made of wire attached to a bridge in Chelyan.

He once told a story of how he would lay in his bed every night as a kid looking up at his ceiling and shooting a basketball up into the air to condition his shooting wrist to perfect his follow-through.

Again and again that ball would fly into the air until exhaustion finally settled in.

Jerry West was not born a basketball legend — it was forged — and even when he had climbed to the sport’s peak, it was not enough.

He was the big man on campus while at WVU from 1956-60, but you never would have known it.

He was not a partyer, likely feeling too awkward or shy to live that type of lifestyle. His friends were his teammates, but only one, Willie Akers, became close enough to West to become a confidant, Jacobs said.

Fred Schaus, who coached West both at WVU and with the Los Angeles 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.”

And if basketball was West’s escape from hell, it was also his damnation of sorts.

As much work, heart and dedication West poured into the game, it never truly loved him back the same way.

True, the game of basketball gave West riches and fame, but rarely peace.

Take the 1959 national championship game against California. West had 28 points, 11 rebounds and played most of the second half with four fouls.

That is legendary stuff, but he also had the basketball in his hands as the final second ticked off the clock, unable to get off one more shot that might have led WVU to a historic win.

Instead, Cal walked away with a 71-70 victory.

In the NBA, West led the Lakers to nine NBA Finals, six times against the legendary Boston Celtics with the likes of Bill Russell and Bob Cousy.

And West and the Lakers lost all six times. One of those losses — in 1969 — saw West named the MVP after averaging an amazing 37.9 points per game.

To this day, he’s still the only NBA Finals MVP from a losing team, an honor that West believed was no honor at all. It chewed and gnawed at him for the rest of his life.

“If we lost, it was always my fault, it wasn’t anyone else’s fault,” West told the Los Angeles Times in 1999. “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.”

He finally won an NBA championship in 1972 at the age of 33, which came in the latter stages of his NBA career.

West averaged 19.8 points and 8.8 rebounds in those finals against the New York Knicks, but even after a life-long search of greatness, even then it was not enough to make up for past defeats.

“What’s so ironic about ‘72 is that I played terrible in the finals,” West once told The Associated Press. “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.”

The man was so great that he’s about to be inducted into the Naismith memorial Hall of Fame for a third time.

He’s already there for his legendary playing career. West is also enshrined as a member of the 1960 Olympic team that won a gold medal.

In October, West will be enshrined again for his contributions to the game as an executive, which only covers Lakers’ dynasties from Magic Johnson to Kobe Bryant.

It is truly a shame West will not be there to give one final speech. If he was, maybe then his level of greatness achieved would have finally grabbed hold of him, giving him a great sense of accomplishment he had never felt before.

The man deserved nothing less.

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