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Jerry West reluctantly receives another honor

Saturday, November 20, 2010 | 7:59 p.m. CST
West Virginia University basketball star Jerry West takes a practice shot in 1959. West plans to be in attendance when he's ushered into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame on Sunday in Kansas City, inducted in the founding class for his remarkable career at West Virginia.

LOS ANGELES — For most long-retired athletes, an invitation to join a Hall of Fame is a major achievement. The induction ceremony is a chance to celebrate a life well-lived and a career maximized.

For Jerry West, it's just another reminder of everything that went wrong in his amazing basketball career.

West plans to be in attendance when he's ushered into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame on Sunday in Kansas City, inducted in the founding class for his remarkable career at West Virginia.

Yet West also is sports' most notorious pessimist this side of Lou Holtz or Jerry Sloan.

When asked about the latest honor in a long series of enshrinements and accolades since he hung up his sneakers in 1974, the longtime Los Angeles Lakers guard and executive seemed to be anticipating his trip to Kansas City with something between cautious excitement and outright dread.

"I think they think I'm going to die right away," West said earlier this week while standing in the plaza adjacent to Staples Center, where a bronze statue of his likeness will soon greet fans in perpetuity. "That's why they do these things. It's nice, but that doesn't define me as a player. ... I don't really embrace stuff like that. I would love to have a bunch of the players I played with up there with me. When it's just me, it's not the same."

At 72, the 6-foot-3 West still cuts an imposing figure in a crisp suit. He's enviably fit and fluid, appearing easily capable of playing pickup basketball until sunset.

Much has been written and suggested about West's fatalistic bent. His intense streak of perfectionism is common to many elite basketball players, from West and Sloan to Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, but perhaps its roots are planted in the Mountaineers' inability to win it all during West's peerless tenure.

Before the world knew West as Mr. Clutch from his 14 seasons with the Lakers, before his silhouette appeared on the NBA's logo, even before he won an Olympic gold medal in 1960, he was just Zeke from Cabin Creek.

The smaller-than-small-town West Virginia boy — actually from unincorporated Chelyan, not nearby Cabin Creek, where the West family got its mail — overcame a hardscrabble childhood to become a two-time All-American with the Mountaineers, leading them to the 1959 national championship game during three spectacular varsity seasons.

Hot Rod Hundley preceded West with the Mountaineers by three years, and his No. 33 jersey hangs next to West's No. 44 as the only numbers retired by West Virginia.

"Jerry West, to me, was and still is one of the five best players ever to play," Hundley said. "I don't say it lightly. That's how good he was."

West embraced basketball primarily as a solitary pursuit in his childhood, spending untold thousands of hours shooting into a hoop on a neighbor's shed. West Virginia's high school player of the year heeded his father's advice and attended college in his home state, where his thick Appalachian accent wouldn't stand out quite so prominently.

West still experienced a violent culture shock when he moved from his hometown of perhaps 500 people to busy Morgantown in the summer of 1956.

Today, West's strongest memory of those first few months is "thinking I didn't belong there, No. 1, not having a lot of confidence in myself, then getting there and finding out pretty quickly I was better than I thought. But I wasn't going to tell."

West's doubts evaporated when he averaged 19 points and 17 rebounds for the Mountaineers' freshman team back when first-year college players weren't allowed on the varsity. West even held his own in practice with senior star Hundley, who still describes the 18-year-old West as the toughest defender he ever faced.

"If Jerry West and (fellow freshman) Willie Akers were able to play on that (varsity) team we had (in 1957), I think we would have won the national championship, we absolutely would have," Hundley recalled earlier this year. "That's one thing that always stuck in my craw. I remember we played a regular game, varsity versus the freshman team. The game didn't count for anything other than pride, and we had to freeze the ball to beat them. That's how good Jerry was."

Joining the varsity as a sophomore, West led a 26-2 Mountaineers team in scoring. During one December tournament in Kentucky's Memorial Coliseum, West Virginia both ended North Carolina's 37-game winning streak and beat the host Wildcats, who would go on to win the national title. The Mountaineers leaped to No. 1 in the national rankings, but eventually lost to Manhattan College in Madison Square Garden in their first game of the NCAA tournament.

West's junior season was even better. He averaged 26.6 points and 12.3 rebounds before putting on a stunning show in the NCAA tournament, averaging a record 32 points over five games.

West Virginia lost 71-70 to California in the final, but West was chosen the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. It's no surprise to learn West doesn't exactly recall it fondly, even 51 years later.

"It's my favorite nightmare," West said.

"When you're in a team situation, so many things can go wrong for you," he added. "I spend 3 1/2 months a year in West Virginia now, and I know how loyal those people are. I really felt we had let the people down, just like I felt so many times in L.A. that we had let people down (with the Lakers)."

West averaged 29.3 points and 16.5 rebounds as a senior while making more than 50 percent of his shots. He scored 33 points in a win over Kentucky despite breaking his nose during the game, and his performance against UCLA at Los Angeles' new Sports Arena prompted John Wooden to call him one of the best players of any era.

But West Virginia lost to NYU in an NCAA regional, denying West a chance to match up against Cincinnati's Oscar Robertson, who became his teammate at the Rome Olympics a few months later.

West left school in 1960 with just about everything but a championship. West Virginia didn't lose a home game during his three varsity seasons, and he still holds several school records.

West is best known as an NBA legend, and he carved out a stellar career as an executive with the Lakers afterward. Since leaving the Memphis Grizzlies' front office in 2007, he still watches basketball regularly on television, but is content to leave his glory days in the past — apart from a bittersweet trip to Kansas City.

"I've seen my last NBA game in person," West said with no hint of regret. "I'd rather sit at home. It's not the people, because I like the people. It's just the whole experience, that's not something I needanymore."


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