Jerry West may be known as ‘The Logo,’ but another nickname is the one that honors him best

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Sportem
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Today, Jerry West is best known as “The Logo,” as a picture of him from Sport magazine was the basis for the silhouette that has literally symbolized the NBA for the past 55 years. In 2011, however, when West’s statue outside what was then known as Staples Center was unveiled, Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell, said, “As you all know, Jerry is the logo man, but to us [players], Jerry was not a silhouette. He was a man with a soul.”

West, who died Wednesday at the age of 86, is a man of many monikers. Fellow Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor, West’s teammate for 12 years with the Los Angeles Lakers, called him “Tweety Bird” (because of the high-pitched voice that came with his West Virginia accent); “Zeke from Cabin Creek,” which he hated (because he’s actually from Chelyan, not Cabin Creek) and Louella, which he hated even more (because it was a reference to gossip columnist Louella Parsons — West loved to talk). During his playing career, though, his most prominent nickname was “Mr. Clutch.” Chick Hearn, the Lakers’ legendary play-by-play announcer, bestowed the title on him.

Mr. Clutch is a perfect nickname because it requires no explanation. This is particularly true if you happen to have played against West.

“Jerry West was the best clutch player I ever saw, the best shooter, and one of the best competitors,” Hall of Fame Oscar Robertson wrote in his memoir, The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game. “His biggest talent, perhaps, was emerging at the right moment to take advantage of a well-timed pick or pass. Jerry hated to lose so much that you could see it transform him. Jerry and I were friends, but our rivalry was intense.”

West’s most famous clutch shot is his 60-foot buzzer-beater in Game 3 of the 1970 NBA Finals against the New York Knicks. When he launched it, Knicks guard Clyde Frazier thought to himself, “The man’s crazy,” the Hall of Fame player turned broadcaster told ESPN. “He looks determined. He thinks it’s really going in!”

West’s side of the story is different. “I said, ‘Oh my god, it’s pretty straight,'” he told the Los Angeles Times. “You just never think it’s going to go in.”

That night, West scored 15 of his 34 points in the fourth quarter. He played all 53 minutes despite jamming his thumb in the first half. New York won in overtime, though, and West had no interest in celebrating his historic play, saying, “It doesn’t really matter, does it, because we lost.”

“I was so tired that I don’t even remember the shot,” West told SLAM. “I was just so worn out at the end of that game. And it wasn’t a great moment to me. I hit a lucky shot in a game we should have won, but lost. We should have beaten the Knicks in that series. They had a wonderful team, and they really played well together, but we were better. Losing that series was one of the most devastating moments of my career.”

Hall of Famer Pat Riley, who played with and then coached under West with the Lakers before competing with him as an executive, once said, “Michael [Jordan] might have played the game maybe more athletic than Jerry did, but there wasn’t a better clutch player in the history of the NBA other than Jerry West.” He also, however, told Jack McCallum in Golden Days: West’s Lakers, Steph’s Warriors, and the California Dreamers Who Reinvented Basketball, “Jerry thinks he brings his team bad luck. It’s from all those painful losses in the sixties.”

To West, the pain of losing was far stronger than any joy he could wring out of a victory. And while he won an NBA championship with the 1972 Lakers, he fell short in the Finals seven times before that. In 1969 against the Celtics, he led Los Angeles to a come-from-behind win in Game 1 by scoring 53 points, 17 in the fourth quarter, and dishing 10 assists. The next day, Russell, then a player-coach, said, “I have never seen a better clutch player than Jerry West.” In Game 7 of that series, the Lakers were down 15 heading into the fourth quarter, and then West, who was playing on a strained hamstring suffered two games earlier, scored 14 points in about five minutes to get them back into it. He finished with 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists, but Boston hung on for a two-point win after a jumper by Don Nelson bounced in.

As the Celtics celebrated their championship, Red Auerbach, then the team president, told ABC’s Jack Twyman, “I want to say that Jerry West was absolutely fantastic. That was one of the greatest exhibitions I ever saw in my life.” Guard Sam Jones added, “I had to play him all through the series, and Jack, I tell you, I had to say a little prayer every time he got the ball.”

That night, Russell said, “Los Angeles has not won the championship, but Jerry West is a champion.” West was awarded the NBA’s inaugural Finals MVP award, and he remains the only player to ever win it while playing for the losing team. “The award should have gone to a player on the winning team,” West said. In his memoir, West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, co-written with Jonathan Coleman, he says that, after the season, “I wanted to quit basketball in the worst way.” The award came with a car, and when he went to New York to accept the “brand-new, souped-up Dodge Charger, green, no less (it was probably intended for a Celtic), I felt like putting a stick of dynamite in it and blowing it up, right there in Manhattan.” 

West writes frankly about his lifelong battle with depression in West by West. He says that a “mix of self-hatred, failure and low self-esteem plagued me even when I was playing at a high level and getting pleasure from it.” Fred Schaus, who coached West at West Virginia University and with the Lakers, told Sports Illustrated in 1972, “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.” On the court, however, West loved nothing more than to have the ball in his hands in crunch time. 

“It’s almost like an arrogance that you don’t think you can fail,” he once said. He added, “If you do it once, you like the feeling. And if you like the feeling, you want to do it again.”

In Golden Days, West tells McCallum, “I seemed to concentrate more when defenders were all around me. I kind of compare it to baseball. I liked the heat, rather than the off-speed pitch.” He has also said, “Late in the ball game, I can remember great players in the NBA, players who are household names would tell [me], ‘Take it easy on me.'”

If there is one late-game play that always stood out to West, it was in Game 3 of the 1962 NBA Finals against Boston. After tying the game with two clutch free throws, he stole an inbounds pass from Jones with three seconds on the clock. Teammates yelled at him to pull up for a jumper, but he couldn’t hear them and, regardless, he knew he could go all the way. West’s game-winning layup gave him 36 points and Los Angeles a 117-115 victory. 

This was West’s “home run in the ninth inning to win a big game,” he told ESPN. But he didn’t love what happened next. “Before I even realized what was happening,” he says in West by West, “I was up on my teammates’ shoulders and being carried out of the arena as if I were some sort of hero, a role I was never comfortable playing, and a view of myself I stubbornly refuse to share.”

West has a long list of superhuman performances that he would never characterize as such. In 1965, he averaged 46.3 points in Los Angeles’ series against the Baltimore Bullets and scored more than 40 points in all six games. (To this day, no one else in NBA history has scored at least 40 points in more than four consecutive playoff games.) In Game 2, after Baylor suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener, West scored 52 points and put back his own late miss for the win. In Game 6, when the Lakers eked out a two-point win to eliminate the Bullets and advance to the Finals, West scored 42 points, including six straight in the clutch.

In Game 3 of the Lakers’ series against the Detroit Pistons in just his second season, West scored 11 fourth-quarter points, including two late jumpers and the two free throws that sealed the win. The next year, in Game 2 against the St. Louis Hawks, he capped a furious rally with a steal and a game-winning jumper after the Lakers trailed by seven points with 70 seconds left. Three years after that, he sent the Hawks home in Game 7 by scoring 13 of his 35 points in the final frame. In the 1966 Finals, he clinched Game 5 with a jumper from the corner and a pair of free throws, and he made three big shots in the fourth quarter of Game 6 to force a deciding game.

In 1972, the year that West finally reached the mountaintop, he shot poorly for most of the playoffs, but he scored 12 points in the final five-ish minutes of Game 6 of the 1972 Western Conference finals, erasing a 10-point deficit and eliminating the Milwaukee Bucks. In Game 5 of the Final against New York, he scored 28 points, including five in overtime, in the win that put the Lakers up 3-1. He made a runner to break a tie late in the fourth, too.

“It seemed that every time he was called upon, why, he answered the call very well,” Hall of Famer Bob Cousy once said. “But the talent obviously has to be there. If Jerry had been just another guard who shot it pretty well or he didn’t have the moves to free himself or get away from just about any defensive pressure, that wouldn’t have worked and he wouldn’t have become Mr. Clutch.”

During the 2022-23 season, the NBA named some hardware after Mr. Clutch. DeMar DeRozan and De’Aaron Fox, the last two winners of the Clutch Player of the Year award, have taken home the Jerry West Trophy.

In 1997, West told SLAM,  “Who knows why some people have a fierce desire to compete and win?” While he once told Sports Illustrated that he’d be nothing more than a fan after his playing days, he wound up coaching the Lakers for three years post-retirement, then began a career as an executive that would be as storied as successful as anyone’s, ex-player or otherwise. In Golden Days, McCallum describes West, near, the end of his tenure as a consultant for the Golden State Warriors, watching them play from his couch, unable to stop himself from admonishing Kevin Durant, his favorite player on the team, for not boxing out.

“Where that intensity comes from, I can’t really say,” West told SLAM. “It’s a very private thing. You can look right into someone’s eyes and not know what’s burning within them, but that unfailing desire and self-awareness is in all the great ones in our sport. Probably the truly great people in any profession have it, too.”

West is a titan of the sport, and he will be remembered as one of its most clutch, competitive and compelling players. He might not have known where his fire came from, but, in West by West, he makes it clear where the Mr. Clutch story started: Outside his parents’ house in Chelyan.

“The sweet beauty of being by myself out there — a boy from deep inside West Virginia with a ball and barely concealed anger and a burning desire, a fierce longing, for more than what I had — is that I was in charge of everything: coach, scorekeeper, referee, timekeeper, the opposing player trying to stop me and pushing me to do my best, the fans, and, of course, the guy with the ball with the game on the line, hungry to take the last shot and decide the outcome,” West says in his memoir. “Oh, how I loved hearing the clock tick down, five, four, three, two, one, and then letting it go, following the arc as the ball dropped cleanly through the basket. I lived for that, for the inimitable swish, one of the sweetest sounds I know.”



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