Jerry West Will Never Again Exist

Jerry West | Image Credit:
Jerry West | Image Credit:

Jerry West Will Never Again Exist

It started on 12th June 2024 like any other summer day—sunny and relaxed.

Arrive at work at nine in the morning, glance through your friends’ posts on social media, and start planning your early afternoon get-away to take your dog for a walk. That was my initial thought when my supervisor, Michael Fragale, entered the office and informed me of Jerry West’s recent passing.

“You should go work,” he murmured.

Imagine if a basketball were to go through your front window!

As the department’s obituary writer, you frequently have a few items ready in case one of the school’s living legends passes away. That was the situation with Sam Huff and Hot Rod Hundley, who both had deteriorating health before passing away.

But Jerry West, the man who was always so full of life and vigour and vitality?

Until they do, Peter Pans just never die.

With a man who accomplished so much, where do you even begin? What do you put in and take out of your writing?

It is hard to write about all of Jerry West’s accomplishments over his 86 years of fulfilling life in a short period of time.

What words could adequately express the immense impact he has had on the citizens of this magnificent state and the supporters of West Virginia University?

When he meant so much to everyone, who do you talk to?

The greatest place to start when you don’t know where you are heading is always at the beginning. For me, that beginning is a file cabinet full of interviews that I’ve saved throughout the years, some of which include discussions with West. I conducted half a dozen transcribed telephone conversations with him, ranging in duration from around twenty minutes to thirty minutes.

Before their interest wane and they want to stop the interview and go on to other important things in their day, some individuals will give you 10 or 15 minutes of their time. That’s what individuals much below on the hierarchy have done to me.

not Jerry, though.

When I had questions, he was always more than happy to take his time and explain everything, especially about West Virginia, West Virginia University, and his fellow Mountaineer basketball players. I quickly realised that chatting to Jerry about his close buddy Willie Akers or his fellow students would elicit intriguing answers from him.

When he was playing at East Bank High in the mid-1950s, I remember asking him once why there were so many exceptional basketball players in the state at the time.

I told him again the story the late Eddie Barrett had told me about Chuck Noe, the coach at Virginia Tech, who saw scores in the 40s and 50s in the high school games in Virginia and then in the 80s and 90s in the West Virginia box scores, and decided he wanted those West Virginia players.

Naturally, that enraged Jerry.

He added, “They were supposed to have the top players in America. We played the Kentucky all-star squad.” “Well, it appears that we had the superior players. We defeated them twice out of two games. The men we had in West Virginia at the time were just of the highest calibre.

“A significant factor in it was the play’s style,” West clarified. “I believe that in some areas, coaches were a little more stringent than other coaches. The majority of coaches most likely take after the coaching philosophies of the coaches they played under. Maryland played a really slowed-down game when I was being recruited for college, and while I kind of loved that school, I couldn’t go there and play that style. I just didn’t think playing that way would have been enjoyable.”

With George King serving as his first assistant coach, West Virginia coach Fred Schaus had just resigned from the professional ranks and, at the time, was still youthful and athletic enough to get out on the court and teach the men some tips and tactics that most other coaches couldn’t.

When King was a member of the Syracuse Nationals, they won an NBA championship, and West remembered facing King frequently at the former Field House.

“I used to play against George King, so maybe that’s where I got that little bit of confidence,” he said. He was really intelligent and experienced, and I learned that I could play against him without humiliating myself.

“It was an excellent setting for those of us seeking knowledge, and more significantly, it allowed us to interact with two individuals who had experienced basketball at a different level than ourselves.”

Jerry obviously discovered over his career that the key to Schaus’ and King’s coaching success was team development.

Those diverse West Virginia basketball teams of the late 1950s laid the groundwork for the tremendous achievements West went on to accomplish as an executive with the Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors, and Los Angeles Clippers.

Schaus was able to persuade Akers that playing supporting role for West Virginia University’s Jerry West was a better option for him than being the top scorer at Virginia Tech or Wake Forest, where some of the state’s best players were attending at the time.

When Willie decided to go at WVU and play hoops alongside his friend Jerry West, he had one simple wish.

He declared, “I wanted to win.”

Thus, he joined forces with Lloyd Sharrar, Bobby Joe Smith, and Jim Ritchie at WVU to play defence and steal rebounds, leaving the ball handling to guards Joedy Gardner, Don Vincent, Bucky Bolyard, Ronnie Retton, and Lee Patrone. Jerry was the one who took the difficult decisions and stepped up when it was needed.

The players on the squad were so motivated that they would collectively knock down their granddad to retrieve a loose basketball.

As West remembered, “We were extremely, very competitive kids.” “It doesn’t follow that they weren’t competitive just because some of them enjoyed themselves. They were wonderful individuals, and because I wasn’t going to alter my behaviour, it made for a whole different setting for someone as reserved, timid, and backward as myself to kind of come out of my shell and laugh a little. I was considerably more sombre.”

I was once invited to participate in a speaking engagement with Jerry West in Lewisburg, West Virginia, and I got to see firsthand how serious West really was.

Since I had just finished writing “Roll Out the Carpet” and Jerry was promoting his new book, the plan was for me to perform first and warm up the audience for thirty minutes before West entered the stage.

It was time for me to go and make my way back to the Green Room, after sharing some amusing anecdotes about Wil Robinson, Levi Phillips, and Hot Rod Hundley. That’s where I ran into West, shook his hand, and said Hello with a hint of exaggeration.

He nodded, shook my hand, and gave me a glance, but his focus was already on the work at hand. Partly because his book was so intimate and personal, and partly because he was going to have to respond to some very difficult questions, he had the focus of a prize fighter preparing to step into the arena. That’s when I understood that there are two types of people in the world: regular people and elite people.

Jerry West was a remarkable individual. He was the one person that all West Virginians wanted to be like, and he was aware of the great responsibility that came with it.

I urge everyone reading this from the Mountain State (and beyond) to look into Jerry West’s life. Examine how he showed empathy, decency, and respect to others. Examine how he always kept his word and carried himself with dignity.

Jerry West’s life narrative is a template for success; it has all the elements of a successful life—successes, failures, joy and sorrow—rolled into one cohesive whole.

It is very hard for us West Virginians to say goodbye because he personified every one of the ideals that we cherish so much.

There will never be another Jerry West, so in the interim, fly your West Virginia flags lower until after West Virginia Day on June 20th, in remembrance of West.

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