It’s Game 3 of the 1970 NBA Finals. The Los Angeles Lakers need to make a shot to tie the score with the New York Knicks — there’s one second on the clock. Jerry West shoots the ball from 60 feet, and the crowd erupts in cheers as the ball passes easily through the net.
On Thursday, April 14, the Dining Hall filled with equally joyous applause for West’s visit for the first Archer Athletics Speaker Series.
In a Q&A led by Athletic Director Denny Lennon, the normally reserved West candidly reflected on his life, what he has learned along the way and how Archer girls can achieve their goals.
“I grew up in a little community in West Virginia [with] 500 people. We did not have a car, we did not have a telephone, and we certainly did not have the means to communicate via cell phone,” West said. “My home was very abusive, directed towards me by my father. I didn’t want to replicate the life I saw in my family.“
West’s escape was basketball, which he picked up when he was eight years old. His early career was inhibited by his small, skinny stature, and he did not make his school’s team until he was in the ninth grade. Eventually, the hard work paid off, and West won a state championship during his senior year.
“The greatest thing I’ve ever done, but don’t really talk about, is at West Virginia there are two scholarships [endowed by me] and a learning center [named after] my brother [David], who was killed in the Korean War,” West said. “I wanted to do something to honor one of the greatest people I’ve ever known, my brother.”
West was the second pick of the 1960 NBA Draft. He was drafted by the Minneapolis Lakers, who moved to Los Angeles the next season. It was the start of a new era.
Later that year, West won a gold medal representing the United States in the 1960 Olympics, which he describes as a moment that brings him more joy than any other moment in his career.
“Competition drove me more than anything. I hated to lose,” West said. “The thing that I wanted most was a [NBA] championship. We got beat seven times in the final [game] before we finally won a championship. I wanted to quit, but I wasn’t raised that way.”
West earned the nickname “Mr. Clutch” for his accurate last second buzzer beaters, which he frequently practiced as a child.
“I would spend hours out there by myself. If you just watched my mouth, I was the coach, the announcer, the official and the player, West said. “I was the scorekeeper too, so I could put a second back on the clock. I wouldn’t let myself fail. I always made the last-second shot.”
To West, his Laker team was so successful because of their cohesion.
“I believe in the power of team. I believe in the power of one,” West said. “People who are seeking an identity for themselves are not teammates, they’re individuals.”
West retired after the 1974 season; he had spent his entire playing career with the Lakers.
“Playing basketball is the greatest thrill I’ve had in my life,” West said. “My life has been filled with a lot of anxiety, but the most calming place for me was on the basketball court.”
At the time of his retirement, he had scored more points than any Laker in NBA history.
“I was not afraid to fail,” West said. “When things were the toughest, I was my best.”
West then coached, scouted and served as general manager for the Lakers. With them, he won six NBA championships as an executive. Most notably, he brought in Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson.
“I developed a father-son relationship with [Bryant]. He’s an extraordinarily talented, extraordinarily competitive, extraordinarily gifted player. He had all the ingredients to be a great, great star,” West said. “The only thing he had to do was to learn to play basketball. He had to learn to play with four other players. All he wanted to do was play everyone one on one. That doesn’t go very well when you’re trying to win games.”
In 2002, West became general manager of the Memphis Grizzlies and in 2011, joined the Golden State Warriors as an executive board member, where he currently works. The Warriors won the NBA championship last year.
“It’s remarkable how many shots [Stephen Curry] can make. He’s one of those really gifted kids,” West said. “His hand eye coordination is incredible, but he’s a better person than he is a basketball player.”
The day before West’s visit to Archer was an important day for him. It was Bryant’s last game and simultaneously the Warriors broke the NBA single season win record. West made the decision to attend the Warrior game.
“I’m thrilled for [Bryant]. Did I want to watch that game last night? I had no interest whatsoever,” West said. “I’ve watched him play so many games; I knew what I thought I was going to see…People got what they wanted to see — a last look at greatness.”
West’s enthuasiam for the Warriors was palpable. Click the audio recording to hear what he had to say about their record setting game and Kobe Bryant’s legacy.
“Life to me is about experiencing things I can never see again,” West said. “That was an extraordinary night. With all due deference to Kobe Bryant, I would never have missed that [Warriors] game.”
Mamba out, but Mr. Clutch is far from done.