Friday, June 10, 2011

"Mr. Clutch"

You see his silhouette every time you watch an NBA game. You know his name is Jerry West and he was one of the all-time greats ever to play in the NBA. But you might not know his story. Lucky for you, Alan Paul sat down with West for this 1997 interview. Every sports fan should be familiar with the story of "Mr. Clutch" since we nay never see the likes of him again.

Jerry West once described his basketball career as having been “on the tragic side of things.” It’s a harsh appraisal of 14 years which yielded regular-season averages of 27 points, 5.8 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game; 13 All-Star game appearances; one NBA championship; nine trips to the Finals, and a career playoff scoring average of 29.1 ppg, second in league history to Michael Jordan.

What sticks in the craw of the man known as “Mr. Clutch” are those eight championship losses, six to the Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics. Of course, seeing one’s championship dreams smashed by Red Auerbach’s dominating squads-who won nine of the ’60′s 10 titles-is no crime: just ask Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson and Dave Bing. But no one else ever came quite as close or performed quite as valiantly in a losing cause as West, who seemed to leave his still-beating heart on the floor of Boston Garden every spring.

In ’65, West averaged over 40 points through 11 playoff games-only to lose to the Celts in five. In ’69, he was named Series MVP, the only player on a losing team ever so honored. To him, the award felt like salt being rubbed into a very fresh wound. Then there was ’70, when the opponent was the New York Knicks-and the result was the same, as injured Knicks center Willis Reed limped onto the Madison Square Garden floor and inspired his underdog team to victory.

“I don’t think people fully appreciate the trauma associated with losing,” says West. “It takes a lot out of you, year after year.”

West, whose silhouette is the basis of the NBA logo, finally got his title in ’72 with the help of Wilt Chamberlain. West retired in ’74, despite averaging over 20 points per game his final season. “It was clear to me that I was never going to be the same kind of player I had been,” West says. “It was time to quit.”

A brilliant career ended in acrimony thanks to a bitter contract dispute, and West stayed away from the Lakers for two years before being lured back to the organization. He has remained affiliated with the Lakers ever since. He coached for three years, before spending another three (’79-82) as a special consultant-convincing owner Jerry Buss to hire then-broadcaster Pat Riley as coach-then 14 as general manager and the last two as executive vice president. He has been able to drink from the championship cup five times, the fruits of victory hopefully sweet enough to overshadow the bitter “tragedy” that lingers over a playing career everyone else saw as sweet in its own right.

(Article written by Alan Paul in 1997)

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