There Will Never Be Another Jerry West


MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Yesterday began like any typical sunny, lazy day in the summertime. 
 
Show up for work at 9 am, scan your social media pages to check up on your friends, and then begin thinking about an early afternoon exit to walk your dog. At least that was what was going through my mind when my boss, Michael Fragale, walked into the office to tell me that Jerry West had just died.
 
“Better get to work,” he said.
 
Talk about having a basketball fly through your front window!
 
As someone responsible for writing obituaries for the department, oftentimes you have some things prepared in case one of the school’s living legends passes. That was the case with Hot Rod Hundley and Sam Huff, both of whom had been experiencing declining health prior to their deaths. 
 
But Jerry West, the man who always exhibited such energy, vitality and vigor? 
 
Peter Pans just don’t die, until they do.
 
Where to start with a man who accomplished so much? What do you include and what do you leave out?
 
It’s impossible in a short amount of time to write about all of Jerry West’s achievements from his 86 well-lived years on Earth.
 
How can you encapsulate all that he has meant to the people of this great state and those who love and adore West Virginia University?
 
Who do you talk to when he meant so much to everybody?
 
When you don’t know where you are going, the best place to start is always at the beginning, and for me the beginning is a file cabinet of interviews that I’ve kept through the years, including some conversations with West. My interviews with him amount to about a half-dozen transcribed telephone calls spanning in length from roughly 20 minutes to a half hour.
 
Some people will give you 10 or 15 minutes of their time before their attention wanes and they want to end the interview and get on to more important things in their day. I’ve had people much farther down the pecking order do that to me.
 
But not Jerry.
 
He was always willing to spend as much time as needed to answer any questions I had, particularly regarding West Virginia, West Virginia University and his Mountaineer basketball teammates. I immediately realized the easiest way for me to get interesting responses from Jerry was to get him talking about his dear friend Willie Akers or his fellow classmates.
 
I recall once asking him why there were so many outstanding basketball players in the state in the mid-1950s when he was playing at East Bank High. 
 
I repeated to him the story the late Eddie Barrett had told me about Virginia Tech coach Chuck Noe looking at the box scores of the high school games in Virginia and the scores being in the 40s and 50s, and then looking at the West Virginia box scores and seeing the scores in the 80s and 90s and Noe deciding that he wanted those West Virginia players.
 
That naturally got Jerry going.
 
“We played the Kentucky all-star team, and they were supposed to have the best players in America,” he recalled. “Well, as it turned out we had the better players. We played them twice and beat them twice. It was just a very high-caliber group of guys that we had in West Virginia at that time.
 
“Style of play was a big part of it,” West explained. “I think coaches were a little bit restrictive than some coaches in certain areas. Most coaches probably inherit their coaching philosophy from coaches that they played for. In that point in time, when I was being recruited for college, Maryland played a very slowed-down game, and I kind of liked that school a little bit, but I just couldn’t go there and play that way. It just didn’t look like it would have been fun for me to play like that.”
 
At the time, West Virginia coach Fred Schaus had recently retired from the professional ranks, and with first-time assistant coach George King, they were still young and athletic enough to get out on the floor and give the guys some pointers and tricks that most other coaches couldn’t.
 
King played on an NBA championship team with the Syracuse Nationals and West recalled going up against him many times in the old Field House.
 
“Maybe where I developed a little bit of confidence was because George King was there, and I used to play against him,” he noted. “He was very experienced and very smart, and I found out that I could play against him okay, and that it wasn’t going to be embarrassing for me.
 
“It was a great environment for any of us who wanted to learn, and more importantly, to engage two people that had played basketball at a different level than any of us had ever played.”
 
Team building was the secret to Schaus’ and King’s successes in coaching, something Jerry clearly learned during his career.
 
The great things West accomplished later with the Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers as an executive had their roots in those well-rounded West Virginia basketball teams of the late 1950s. 
 
Schaus was able to convince Akers that he was better off being a supporting player to Jerry West at West Virginia University than he was being the leading scorer at Virginia Tech or Wake Forest, where some of the other top players in the state at the time were going.
 
Willie had one simple desire when he chose to sign at WVU and play basketball with his buddy Jerry West.
 
“I wanted to win,” he admitted.
 
So, he came to WVU and teamed with Lloyd Sharrar and Bobby Joe Smith to grab the rebounds and play defense while guards Joedy Gardner, Don Vincent, Bucky Bolyard and Ronnie Retton handled the basketball. It was Jerry who made the tough shots and rose to the occasion whenever it was required.
 
Every single player on the team would knock over their grandfather to get a loose basketball, that’s how driven they were.
 
“We were very, very competitive kids,” West recalled. “Just because some of them were fun-loving doesn’t mean they weren’t competitive. They were great people and for someone as quiet and shy and backward as me, it made for a completely different situation in terms of kind of getting out of my shell and making me laugh a little bit because I wasn’t going to change my demeanor. I was much more serious.”
 
I witnessed that Jerry West seriousness first-hand when I was once asked to be a part of a speaking program that included West in Lewisburg, West Virginia.
 
Jerry was promoting his new book and I had just written “Roll Out the Carpet,” so the idea was for me to go on beforehand and warm up the crowd for a half hour before West took the stage.
 
After telling some funny Hot Rod Hundley, Wil Robinson and Levi Phillips stories, it was time for me to exit and head back to the Green Room. It was there where I crossed paths with West, shook his hand, and said hello in a somewhat flippant manner.
 
He looked at me, shook my hand and nodded, but his attention was already on the task at hand. He had the focus of a prize fighter about to enter the arena, partly because his book was so personal and revealing and he was about to answer some very uncomfortable questions. It was then when I realized that there are common human beings and there are elite human beings.
 
Jerry West was an elite human being. He was the one person we West Virginians aspired to be, and he understood the heavy responsibilities that entailed.
 
For everyone out there in the Mountain State (and beyond) reading this, do yourself a favor and study Jerry West’s life. Study how he treated others with empathy, dignity and respect. Study how he always honored his commitments and conducted himself professionally.
 
The blueprint to a successful life is contained within Jerry West’s personal story – the successes, the failures, the good times and the heartaches, all wrapped up into one.
 
He epitomized all the values we West Virginians hold so dear to our hearts, which is why it’s so difficult for us to say good-bye.
 
In the meantime, lower your West Virginia flags until after West Virginia Day on June 20th in honor of West’s memory because there will never be another Jerry West – ever.
 



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