Playing in the bright, airy Los Angeles Arena, the Lakers are the most enthusiastically supported team in the National Basketball Association, with movie stars like Doris Day (left, at her all-American-girl best), Dean Martin and Bing Crosby leading the cheers. One big reason the Lakers are shattering attendance records is the performance of their wondrous back courtman, Jerry West—junior partner in the point-making firm of Baylor and West—who is having his greatest year. Last week West scored 42 and 53 points as the Lakers swept a two-game series with the Cincinnati Royals and took a five-game lead in the Western Division. The story of ascendant star West begins on the next page.
This is an article from the Feb. 8, 1965 issue
THE EYE OF AN EAGLE AND A BIG WINGSPREAD
David West has an all-purpose Army-green vinyl gun that is as tall as he is and can kill you dead 11 or 20 different ways. Also, David has two younger brothers who alternately serve as his cadre and his targets, a handsome father named Jerry, a pretty, indulgent mother named Jane who "just can't stand to spank them, they're so much smaller than we are." They all live happily ever after in a three-bedroom house in west Los Angeles where David pursues the good life of the 4-year-old, killing off visitors at a fairly comfortable, if inconspicuous, rate.
David was preparing to extinguish a friend the other day by the burp-gun device or, if that didn't work, with the rocket-launcher hand grenade that tears the head from the shoulders without bloodying the carpet, when the friend, as his dying wish, asked if David knew what his father did for a living.
"My daddy," David began boldly. "My daddy—" He stopped and waddled over to where Jerry West was adjusting the family color television and whispered loudly, "Daddy, what do you do?" Before he could wait for an answer, a flash came to David and he turned back.
"My daddy plays golf!" he shrieked, and went to retrieve his mass-kill instrument. Eventually it occurred to David that he had not quite covered it all. "Basketball," he said, over the shoulder. "My daddy plays basketball, too."
The proper appreciation of playing basketball, too, will come to David later. It will come that his daddy does not just play basketball, too, but plays basketball, principally. And plays it so well that he makes considerable money at it—$35,000 a year, delivered with smiles all around by the Los Angeles Lakers, who make a good deal more because of him. The Lakers have, in fact, become the richest franchise in professional basketball since—though not entirely because—West joined the team. This enables Jerry to play a lot of golf, too. And fish more often, too. And wear herringbone and houndstooth jackets, and buy handsome vinyl guns for David.
It will come to David also that Los Angeles is a long way from Chelyan, W. Va., where his daddy was brought up in the family of a coal-mine electrician. It is popular fiction that West is from Cabin Creek, W. Va. "Zeke from Cabin Creek" is what Elgin Baylor, the great Laker forward (SI, Nov. 25, 1963), has always called him. Baylor is a nicknamer of no small reputation. For example, Laker Coach Fred Schaus in the Baylor lexicon is "Beef," not, as Schaus suspects, because he yells at officials but because when he yells his nose looks like two pounds of top sirloin. Another Laker is "Musty" in consideration of the impermanence of his deodorant. In any case, Zeke is not from Cabin Creek at all. "Hoggy," says Zeke, meaning Baylor (something to do with Elgin's eating habits), "Hoggy is the greatest basketball player in the world, but he's a lousy poet."
Chelyan, W. Va. has a population of 500; Cabin Creek (pop. 800) is near enough for Chelyan kids to lam over there on Saturday nights and for parents to pick up their mail at the U.S. Post Office. This is not to suggest that West acquired sophistication, as he did color television, only when he switched postmarks from Cabin Creek to Los Angeles. A man can demonstrate class almost anyplace—in a jungle, at a Macy's white sale—if he has class to begin with, which is what Jerry West had. (In fairness to Los Angeles, however, it probably has as much sophistication per square mile as Cabin or Chelyan.)
Star athletes like West live in an insulated world. Padded and crated in praise and exaggeration of their importance, they often are too late discovering that the returns on that importance are fast diminishing. Becomingly, West is not so affected. While he is, above all else, an exceptional basketball player of a cut and magnetism comparable (some even say superior) to Oscar Robertson, he has never needed little David to keep him aware that there are Americans no further away than his living-room rug who would not know the National Basketball Association from the National Biscuit Company, and care less. As a fellow star who is patronized in his work by the likes of Doris Day (a front-row regular at the Los Angeles Sports Arena), Bing Crosby and Dean Martin, Jerry West is neither overawed by his station nor abusive of it. A Sammy Glick he could never be. Not even a Bo Belinsky. He is, rather, continually impressed that people take the time to think of him as important enough to spend time on and, being a keenly practical man who knows how to put a dollar in his wallet and keep it there, he hopes that they will continue to do so. Modesty is not the issue. Awareness is.
No more hillbilly talk
As David busied himself with his arsenal, Jerry settled on a couch in the sunken den and listened to Jane clank around the kitchen. It was January in Los Angeles and he was comfortable in a powder-blue alpaca sweater. The crease was fresh in his pleatless pants. He looked, as he always does, as if he had been groomed by the American Kennel Club. He would have meticulous good looks if it were not for his nose, which has been batted around some and now charts a wiggly course down the center of his face. Recently he has played in an improvised mask-guard because he had the nose broken again in a game at Detroit. Though he is used to the abuse of his nose, West's view is restricted by the mask—he was held to 47 points by the New York Knicks and just the other night to 53 by the Cincinnati Royals.
"Don't try anything new on us," he called to Jane.
"I know better," said a soft voice from the kitchen. "Meat and potatoes man, that's you." Jane came to the door with a platter of cold cuts and potato salad. "Jerry never changes," she said, "except that now he can get to sleep before 2 o'clock after a game. Sometimes. When he's really keyed up it's still 4 a.m. before he falls off. But he lost his southern accent. That's one thing Los Angeles hasn't done for me."
Hillbilly," said Jerry. "Rod Hundley used to call it pure hillbilly. He said it wasn't southern at all. One time during the Olympics in Rome I was trying to tell Coach Pete Newell something and I could see I wasn't getting through. Finally, Pete said, 'For crying out loud, Jerry, talk English!' "
West reached over and twirled the dial on the television set. "No color shows on now," he said. "But the color reception is great. I got a real good deal on this set. I've had a couple black-and-white sets given to me. And a lot of other nice things, like that shotgun for playing in the All-Star Game. Basketball has been wonderful to us. It's a good life. A lot of guys kick about the officiating and traveling, and it does get hectic, but you look at some of the salaries they're paying now and you have to' believe it's worth it—Chamberlain's making about $70,000, Russell and Baylor $50,000, Robertson $40,000, Lucas $33,000.
"We could live better, I guess. But you have to think ahead, prepare for the day you're living on half—hell, a third—what you're making now. I mean, there'll come a time when Jerry West the basketball player will be Jerry West, the ex-basketball player. Then what? I had a Pontiac Grand Prix, but now I drive a Chevrolet station wagon. It's more practical. We could use another bedroom, and the yard's not so big, but it's a good house, in a good neighborhood. Many people our own age. The fellow I fish with, Hollis Johnson, lives right around the corner."
The Wests moved into the house in 1962, Jerry's sophomore season in the NBA. When he proceeds he proceeds with caution—what General Manager Lou Mohs calls "working out his salvation with fear and trembling." Originally, when he signed with the Lakers in 1960 as their No. 1 draft choice, West insisted on a two-year contract for fear he might be cut prematurely. Mohs told him he would regret it. After one year Owner Bob Short took it on himself to tear up the contract and write a better one—West's value to the team had increased appreciably, but under the terms of the old contract his salary would not have. Anyway, before he bought the house, West went in to see General Manager Mohs. "Mr. Mohs," he said, after some preliminary beating around the bush, "would you trade me?" "Yes, I would," said Mohs. "For whom?" "For Oscar Robertson." "Anybody else?" "No." "That's all I wanted to know. I'm going to buy a house."
"Right now," said West, "I'm doing fine—the salary is good and I've been lucky to get some good endorsements—Jantzen, Wilson, Karl's Shoes of Los Angeles, a magazine ad for Chapstick, Wheaties. But you know those things can't last forever. So I invested in an orange grove, and I've got a third interest with Don Drysdale and Les Richter in a summer camp up at Mammoth Lake. It's called All-American Village. Real nice place. The first year up there I spent most of my time playing basketball with the boys and girls. I wanted to improve my dribbling, and you'd be surprised how tough it is to dribble through seven screaming teen-agers. Unbelievable.
"I know it sounds corny and all, but whatever talent I have is God-given, and I think I owe it to Him to do the best I can with what I've got. I mean, it's hard enough if you take yourself too seriously because you can be a hero today and a bum tomorrow. It's unbelievable. So you try hard and you hope you do well, and you enjoy it. I guess—I feel I've accomplished about all there is to accomplish in basketball as an individual. I was on the Olympic team, and I was an All-America, an All-Pro, and I've made the All-Star team five times [in five years]. But there is one thing I'd really like to do before I quit—I'd like to help the Lakers win an NBA championship."
Lou Mohs enjoys—he truly enjoys—a reputation for being the tightest general manager in the business ("Ask anybody around here, they'll tell you how tight I am"). His goal is to make the Lakers the first NBA team to draw a million dollars in a season—"tickets sold, not people in the stands," he says. The Lakers average 7,000 fans a night, and they are up 13% at the box office this year. There is a story going around that Owner Short turned down a $2½ million offer for the club. It isn't always this way in the NBA, of course, and a fellow wonders how some of the clubs can afford the salaries they muster to keep their stars happy. "The salaries you pay the Jerry Wests and Elgin Baylors don't hurt at all," says Mohs. "If it's your last breath, you can pay for a good doctor. These are the guys that make you a success." This incisive allusion to NBA reality will not prevent Mohs from dickering over contracts, of course, because he takes esthetic pleasure in his abilities as a dickerer, but he says it with more than a trace of pride when he complains that he had to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal to keep up with West's investments.
It is altogether possible that if West could not get the ball into Lake Tahoe on a windless day people would still queue up to sing his praises. Fred Schaus has been his coach nine years—four at West Virginia, five with the Lakers—and is an unswerving admirer: "I've said it all along—I've got two sons, and if they both grew up to be like Jerry West I'd be satisfied." Mohs says West is the only player he ever knew that he would adopt. Jim Krebs, an ex-Laker now in business in Los Angeles, says West was accepted by the team "five minutes after he arrived. Right away Baylor was after him to show the fellows where he kept his pet pig." Ed Barrett, sports publicist at West Virginia, says unequivocally that "West is the most popular athlete in West Virginia sports history." And on March 24 of every year since 1956, East Bank Consolidated High changes its name to West Bank in honor of the day the kid from Chelyan led the team to the state school championship.
But do not be fooled, says Krebs Beneath that sugar coating beats the heart of a red-hot, no-nonsense competitor, whatever the game. ("The killer instinct" is what Publicist Barrett calls it, aptly if not originally.) "I saw Jerry get so mad at himself he walked right off the course in a celebrity golf tournament one year," says Krebs. "He barely knew one club from another when he came out here and now he's shooting in the 70s.
"But when it comes to serious conversation, you never saw a more opinionated guy than Jerry. Once he reached the fantastic conclusion that Willie Mays was not a very good baseball player. And before a game, nothing's right. The air conditioning is too high, the TV's too loud. 'Dammit,' he'll say, 'Can't you smoke somewhere else?' He's great."
West's regular fishing partner, Hollis Johnson, runs the fountain at a Beverly Hills drugstore. "I've probably got more reels than anybody in the U.S.," says Johnson. "But when it comes to passion for fishing you have got to see Jerry to believe him." Every year Johnson and West make four or five trips to Lake Crowley in the High Sierras and spend as long as a week at a time fishing for trout. "One time Jerry drove 330 miles in a snowstorm just so he could be there when the season opened. Twice he was stopped, one time when his windshield wiper broke and then again when the cops said he couldn't go any further. He finally straggled in, and before you knew it he was out there in the snow cleaning fish and telling me, 'Hollis, you're hotter than jailhouse coffee,' and 'Hollis, you're my man.' " The only fault Hollis can find with West as a fisherman is that he sometimes gets so carried away that he fishes right past the limit, "and we've got one of the meanest game wardens up there you'd ever want to meet. He spies on people with binoculars."
The thing about Jerry West, of course, is that he can put the ball in Lake Tahoe on a windless day; he could do it in a hurricane, and Schaus admits—declares—that he would not have taken the Laker job in 1960 if he had not been assured that West would also become a Laker. "I offered Freddy a three-year contract at $5,000 more than he was making at West Virginia, no matter what that was," says Mohs, "but it was like talking to a polar bear until we made it clear we had West. I suppressed the urge to tell him Jerry had carried him for three years at West Virginia."
Schaus became a regular on the Wests' front-porch swing in Chelyan from the day he saw West, as a lean 6-foot-2 forward at East Bank High, blocking shots and grabbing 28 rebounds in a single game. Mrs. West took to the elegantly mannered West Virginia coach immediately and soon was shooing away all the other scouts as if they were chickens on the back stoop. "Jerry's going to West Virginia," she said, and that, says Jerry, was that.
Jerry West's heroics since then would fill the six or eight scrapbooks he never kept. He was voted the outstanding player in the 1959 NCAA tournament (in which West Virginia lost to California in the finals). He scored 160 points in five games, and one of the tournament players he beat in the voting was Oscar Robertson. Schaus remembers a time at Kentucky when Jerry's nose was broken in the first half. Gulping air through his mouth, his nose packed with gauze, he scored 19 points in the second half, and West Virginia upset Kentucky 79-70. The nose bled for three days.
Since becoming a Laker, West has averaged 26 points a game; he and Baylor have been the most prolific two-man scoring combination in the league. The Lakers, however, have not had the supporting cast necessary to replace the Boston Celtics as league champions, though they came within a basket of doing it in 1962 when Frank Selvy's last-second shot rimmed and went out. It was in the third game of that playoff series with Boston that West made a play nobody ever quite believed. With three seconds left and the score tied, Boston was about to bring the ball in from out of bounds at mid-court. West anticipated, charged in front of Sam Jones's pass, picked it off, dribbled three times at full speed and flipped in the winning basket. Boston players, writers and supporters immediately set to howling: How could West possibly have done it in three seconds? A TV-taped replay made by a Boston station revealed that he actually did it in 2.7 seconds.
Intensity and purposefulness are not just words with West. When he was a kid in Chelyan his mother used to threaten to punish him for sloshing around for hours in the rain at his make-do backyard court. His diet at West Virginia during the season was reduced to bananas and steak. Before a game he often retched into a towel, and afterward he would bolt down sleeping pills like an addict, then lie awake all night. He lunged and tumbled after every loose ball, and people used to say that Schaus's assistant, George King, was under strict orders to dive under West any time it looked as if he might fall.
"One of the things he has beaten is his depressions," says Schaus. "It used to be a big problem for Jerry. He'd miss two or three shots and he'd start to press. He'd get down on himself—never on anybody else, or even the officials—but his depressions would last as long as a week or 10 days. Once I was really concerned. He'd been moping around for I don't know how long and we had a game with Holy Cross coming up that was going to be on national television. Two days before the game I had George King take him to lunch, but George couldn't find out a thing. When the game started we controlled the tip and quickly got the ball downcourt to Jerry for an easy layup. He missed it. I almost died. Right there on the bench I almost died. I thought we were finished for sure. But then, hardly before you knew it, he straightened himself out. I don't remember how many points he scored, but it was plenty and we won. I've since quit worrying about his moods. His high school coach told me, and it's always been true—Jerry never has two bad games in a row."
Invariably, when it comes time to assay Jerry West's rank among what are glowingly referred to as the NBA's "super stars," a comparison with Robertson is launched. Robertson is two inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than West, and it is generally accepted that he has developed more skills to the ultimate than any player the game has known. West's size, however, is deceiving. He is 6 feet 3, 185 pounds, about average for a backcourt player in the NBA, but he has exceptional wingspread—81 inches from fingertip to fingertip when standing like a crucifix against a wall in Lou Mohs's office. Mohs has a thing about wingspread and measures everybody who comes into the office, taking special delight when a sports-writer needs a yardstick in both hands to reach the wall marks of some of his players. "Jerry has the reach of a player 6 foot 9 or 10," says Mohs admiringly.
When West first came to the Lakers he was more or less a one-handed shooter; opposing guards played him a full step to his right. But he has worked out that weakness in long lonely hours on the court. He has the quickest shot in the game—it takes no more than half a pick to get him free. He moves exceptionally well without the ball—better, in fact, than Robertson, "but then again," says one coach, "Oscar always has the ball." Because of his speed West makes everything look rather routine. Against Robertson in the first half of the recent All-Star Game at St. Louis, he made a full head-and-shoulder fake to the left, crossed over with his left leg and suddenly had a step and a half on Os car—and sank his shot. It looked almost too simple.
"You never really stop West," says the Celtics' Red Auerbach. "You try any number of ways—play him close, loose, keep him away from the ball, and even then he'll get his 25 or 30 points."
"From a coach's view," says San Francisco's Alex Hannum, "Oscar does the right thing more often, but in some phases I now believe West is superior to Robertson. He creates many problems for a defense, and he is more exciting because of the increased range of his long shot."
There is one intangible that nobody talks much about because it is hard to judge accurately, or even to judge at all. West seems to have a more settling influence on his team; he is not, like Robertson, a complainer. He does not bait officials. In all his years at West Virginia and with the Lakers, he had not drawn a technical foul until December, 1963. Robertson has been called eight times as a pro. (It is also true, of course, that Red Auerbach complains all the time, and Boston has won six NBA titles in a row.)
West says, "If I were a coach, I'd take Robertson. He's a better passer and a better dribbler. He has bigger hands and his ball handling is better. He has quicker reactions. He's unbelievable."
To David West, of course, Jerry West's skills are so unbelievable that he doesn't even know what they are.