Jerry West: A Product of West Virginia
Jerry West Calls State, WVU the Foundation of His Success
Perhaps the most famous Mountaineer of all, Jerry West credits his Hall of Fame career as an NBA player, a celebrated tenure as a basketball executive and the opportunity to travel the world to his home state and his alma mater.
“That place is the foundation of any success I’ve ever had,” the 79-year-old West said.
Born in Chelyan, W.Va., and a graduate of East Bank High School, West said playing basketball was the only way he knew to get to college. The NBA wasn’t part of his plans initially — he majored in physical education with a minor in history, expecting to become a teacher.
“When I went to school, I thought that’s what I would do,” West said.
By the time he finished his junior year, though, West saw a different path.
“It was pretty hard not to know that maybe I was a little bit different from the other players and I had been given a gift,” he said.
When his career in Morgantown ended in 1960, West held numerous WVU basketball records, 17 of which still stand, including the career highs for points and rebounds, according to the school’s 2016-17 men’s basketball media guide.
That summer, West joined 10 future NBA players — including Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas, who, like West, made the list of the NBA’s 50 greatest players — in winning the gold medal at the Olympics in Rome.
That was also the year West was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers, the team with which he would be associated for more than four decades as a player, coach, scout and executive. He’s since had stints with the Memphis Grizzlies and recently the Golden State Warriors before becoming a consultant this year for the Los Angeles Clippers.
That career “afforded me the opportunity to go places I’d never dreamed in my life,” West said, citing travels in Europe, Russia, Rome (for more sightseeing than he got to do during the Olympics) and South Korea, where he visited a memorial for U.S. service members killed in the Korean War, including his brother, David.
Through it all, West said, “first and foremost, I’m a product of West Virginia.”
And while he credits WVU with setting him on the path his life would take, West admits he didn’t fully embrace the opportunities he had while there.
“Looking back at it, at that point in time, I probably didn’t appreciate it as much as I should’ve,” he said. “All I was trying to do, and embarrassingly so, was to graduate in four years.”
In retrospect, West said he should not have majored in physical education because it wasn’t a challenge.
“Even today, I regret the fact that I was not more attentive to the things that would have mattered to me,” he said.
West said he truly began to understand the value of education while playing in the NBA. It was on road trips that he developed a voracious appetite for reading that has continued throughout his life.
“I probably read three books a week,” West said. “I seem to be attracted to reading about people who’ve accomplished a lot, serving the country, leading the country.”
It’s a habit he recommends young people develop.
“Read about people who helped make a difference in the world,” he said. “Learn history. Try not to replicate history, unless it’s positive.”
West said he appreciates the efforts and dedication of teachers, especially those who have personalities that inspire their students. He can still recall a couple of WVU professors whose classes he couldn’t wait to attend.
“I wish I’d had their personality,” he said.
Though his career has taken him westward, West said he still spends two-and-a-half to three months a year in his home state.
“I’ve been coming back here for 40 years of my life,” he said. “The people in this state have been so nice to me and so loyal.
“There’s a genuine, nice quality, a helpful quality to the people in this state. I just hope it never changes.”
West is concerned about some of the conditions in the Mountain State, including the drug epidemic claiming and damaging so many lives.
“That’s now what I remember growing up,” he said. “It’s just frightening to me that anyone could ever cross that boundary and (endanger) themselves and their families.”
West said because of all that the state and the university have given to him, he believes it’s important to give back. However, he said he prefers to do so without publicity.
“I’ve always kept it very private,” said West, who calls humility “the greatest word in the English language.”
Supporting colleges and universities “is probably the greatest gift that any graduate or any person with means” can give, West said. He likes to assist his alma mater so it can offer life-changing opportunities to other youth.
“If I can help young people like me, I want to continue to do that,” he said.
WVU occupies a unique place in the state, giving residents something to rally around, particularly the ever-popular football and basketball teams, West said.
“There’s something about the university that I think represents the best of the state,” he said.