After looking at Oscar Robertson for Throwback Thursday last week, we stick with the 1960 draft class and turn to a familiar face — the logo of the National Basketball Association, Mr. Jerry West. Considered one of the greatest Lakers of all time, Mr. West has cemented his place as one of the top 50 players to ever play the game of basketball.
Jerry West was the definition of a franchise player: he completely changed the direction of the Lakers from the cellar dwellers in Minneapolis to perennial contenders in Los Angeles. Out of the 14 seasons West played, the Lakers only missed out on the Finals five times. (One thing to note, in the early 1960s there were only eight teams total split between the Eastern/Western Divisions, but by the the start of the 1970 season the league had expanded to seventeen teams split between four divisions.)
West was selected second overall by the Minneapolis Lakers behind Oscar Robertson in the 1960 NBA Draft after a stellar career at West Virginia University, where West averaged 24.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists for his career. West joined Elgin Baylor (another all-time great) on the Lakers to form a formidable duo that improved the team from the previous year’s 25-50 record to a 36-43 record, good for second in the Western Division.
In his second year in the league, West established himself as one of the premier scoring threats by putting up 30.8 points a game on 45 percent shooting. Coupled with Baylor, who notched 38.3 points per game, the duo led the Lakers to West’s first of nine NBA Finals appearances.
The 1962 Finals were the first of many battles West had against Bill Russell and his dominant Celtics. The high-scoring series went back and forth, ultimately culminating in a Game 7 defeat for the Lakers in overtime, despite the 35 that West put up. While West averaged 31.1 points and 5.0 rebounds in that series (along with Baylor putting up 40 and 18!), Russell got the best of them, averaging 23 points and 27 rebounds in that series.
Described by many as a perfectionist, none took losses as hard as West. Sitting in locker rooms after defeats, long after his teammates had showered and gone home, West would stare into the distance wondering what he could’ve done to win them that game.
In the next four years, West led the Lakers to the Finals three more times — each time facing the Celtics — only to be bested time and again by Russell’s squad. After the Celtics beat the Lakers 4-2 in the ‘63 Finals and 4-1 in the ‘65 Finals, West started to wonder if he let his best chance to win a title slip away in that fateful Game 7 overtime defeat back in ‘62.
With a new motivation to prove himself, West had a monstrous season in 1965-66. Averaging 31.3 points (which would end up being his career high for a season average), 7.1 assists and 6.1 rebounds, West did a little bit of everything to lead the Lakers to first place in the Western Division. West met again with Russell’s Celtics in the ‘66 Finals, and once again the Lakers and Celtics had a series for the ages.
West led the Lakers with 33.9 points per game in the Finals, and the back and forth series went the distance once more. In Game 7 at Boston, the Lakers fell 95-93 and West was once again in the locker room, staring into the void wondering how he could’ve possibly played better to win that elusive championship.
The Celtics and Lakers met for two more Finals matchups, and the Lakers had no answer either time. In the 1969 NBA Finals, West did everything humanly possible to lead his team to the title, averaging 37.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 7.4 assists (including a 53-point explosion in Game 1), but his efforts were in vain as the Celtics came through again in Game 7, winning 108-106 despite West putting up 42 points.
West had such an incredible performance in the Finals that he won the Finals MVP, the first and only time a member from the losing team won the Finals MVP. Brilliant performance after brilliant performance, West had a knack for saving his best for the playoffs. Most memorably, West averaged 40.6 points for the entire playoffs in his 1964-65 playoff campaign. All of his heroics and a penchant for coming through in crunch time earned him the nickname “Mr. Clutch,” and arguably, few have ever lived up to that crunch time moniker as he has.
Despite his individual accolades, it seemed that the championship West so desperately coveted would elude him, no matter how much he tried. West contemplated retirement, as his playing style led to many aggravating injuries and countless broken limbs. With Wilt Chamberlain manning the middle for the Lakers, West decided to give it one more go in the 1971-72 season. What a season it was.
The Lakers went 69-13, the best single season that the NBA had ever seen (until the 72-10 Bulls came and broke that record) and won a record 33 games in a row. In the NBA Finals, the Lakers faced up against the New York Knicks, who West faced two years prior and came up short against. Not this year. After dropping the first game, 114-92, the Lakers routed the Knicks and won the next four games, helping West claim his only NBA title.
Even in West’s deteriorating physical condition, he still managed to be the second-leading scorer on the championship team and be a prominent face of the franchise. West retired in 1974 with the third-most points scored ever — behind Wilt and Robertson — and holds the second-highest career scoring average in the playoffs at 29.1 points per game. While West never won an NBA MVP (All MVPs got distributed to Russell, Chamberlain or Robertson during West’s career), he was one of the best to ever play in that era.