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.
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.