Boston had straggled in fourth in its division. Los Angeles had won its easily. The Lakers took the first two games from the Celtics and would have wrapped up the series in five except that Sam Jones made one mad shot at the buzzer. Also, West pulled a hamstring. For the seventh and last game he had to be helped down the stairs beforehand, a man supporting him on either side.
That night, on one leg, he scored 42 points, and had 12 assists, and Boston won by a basket. The Lakers seemed totally defeated when Wilt Chamberlain went to the bench in the fourth quarter with an injury and the team down by nine. West brought them back. His teammates would give him the ball and run the other way. It was his ball and his game on his one leg, and he just missed it by two points. He went off by himself, near tears, and then the Celtics came over to honor him. That time Russell could only clasp West's hand and hold it. Then John Havlicek came to him. He said, "Jerry, I love you."
What makes West so appealing is that his frailties are not his fault. They are imposed on him by an arbitrary, even unfair, world. It is recognized that he is the consummate athlete: not only dedicated and proficient, but at his very best when the stakes are highest. Besides, personally he is attractive: friendly, unassuming, gentle, loyal, popular and so forth and so on.
This is all to say that we are inclined to identify with him. But what especially draws us to him is that he is all these things and still loses and gets hurt at the wrong times. That is the real stuff of identity; he really is you and me. For in our world, although we like to believe that we are veritable saints, deserving of the very best, our dishwasher breaks down, the neighbor's children are better looking, there is water in the cellar and our best friend gets promoted. It is a special comfort to know that Jerry West is just as put upon as we are.
West appears all the more sympathetically when compared to the dominant figures in modern sport. There is Russell, of course, throttling every best offense; and all those strong-arm pitchers, knocking the bats out of the poor hitters' hands; and the bruising behemoths, a lineage from Bingaman to Big Daddy to Bubba, clobbering the pretty-boy quarterbacks. Ultimately, nowadays, the crucial characters are defensive or, from a blunter point of view, negative. It is no time, really, for Frank Merriwells.
All told, he has scored almost 30,000 points. If in five particular games he had scored 10 more points he would have won one NCAA and four NBA championships. As it is, he is 0-8 in the finals, and five of those times it came down to one game, winner take all. In the history of sports, there has never been anything like it, except for Elgin Baylor, who suffered alongside West until his retirement early this season.
"People constantly keep reminding you," West says. "It's getting to be almost a touchy subject with me. You see, they never grant you that you got so far, that you won all the others that counted just to get to the championships. Sometimes I've thought about all the baseball players who never even made a World Series."
He lets the subject die with that, which is further comment in itself, for West loves to talk, to chatter on. Baylor tabbed him "Louella." He also called West "Tweety Bird" for his West Virginia twang, which is never so pronounced as when he gets excited with some hot new gossip. "Rumors are safe with you, Tweety Bird," Baylor told him once. "You pass them on, but nobody can understand you."
By contrast, as a collegian, West was so shy and silent that Fred Schaus, the Laker general manager who coached him at the University of West Virginia, recalls one two-week period in West's sophomore year, when, evidently, he never let one word escape his lips. Jody Gardner, a teammate who roomed with West, says that his presence was never felt—if not sleeping, he was mute and withdrawn, even among his closest friends. West did not have a date his entire freshman year.
The next year he sat next to a girl named Martha Jane Kane in one class. He was to marry her two years later, but it was weeks, she says, "of passing notes back and forth and doodling on each other's paper" before he first asked her out. Then he clammed up the whole time he was with her, although she does say that he had sufficient wits about him to kiss her good night.