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A Teddy Bear's Picnic
Frank Deford
February 07, 1972
Jerry West has scored almost 30,000 points. If in five games he had got 10 more he would have won one NCAA and four NBA titles. But that is all he has missed. He's had the life, the glory, the laughs and ifs been
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February 07, 1972

A Teddy Bear's Picnic

Jerry West has scored almost 30,000 points. If in five games he had got 10 more he would have won one NCAA and four NBA titles. But that is all he has missed. He's had the life, the glory, the laughs and ifs been

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Long after the Wests could afford the large home they have now, they stayed in a small, average sort of development house in West L.A. Jane's Lincoln Continental would be parked out on the street next to all the Mustangs and Furys. The reason the Wests did not move was that they liked the people in the neighborhood. When Jerry first came to Los Angeles he stayed almost exclusively in the community he lived in because he was afraid to venture out on the freeways, and, while he certainly knows his way around now, he still lives large chunks of a small-town existence. His favorite hangout is a drugstore near UCLA where he goes to kibitz about sports. He takes Jane over there for lunch sometimes, and they eat sandwiches while sitting on orange crates in the back room. Once a year, for a week or two, he goes fishing with Hollis Johnson, who runs the lunch counter.

Jerry goes to the hockey games, the football games and the baseball games. He can tell all the players without a scorecard and is equally conversant when it comes to a discussion of field position, back-checking or farm-system prospects. West has even done blow-by-blow boxing accounts on TV, and the fights may be his favorite event of all since he can usually attend them without anybody bothering him. The paying customers are Chicanos and don't know Jerry West from Gump Worsley from Birch Bayh.

Jerry West, the fan, will apparently be the only one that will survive in sports. He professes virtually no interest in becoming a coach or an announcer, which is contrary to what is generally assumed. Perhaps playing with such passion for so long has consumed too much of him. Even now, he no longer brings the game home with him, except for that one last time each spring.

Once, after the Lakers had lost the championship game again, he said good-by to Jane and faded off to Palm Springs for a few days. Another year, beaten in the last game once more, he drove her away from The Forum in total silence, like in the old days, when he never said a word. Jane began to talk a lot on the way, trying to divert him. He didn't reply until they got to their driveway. Then he turned and looked at her. "O.K., get out," he said.

Jane opened the door and left. He drove off and was gone for half an hour or so. "Jerry doesn't like to have anyone see him cry," Jane says. "When he came back, we had a big thing about, you know, me sharing the wins, me having to share the losses too, that sort of thing. My God, I tried to tell him, not just: 'O.K., get out.' Not just that. I was killed by that. Just killed."

The last two years, after the loss to the Knicks and after his knee operation, West nearly retired. After this season, win or lose, he almost surely will.

Besides never having won a title, West has never been voted MVP. Centers invariably win the honor, so presumably the players will choose between Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar this year. Nonetheless, there has been a ground swell for West the last few seasons, so that now he is often accepted as the equal, or the superior, of Oscar Robertson as the finest guard of all time. Probably it is a senseless argument, for although they were born six months apart in 1938 and have had parallel careers, they have been asked to perform such different functions for such different teams that no comparison is possible.

In terms of total contribution, West may well be playing better now than he or any guard ever has. "When you really learn to play the game," West says, "you're past your peak." For sheer individual attack force, however, his best may have come in any of several playoff series of a few seasons ago. In all but one year his playoff stats have been better than his regular season's.

Ironically, West has always been more skilled defensively than offensively, even in the early years when his image was that of a gunner. The players, though, were aware of the darting eyes on the skinny little pointy-eared rookie guarding them before they appreciated the classic jump shot. Bill Sharman, West's coach, feels that he is one of the few players who can play both his man and the ball at large. As numerous as his steals are, Sharman marvels more at the shots West blocks. "He must have blocked three times as many as any guard in history," he says. West himself takes a silly pride in shot blocking, rather like the dumb, stacked blonde who yearns to play Ophelia.

Having nothing more to establish as a shooter either, West revels in being a playmaker, a role he has been asked to emphasize in recent seasons. There are long stretches he goes through now when he seems to be imitating Guy Rodgers. Indeed, West has to be encouraged to put himself back into the offense as a scoring threat. Still, how he has scored 25,000 points and made 6,000 assists in the NBA without being able to dribble very stylishly or go to his left hardly at all is a matter you may wish to dwell on late some night.

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