Jerry West dies at 86: Successful college basketball career at West Virginia helped produce an NBA legend

Written by on June 12, 2024

Before Jerry West ever became a 14-time All-Star, title-winning NBA executive and the logo of the league, he was a high school star in rural West Virginia with modest career aspirations. West, who died Wednesday at the age of 86, joined the basketball program at West Virginia University in 1956 as a physical education major with eyes on becoming a teacher.

Instead, he became a legend. West’s time at WVU paved the way for one of the all-time great basketball lives and made him an icon in his home state and around the world.

“It was the smartest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” West said in a 2011 profile done by the Golden State Warriors of his decision to attend West Virginia. “I was so backward and awkward and socially inept when I was going to school. I was so quiet and shy, as a lot of kids are, particularly during that era. I get there and I formed some wonderful relationships.”

West ranks atop the Mountaineers’ all-time scoring list with 2,309 points in just three seasons of varsity action, and his sophomore season still marks the only time when West Virginia was ranked No. 1 in the AP Top 25 poll, according to Sports Reference.

WVU went 81-12 during West’s three seasons, reaching the national title game in 1959 as West scored a game-high 28 points in a 71-70 loss to Cal. West was named the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, making him one of only 10 players to receive that honor while playing for a team that didn’t win the title.

The Mountaineers retired West’s No. 44 jersey during 2005-06 season — the first number ever retired by the program — and dedicated a statue of West outside the WVU Coliseum in 2007. The university made him an inaugural member of the WVU Mountaineer Legends Society in 2017. 

“A true gentleman, one of the greatest players and executives the NBA has ever seen and certainly the most famous West Virginia Mountaineer of all time, he will be remembered forever by the sports world, and this University and its fans owe him a great debt of gratitude for a lifetime of achievement, generosity and loving memories,” West Virginia athletic director Wren Baker said in a statement released by the school.

A 6-foot-2 shooting guard, West earned All-America honors three times and still owns numerous school records despite the fact that he played in an era predating the 3-point line and the shot clock.

Though West’s time as a hero for his in-state program fits neatly into his illustrious legacy, it was no foregone conclusion that he would attend WVU. West received attention from more than 60 colleges while he starred at East Bank High School along the banks of the Kanawha River some 175 miles to the southwest of the WVU campus in Morgantown.

It was a childhood trip with his brother-in-law through the mountains to a West Virginia basketball game that sparked his loyalty to the in-state program.

“I’ll never forget that one trip,” West said. “Then, when things start to happen to you and everyone is trying to recruit you — obviously there are a lot of inducements at that point in time to try and get someone to go to school — but that was not something that was going to happen to me. I was going to go to West Virginia University.”

With interest from the likes of Kansas and other premier programs, West could have ventured to any number of places to play his college ball. Instead, he elected to join forces with coach Fred Schaus, and the two rose in stardom together. Schaus became the Lakers’ coach when the franchise selected West at No. 2 overall in the 1960 NBA Draft, which helped ease his transition into what became a legendary pro career.

“It was like a whole new world for me,” West said of his time at WVU. “I thought 500 people was a big town. You got to Morgantown, it was like, ‘oh my gosh.’ There were 30,000 people at that point in time. I thought it was New York City. It was a real growing experience for me.”

As West blossomed into an all-time great player and then became one of the most successful executives in NBA history, he never forgot his West Virginia roots.

West consulted WVU over the years on basketball hiring decisions and on larger issues facing the athletic department and university, according to the school’s tribute to West. He also “discreetly donated millions” to the university, the tribute noted.

“As the basketball world mourns the man known simply as ‘the logo,’ I join all West Virginians and members of the West Virginia University family in remembering a true legend,” WVU president Gordon Gee said in a statement released by the school.

The post Jerry West dies at 86: Successful college basketball career at West Virginia helped produce an NBA legend first appeared on CBS Sports.


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