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Tears for Jerry West

Updated: Jun 15

I can’t remember ever crying over the death of a celebrity. It always seems a bit odd to me when people do that, no matter how significant a role the movie star or singer or athlete played in their lives. You never actually knew them, and they most certainly didn’t know you.


But I cried for Jerry West – mostly because Mom couldn’t.


My mother may have been the biggest Jerry West fan who ever walked the earth. She grew up in Arthurdale, West Virginia, Eleanor Roosevelt’s little New Deal town, which was just a few bounces of the basketball from Morgantown and the state’s flagship college, West



Virginia University, where Zeke from Cabin Creek rose to national prominence in the late 1950s. Mom was born in 1947, which would have made her 11 years old during the 1958-59 season when West led the Mountaineers to the national championship game.


Mom worshipped Jerry West. And who could blame her. He was tall and handsome with a shy smile that concealed more than a bit of orneriness. He was a native son of West Virginia, humble and kind and well-mannered. And he was, without a doubt, a basketball savant. Jerry West moved with a ballet dancer’s grace. He had a shot so pure, so fluid, that the net barely shuddered. He could jump out of the gym, as the saying went, which meant that even much taller players rarely blocked his shot. And while he always conducted himself as a gentleman, his fierce competitiveness was legendary. He hated to lose more than he loved to win.





Mom dreamed of seeing Jerry West play, begged my grandmother to take her, and she finally relented, the family making the 20-mile journey along those winding mountain roads to the old WVU Field House where, to Mom’s everlasting surprise and joy, they got to meet the Mountaineer star after the game. West blessed her with an autograph, undoubtedly flashing that shy smile at the little girl staring up at him with adoration in her sparkling brown eyes, and then he walked off like a white-hatted cowboy into legend.


But then something terrible happened. A boy, a few years older, must have witnessed Mom’s interaction with West and ran up and snatched the treasure right out of her hands, taking off with it before my grandmother even realized what had happened. Naturally, Mom was inconsolable. She cried the entire way home and moped for days, prompting Granny to write a letter to WVU Head Coach Fred Schaus explaining what had happened and asking if there was anything he could do. A short time later, a package arrived, filled with photos, a media guide and other WVU paraphernalia. I don’t know if he included an autographed West photo – West surely was inundated with requests by WVU fans – and the packet vanished long



ago, but I like to imagine the joy of that little girl, holding a small piece of her hero, believing in her heart that West and her beloved Mountaineers cared enough to make her feel better.


Mom was certainly not alone in her adoration of Jerry West, particularly in West Virginia, where he was treated like a benevolent god. We’re one of those states everyone loves to laugh at, looking down their noses at the supposedly backward, gap-toothed hillbillies (insert tasteless incest joke here) sitting on broken-down porches, shotguns on their laps, deep in some dark holler. I’ll be the first to admit I get prickly about that. I’ve now lived outside of the state longer than I’ve lived in it, but West Virginia and its people molded me and I still consider the “Almost Heaven” of those rolling hills my home. And if anyone ever gave us hillbillies crap about where we came from, we could point to the likes of Chuck Yeager, the badass who broke the sound barrier; Pearl S. Buck, author and winner of the Pulitzer Prize; Brad Paisley, country music megastar; and Jerry West. We could say: Those people came from where we came from. So shove it. 


Jerry West is my go-to guy whenever I feel compelled to extol the virtues of my state. I mean, he’s the freaking NBA logo. What other state produced an athlete who is literally the emblem for an entire sports league, one that now has fans all over the globe? And the fact that he was embarrassed about being referred to as “The Logo” only made West Virginians love him more.


God or not, we could relate to Jerry West. He grew up poor; he grew up hard – like a lot of West Virginians. He was one of six kids and his father physically abused him, to the point where, as the story goes, he slept with a shotgun under his pillow in case he might have to defend himself. An older brother he adored went off to Korea and never came home. That devastating loss also spoke to West Virginians, who have always had one of the highest percentages of its sons and daughters fighting our country’s battles. Jerry West was scarred



and hurt, just like we were.


And yet he persevered. He found solace in basketball. He found peace in the simple act of shooting on a neighbor’s makeshift hoop, doing it over and over till his fingers bled, making sure not to miss or else the ball would carom off the rim and he’d have to chase it down one of those steep West Virginia hills. He propelled his high school team to the state championship, and though he was recruited by schools from all over the country, he chose to stay home and become a Mountaineer, leading the school to that national championship game appearance, the only one the Mountaineers have ever had.


My late father used to complain about that game, which WVU lost by a single point. “Damn refs called it ridiculously tight.” There was probably truth to that. West, who was a clinician on defense, got saddled with four fouls, which undoubtedly hampered him and likely cost WVU the game. This foreshadowed a playing career that, while nearly unparalleled in its brilliance and during which he earned the nickname Mr. Clutch, was also filled with heartbreak after heartbreak, mostly because of the hated Boston Celtics, who tortured West, the ball always seeming to bounce the wrong way at the wrong time for his Lakers. He won only one NBA championship, and when it finally happened toward the end of his career, West actually wasn’t playing all that well – at least by his impossibly high standards. You could almost see it on his face: more relief than joy. He couldn’t truly savor the victory because the previous losses ate at him.


Despite all the suffering, he won a gold medal for the U.S. (something he said he was most proud of), he made the All-Star team in every one of his 14 NBA seasons, he averaged 27 points per game before the advent of the 3-point line (imagine what his average would be today!), he was the only player ever to win Finals MVP on the losing side, and he walked directly into the Hall of Fame, becoming “The Logo” along the way.


If he’d stopped there, his place in NBA history would have been secure. But he moved into the front office and built ANOTHER Hall of Fame career, becoming instrumental in putting together the Showtime Lakers, drafting Kobe Bryant and pairing him with Shaquille O’Neal and hiring Phil Jackson to coach them on their way to a 3-peat, helping transform the Golden State Warriors into a dynasty, and turning around moribund franchises like the Memphis Grizzlies and L.A. Clippers. He never stopped being an integral part of the game he so loved, and he saw things no one else could, even into his 70s and 80s, when an evolving sport presumably should have passed him by.


You could argue, pretty convincingly, that this kid from West Virginia, this hillbilly people called Zeke from Cabin Creek, who grew up poor and abused and full of self-doubt, became the most influential all-around figure in the history of sports. Name another person who did what he did as first a player and then as an executive. He was a genius, even if he hated being called one.


After his death, what struck me about the tributes that poured in was the depth of them, the obvious pain in the messages. These weren’t the usual “R.I.P. to one of the G.O.A.T.s” one-off tweets that athletes typically leave when a legend dies. These were heartfelt. I saw “like a father,” or “an older brother,” again and again. He was family to NBA stars, coaches, owners and just run-of-the-mill role players, which holds a certain irony considering the tortured nature of his own family.


If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend West’s autobiography, “West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life,” which couldn’t have had a more poignant, perfect title. When the book was published in 2011, I found out he was making a stop in New York City on his book tour. So I arranged to leave my newspaper job early to take the train into the city from Long Island where I live. I had a mission: To replace the autograph that had been stolen from Mom so long ago. I bought two books – one for me, of course – and waited in the long line at the bookstore.


When I got up to the table, my hands trembled. I had intended to tell him Mom’s story, but my tongue suddenly stopped functioning and all I managed to blurt out was that she was his biggest fan and the book was a gift. I’m pretty sure he said something like “Tell her I said



thank you,” but it’s all kind of a blur. I do know, however, that he gave me that warm smile of his, with its hint of orneriness, because I persuaded the person behind me in line to take my phone and snap a photo. There I am, flashing my own goofy smile, leaning in close, my hand touching the back of an icon. I left the store clutching the two books to my chest, as if that long-ago thief might suddenly reappear on the Manhattan streets, snatching the treasures from my hands and running off into the night. I’d have no Granny to write a letter to make things right.

 

The book he signed for Mom was supposed to be for Christmas, a holiday Mom adored even more than she did Jerry West. But I was so excited that when we went home to West Virginia a month before Christmas for some quality grandma time for my then-8-year-old son, I couldn’t resist giving her the book. She gasped a little, read the simple inscription, “To Jodi, Best Regards, Jerry West,” and her face lit up. For just a moment, I caught a glimpse of that 11-year-old girl who had begged her mom to take her to see him play.

 

On Wednesday morning, when I heard that the great Jerry West, who somehow seemed as if he might live forever, had died at 86, I instinctively reached for my phone, wanting to talk to Mom about her hero and how empty the world would seem without him. But Mom died a little less than six months ago, on Christmas Eve of all days.


So I put down my phone and cried for Jerry West. I cried for that 11-year-old girl. And I cried for Mom.


Robert L. Fouch is a journalist and the author of three books for children, "Christmas Carol & the Defenders of Claus," "Christmas Carol & the Shimmering Elf" and "Little & Big."

 

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Your writing is such a gift. But, wow, the signature! You are quite thoughtful!

いいね!
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