June 20, 2016
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – A very humble, soft-spoken and reflective Jerry West was in Morgantown this morning to take part in the dedication ceremony for the new Jerry West Collection, now residing in the West Virginia & Regional History Center, which is located on the sixth floor of the Wise Library.
State dignitaries, including E. Gordon Gee, West Virginia University president, Joe Manchin III, U.S. Senator, Rod Thorn, retired NBA president of basketball operations and former Mountaineer All-American basketball player, Bob Huggins, West Virginia University men’s basketball coach and Willie Akers, West’s WVU teammate and lifelong friend, were on hand to provide remarks for today’s dedication.
Jon E. Cawthorne, WVU dean of libraries, presided over this morning’s event, which took place in the Wise Library Atrium. The Jerry West Collection dedication was planned in conjunction with the University’s celebration of West Virginia Day.
“With today being West Virginia Day, I owe an awful lot to this state,” the basketball legend, now 78, said. “I’m getting to the twilight of my life and there are things I’ve tried to do for the University anonymously – and I’m going to do more – and this occasion convinced me this is the right time to do this.”
Scrapbooks, correspondence, personal effects, rare photos, video clips, oral histories and memorabilia from West’s playing career now adorn both sides of the hallway leading into the West Virginia & Regional History Center, the premier location for archives and manuscripts, books, photographs, newspapers and printed ephemera chronicling our state’s rich history.
West indicated that more personal items will be added to the collection in the future.
“I want to make sure this becomes much more special than what is here today,” he said. “I’ve asked my wife to find some other unique pieces out there that might be fun for people to see.”
West is easily the most identifiable West Virginian ever, his amazing basketball career at West Virginia University, and later professionally with the Los Angeles Lakers, making him one of the sport’s true legendary figures.
Thorn, who followed West at West Virginia University and later became a highly regarded professional basketball figure in his own right, puts West in the pantheon of hoop greats.
“There are very few people who are truly great in professional sports,” Thorn said. “Jerry’s statistics are unbelievable. Of the records that he set, and the legacy that he set on the playing floor and later as a general manager, no one will ever do what he’s done.”
Akers, who later became one of the state’s most successful high school basketball coaches, recalled first meeting West at Mountaineer Boys State at Jackson’s Mill during the summer of their junior year in high school in 1955.
“When I got to Boys State I found out at one of the cabins there was a really good player named Howard Hurt (who later signed with Duke to play college basketball). He was already an all-state player and Jerry was only honorable mention,” Akers recalled. “Well, we went out to the playground and played for about 30 minutes and I found out right then that (West) was going to be on my team from that moment on.”
He was, and the two led West Virginia to heights never before achieved, finishing No. 1 in the national polls during their sophomore season in 1958 and then advancing to the national championship game in 1959 where they lost to California by a single point.
Following West’s senior season in 1960, he played on USA Basketball’s first “Dream Team” that won the Olympic Games in Rome, and later played 14 fabulous seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers where he became an annual all-star before retiring at age 36 in 1974.
“He could have played longer but he retired,” Thorn noted, “because, as Jerry has often said to me, he couldn’t play up to the standard that he always played at and always wanted to play at.”
West’s career highlights include an NBA championship with the Lakers in 1972, an NBA Finals MVP award in 1969 despite playing on a losing team, NBA All-Star Game MVP honors in 1972, league scoring champion in 1970, NBA 35th and 50th anniversary teams and induction into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 1980.
“What Jerry was known more for was his clutch performance,” Thorn said. “Three times in my career he made a shot in the last 30 seconds to beat us. At least 50 times in his career he made a shot in the last 30 seconds to beat somebody. He always took the big shot – he never shied away from it. Sometimes he didn’t make it, but he always took it.”
Current Mountaineer coach Bob Huggins grew up listening to WVU games while sitting on his grandfather’s lap in their Dug Hill home, “a suburb of Sabraton,” Huggins joked. It was during those occasions when he truly began to understand the meaning of Mountaineer basketball to the people of this state – amplified by West’s accomplishments.
Huggins said he was ordered by his mother to take a bath before the games came on the radio so he would be clean for school the next day, but he would usually run outside to his grandfather’s garage where there was a makeshift hoop set up right next to a coal bin so he could take practice shots. Invariably, he would always end up coming back into the house all covered in dirt.
“My mother wouldn’t let me listen to the games anymore, that is until the next one came on,” Huggins recalled.
And one of Huggins’ favorite players, of course, was Jerry West, by then a superstar player in the NBA. Huggins recalled putting West’s poster on his dorm-room wall when he became a standout Mountaineer player in the mid-1970s.
“I looked at Jerry West every night before I went to bed,” the coach said. “That lasted until I was about a junior here when I finally replaced it with a poster of (women’s tennis star) Chris Evert.”
West was visibly moved by the remarks of those invited to speak during today’s dedication.
“I feel so fortunate in my life,” he said. “Something chose me to live the life I’ve lived. I didn’t choose basketball, it chose me.”
He ended today’s occasion with some touching remarks about his native West Virginia, “For the people of this state, life is not always easy. There are times in your life when you want to give up, but there are a few things I’ve always been reminded of,” he said. “Every day I get up and I look into the mirror, even today, and I say to myself, ‘How can I be a better person? And, what can I do to help someone?’”
“I will forever be a West Virginia boy, and who knows, I might live here permanently pretty soon,” he concluded.