Jerry West is so much more than this.
With the MVP race blowing up in the second half, I’ve been thinking about what basketball was when I was a kid and what it is now. Not that I mind what it is all too much, but I always have been kind of curious what it was like to watch a game before 1981.
I thought it’d be cool to look back at one of the greats from that era. Where to go was the question I found myself asking. Everyone’s written chapter and verse on Russell and Wilt, and I didn’t want to drive over ground plowed by so many others. So where did I go, you might be asking? Before I reveal this player, I need a small favor. Just a small one.
Close your eyes. I’d like you to go on a thought experiment with me.
Imagine a guard with the following resume: 14 All-Star Appearances, 14 All-NBA first team finishes, a 3-time NCAA All-American, NBA Finals MVP despite the fact his team lost. Also nine top-10 finishes in the MVP voting, including runner-up three straight years during the era of the players voting, leading the league in scoring one year and in assists the next year, leading the playoffs in scoring four times, 5 consecutive all-defensive teams. He was also the best or second-best player on a team which went to the finals nine times. Without knowing who that man is, you would assume he is basketball royalty. You would assume a man such as this would be treated as not just the best guard of his era, but perhaps its greatest all-around player.
Open your eyes now. The resume I just gave you, is Jerry West’s and yet when you think of him, none of that is what you immediately think of. You think of him as the logo, the guy foiled at every turn by Bill Russell’s Celtics. Maybe, you he’s overrated. Perhaps you think Oscar Robertson was better or Earl Monroe because they straddled eras, but what probably hasn’t come to mind is what I am about to tell you: Jerry West is by any objective measure, the most accomplished guard of the pre-Jordan era.
Now, before I go further into my tribute, let’s address the big elephant in the room. Jerry West never won an MVP. Wes Unseld did, so did Willis Reed and Bob McAdoo. Are those two players by any measure better than Jerry West? Of course not.
For most of his career,West jousted with Oscar Robertson for the title of best guard in the league. If you think about it, it’s actually a compliment to West that he was so good that one of the best 20 players in league history could not surpass him universally even at the absolute apex of his powers.
Unfortunately for us, unlike just about every other great twosome , we never got that one playoff duel in their primes to figure out once and for all who was better. We have had it with almost everyone else, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James being the exception here.
There are many reasons for this which include the fact that Oscar’s Cincinnati Royals (the franchise which would eventually become the star-crossed Sacramento Kings) stayed in the Eastern Conference, thanks to one of the great screw-ups in NBA geographical history. Their reward was battling the Russell-led Celtics, the Chamberlain-led 76ers and even the Knicks for a while just to make it to the NBA Finals.
If it hadn’t happened, if the cartographers who ran the NBA schedule decided to put the Cincinnati Royals in the Western Conference where you could argue they belonged in place of Baltimore, there would’ve been Oscar vs West in the playoffs at least once when they were both in their primes.
Let me stop here before I turn this into Oscar vs West which isn’t the point of this article at all. This is supposed to pay tribute to a man who is so much more and means so much more to the history of the league than just the guy someone picked to be the Logo. I can make this statement after watching games, reading interviews and articles from his peer group and examining what he did well on the basketball court.
If you put Jerry West in the NBA now, as the same player he was when he came out of West Virginia, he’d be one of, if not the best guards in the league, a perennial all-star, and would be remembered and measured differently than he was during the era in which he played.
Now I know exactly what you’re thinking. Can’t be true, right? It is. I’ll go one better actually and tell you how. In fact, there are two things which occurred in NBA history since he retired that would vastly rearrange how we understood him. In part two, I’ll explain what those were.