The Los Angeles Lakers will unveil a statue of Jerry West outside Staples Center during All Star Weekend. The moment will mark the 50th anniversary of West’s rookie season as well as the team’s 50th anniversary in Los Angeles.
West was named to the All-Star team that year, even though he didn’t start for the Lakers.
In honor of that occasion, I’m offering up this flashback to those days taken from my book, Jerry West, The Life And Legend Of A Basketball Icon (copyright 2010 by ESPN Books).
West faced much uncertainty that rookie season. He quickly learned he was stepping into a faster, stronger league that put unimaginable physical and mental demands on its players in those days before it became a big-money lifestyle. The hotels were seedy, the commercial flights cramped, the food mostly bad. Not only was West in a new game, but he was moving to a new position, from forward to guard, and he already had an idea of all the changes that would mean for his game.
“Coming into the league, I really had to change positions, even though I was 6-3,” he explained. “I played a lot up front, mostly up front, in college, except defensively out front, pressing and stuff like that. When they needed it, I’d bring the ball up the floor, but I really didn’t do that a lot. Basically, defensively, the adjustment wasn’t a problem for me. But offensively, instead of starting out 19 or 20 feet offensively and taking one dribble to the hoop or one dribble to get a shot, I had to start out 28 feet, which required a lot more finesse in getting where you wanted to go.”
West would also have to adjust to a host of new teammates, including the resplendent and mercurial Elgin Baylor, already a dynamic new presence in the league who had a biting wit and a forceful personality. Then there was the somewhat desperate Hot Rod Hundley, who was on his way to partying himself out of the game. Hundley lived a lavish lifestyle way beyond his $10,000 contract, wore bright colors, prowled the clubs, and practiced pool and table tennis, anything but basketball.
Beyond that, the roster was extremely young, with athletes trying to find a place in a sport that employed just 80 players league-wide. Those numbers reflected the difficulties of the team itself. Hanging by a thread financially, the Lakers had moved to a brand new city, many miles and time zones removed from the rest of the NBA. It was an eight-team league in 1960 and far from healthy. The Boston Celtics, Syracuse Nationals, Philadelphia Warriors, and New York Knickerbockers made up the Eastern Conference. The Western Conference had the St. Louis Hawks, the Cincinnati Royals, and the Detroit Pistons, with the Lakers now stretching things all the way out to the West Coast. On many nights, it seemed they might as well have been playing on the moon. West and his teammates soon realized they were an alien presence in their new city.
“When the Lakers first came to Los Angeles from Minneapolis they were terrible,” West would remember. “They didn’t have a lot of very good players. But things changed. When they came to Los Angeles it seemed like the team was invigorated.”
West’s new basketball home would eventually become the 14,000-seat Los Angeles Sports Arena, built in 1959 near the Coliseum. It was as fancy and new then as Staples Center is today. Both UCLA and Southern Cal scrambled to play their games there, leaving the Lakers to settle for an unusual number of Sunday and Monday dates. Otherwise, the Lakers had to search for local venues to play on their other game days. That, strangely, would prove to be something of an early boost. Small venues cloaked dismal crowds better than the cavernous new arena.
“They were drawing nothing,” Chick Hearn once said. “They would play one night at a high school gym. They played the Shrine Auditorium on a stage! If you fell off the side you dropped six feet. They played at the University of California, wherever its various locations were. They just couldn’t build a following. Wherever they played, the thousand people who lived in that area might go. But the newspaper coverage was very, very slim. It wasn’t very easy elsewhere either. In the East, they were playing double-header games at neutral sites, trying to find a crowd.”
The team was hopeful that West would develop into a second star to play alongside the superb Baylor. West came to rely on his multi-talented teammate that first year.
“It was an honor to play with him,” West said later. “I never considered Elgin Baylor as someone I competed against. He is without a doubt one of the truly great players to play this game. I hear people talking about great players today, and I don’t see many that compare to him, I’ll tell you that. He had that wonderful, magical instinct for making plays, for doing things that you just had to watch. I learned from him, from watching him. I was young, wanting to learn. I had an incredible appreciation for other people’s talents. It was incredible to watch Elgin play.”
“Our nickname for Elgin was Motormouth,” Hot Rod Hundley said. “He never stopped talking. He knew everything, or he thought he did. We had a lot of fun.”
In 1960-61, a lot of that fun came at Jerry West’s expense. The Beverly Hillbillies wouldn’t air on CBS until September 1962, but by then West could have written the episodes all by himself. He had come to Los Angeles with a flattop haircut, skinny legs, and a high-pitched mountain twang, like he had just fallen off the turnip truck. His looks and wardrobe would pass the early test, but the dead giveaway came any time he spoke. Baylor first called him “Tweetie Bird” because of the high-pitched voice and the skinny legs. West hated it.
“He’s as easy to understand as a beagle with a sore throat,” Baylor quipped.
Then Baylor came up with another name: Zeke from Cabin Creek. West to no avail tried to explain that he wasn’t even from Cabin Creek. He was from Chelyan and he hated the name Zeke from Cabin Creek.
“Hey Zeke,” Baylor said to West in earshot of reporters. “They tell me when the scout came for you, the folks came from miles around to look at his shoes. I hear tell one guy said, ‘Hey Mirandy, lookee here, here’s a guy with feet that got two toes!’ That right?”
Catchy as the name was and eager as the team was to build a following in Los Angeles in the early years, broadcaster Chick Hearn took to referring to West as Zeke on game broadcasts, until West’s first wife Jane quietly asked Hearn to quit using it. Hearn obliged, but it was a name, an image, that would not die.
It stands to reason that Baylor wanted to test West. Besides, hazing, then as now, was a key part of NBA life. Rookies carried team luggage and even paid their teammates’ cab fares to and from arenas, duties that West carried out that first year.
“The first time I saw Jerry I knew he was going to be a good one,” Baylor recalled for a Los Angeles reporter a few years later. “I have also learned he’s one of the finest guys I’ve ever met. We’ve never had any troubles. When he’s hot I feed him and when I’m hot, he feeds me. I’ll tell you something else, too. He hates to lose.”
Even so, the stereotyping and lampooning that first season deeply offended West.
“For one thing, no one could understand him,” Jim Murray, the L.A. Times’ great columnist would write, inspired by Baylor’s humor. “He had an accent that was three parts sweet potato, one part magnolia, two parts coonskin, and a sprinkling of Elizabethan moonshine English strained through a broken nose.”
Baylor was his roommate and friend. Murray was an admirer. West laughed with them in fun. But he hated that their talk provided grist for all the people he didn’t know, strangers who felt free to address him in such terms.
“I’ve never seen Jerry walk by an autograph yet,” Pete Newell would later recall. “He signed because he believed he owed it to the fans. But when people would ask him to sign ‘Zeke from Cabin Creek,’ he’d refuse.”
Hundley was also from West Virginia, but Hundley had several years experience in the league and was far more worldly. Where he could laugh off the constant references to hillbillies, West took it personally. Already prone to harboring resentments, West added it to his long list, not against Baylor, but against the mind-set in general. Hundley once remarked that West accomplished “ten times as much as I did in my career but he’s about a tenth as happy as I am.”
Being lampooned added mightily to that misery.
His accent wasn’t the only thing West brought to Los Angeles from West Virginia. The Lakers had hired Fred Schaus, his coach at West Virginia University, to coach the team.
Schaus had played for the old Fort Wayne Pistons and knew pro basketball. That first season he went with Hundley and Frank Selvy as his starting guards, and he left the perfectionist West on the bench for long stretches.
“That was a frustrating period, because I could not learn sitting on the bench,” West recalled. “The only thing I could learn were bad habits, with the things that I saw. I had to get out there and get over those first-year jitters and the time in my career where I wasn’t a real good player, to get to the point where I could be competent enough to compete on a higher level with these other players.”
It would lead to West’s long-term resentment of Schaus, although he never made those feelings known at the time, never addressed it until years after the fact.
Rene Henry, a close friend of Schaus’s and Hundley’s, said the situation proved difficult for Schaus. “Fred didn’t want to choose,” Henry offered. “He’s from West Virginia; they’re from West Virginia; and if they lost it’s because they’re West Virginia guys. Rod thought with Jerry – they did play together sometimes, but not a lot – Rod felt with Jerry’s moves off the ball and the way Rod could handle the ball, that he could have gotten ten assists a game with Jerry.”
“Schaus wasn’t a bad coach,” Hundley observed. “He was just mechanical and predictable. He’d take Jerry West out of games with two minutes left. It didn’t matter if he was shooting the ball great. It was automatic. Schaus wouldn’t ride a hot hand. Most coaches will, but Schaus wouldn’t. Hell, Jerry made the All-Star team, and he wasn’t even a starter.”
“He was old school, no nonsense, no sense of humor,” Red Kerr, the former NBA center and coach said of Schaus.
Schaus may have had his detractors, but he understood an important part of West’s personality: the self destruction and paralysis brought on by his perfectionism. West himself would admit later that he had important lessons to learn that first year.
“One of the biggest,” West conceded later in the decade, “was that I was too much of a perfectionist. I had to realize that every pass couldn’t be perfect and every shot couldn’t go into the basket. I used to get angry at myself every time I made a mistake. The anger would make me lose my concentration and then, for a few minutes I would play poorly. A mistake doesn’t bother me anymore. It’s just part of the game.
“I think there was a lot of pressure on me when I first came here. I had been a big college star, but I didn’t score too well when I joined the Lakers. Of course, I hadn’t played guard before, but that was only part of the trouble. In college you had two or three games that were important, but all of them are in pro ball. Then there was the traveling. I couldn’t sleep after a game for hours. That problem I never have conquered, but the schedule was much tougher then, because we were the only Western club. Believe me, with the long trips I lost weight.”
Hundley has said many times that it was silly not to start West and play him more. Yet Hundley himself was off to his best year as a pro, about a dozen points a game, since the Lakers had drafted him as the number one overall pick in 1957. He was named to the All-Star team for the second straight year. Still, the Lakers weren’t performing up to their potential as a team, which fueled West’s unhappiness.
“I felt after 20 games that I had earned more playing time because the team was doing so poorly,” West said. “The one thing I always felt, if the team is not winning you have to be free to make changes.”
Surprisingly, Los Angeles placed three players on the Western Conference All-Star team. The game was played in cold Syracuse, and in those days it was a far cry from the fancy international event of the modern era. It would be the first of West’s fourteen consecutive appearances in the event.
“There were times when I thought I’d never make it pro,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1965. “I was quite discouraged until they selected me for the All-Star game. That was the lift I needed. I still would play a good one, then a poor one. But by playoff time I felt I could become an outstanding player.”
After the All-Star break, Hundley went to the bench. It was an embittering experience, and it would take years for him to forgive Schaus for the move. He felt that Schaus should have kept him in the lineup instead of Frank Selvy, the Lakers’ other guard. It was the moment that signaled Hundley was moving toward the end.
Asked later about it, Schaus was frank. Hundley wouldn’t have been good to start alongside West because Hundley was a ball hog and he wasn’t steady. West had to have the ball, and Selvy would pass it to him. Plus Hundley was in poor shape and suffering from bad knees that slowed him considerably.
“Rod was fun, and he did a lot of funny things,” Schaus said. “But he was a fine player, too. He was a great dribbler and passer, and he played pretty fair defense. He was a great scorer, but he was not the great shooter that Jerry West was.”
“All of a sudden things weren’t very good, and I had a chance to step in and start, and I never gave it up,” West said. “It was a struggle, and then things changed. Then it got to the point where I didn’t come out very much. That felt good, because I believe basketball players need to play more, particularly if you can play at a higher level. Getting to that level is the hardest thing. You can’t do it unless you have ability and you get the opportunity.”
The Lakers began a turnaround with West in the lineup, although it was nothing that the rookie guard engineered by himself. Baylor was in his prime, playing the forward spot in spectacular fashion. He led the team offensively and finished second in the league in scoring behind Wilt Chamberlain at a 34.8 points per game pace.
“They were only drawing about 3,000 that first year,” said longtime Lakers writer Mitch Chortkoff. “But Baylor and West made it into something. Baylor was so spectacular he could sell tickets with the way he played.”
The team may have started winning more games and doing better at the gate, but that didn’t change their sorry financial state that first year.
“The worst thing was, they charged Jerry for extra tickets,” Hundley remembered. “They took money from him. I was standing right there. Jerry wouldn’t say a word. He just sat there and turned red.”
The Lakers would second in the Western Conference with a 36-43 record, just enough to make the play-offs. But the Sports Arena wasn’t available, so they moved one of their first-round games with Detroit to the local Shrine Auditorium, where they played on a stage.
“The Lakers really didn’t have a real place to play,” recalled Gene Shue, who starred for Detroit and battled West in the series. “One or two of the playoff games, we played on a stage in one of those buildings, the Shrine Auditorium. There wasn’t much of a crowd. That was strange. That’s the closest I’ve ever been to Broadway.”
By the end of the year, West was showing his greatness, Shue said. “Jerry didn’t have to beat you with quickness. He could take you to a spot on the floor and shoot over you. He was very, very good at that. He got the ball way back on his shot. You had a very tough time guarding him. He was very good at catching the ball, and backing you down. He didn’t have to back you down too far and then he’d just rise up and shoot the ball.
“Jerry was never like the point guard on a team,” Shue added. “He was mostly a two guard. He could beat you with quickness, he could beat you with his outside shot. He could dribble you down and just shoot over you. I played Jerry all the time when I was in the pro leagues and I could never get his shot. The only way you could bother Jerry was to try to be on the side of him when he went up to shoot. You’re up not as high as he is. When you’re going body to body with Jerry he’d just bump you, go up and have that high release. He was just unstoppable. Jerry he was such a clutch shooter and Elgin was as well. When the game was on the line, these were the guys that always had the ball. They produced.”