Like many NBA stars, West came from humble beginnings. His first nickname, "Zeke from Cabin Creek," was actually based on faulty information. He grew up in Cheylan, W. Va., although his family got its mail in Cabin Creek. He was the son of a coal mine electrician who could afford no luxuries and who was usually too drained from work to play with his children. Jerry's closest brother, David, was killed in the Korean War when Jerry was only 12.
Unrealistic or not, West the perfectionist propelled the Lakers to the Finals repeatedly in the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1961-62 West established himself as a deadly scoring threat in only his second year in the league. That year he averaged 30.8 ppg, the first of four seasons in which he averaged better than 30 points. The Lakers had risen from third place in the division to first since West's arrival, posting a 54-26 record. In the playoffs West averaged 31.5 ppg.
The Lakers' seven-game defeat at the hands of the Celtics in the 1962 NBA Finals was particularly heartbreaking. After taking the series lead on Baylor's then record 61-point performance in Game 5, Los Angeles dropped the next two. In Game 7 a 15-foot Frank Selvy jumper at the buzzer that would have won the game in regulation bounced off the rim. Boston won in overtime, 110-107.West's long wait had ended. He had finally won a championship, in one of the greatest seasons ever for an NBA team. Revitalized, he went on to play for two more years. In 1972-73 the Lakers lost yet another Finals to the Knicks. In 1973-74 a pulled groin limited West to 31 regular-season contests and only one playoff game. "I'm not willing to sacrifice my standards," West told the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner when he retired. "Perhaps I expect too much."
In 1974, the 36-year-old West left the game as the NBA's third-leading career scorer, behind Chamberlain and Robertson, with 25,192 points in 932 games. His average of 27.0 ppg game stands as the fourth highest among retired players, behind Michael Jordan, Chamberlain and Baylor. His 31.2 ppg in 1969-70 (at age 31) is the highest average ever for a player over 30. And his 6,238 career assists (6.7 apg) rank among the best ever. Only Jordan had a higher career scoring average in the playoffs, and only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tallied more career points in the postseason.
After two years away from basketball, West became the Lakers' head coach for the 1976-77 season. In three campaigns with West at the helm the Lakers went 145-101 and returned to the playoffs after missing the postseason during West's absence from the team. He stayed on as a scout for three years and became general manager in 1982, helping to build the Lakers' dynasty of the 1980s.
West remained as uptight in the front office as he had been on the court. "If I'm not nervous, if I don't have at least a little bit of the same self-doubt and anxious feelings I had when I started playing, then it will be time for me to go on," he told the Orange County Register in 1990. "I must have that tension." West was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979. West was named the NBA Executive of the Year for 1995 after the Lakers posted their best record in four seasons.
He was also at the forefront of rebuilding the Lakers into championship shape by adding Shaquile O'Neal as a free agent and trading for Kobe Bryant, who entered the NBA out of high school in 1996. Those two players formed the nucleus of three consecutive championship teams beginning with capturing the 2000 NBA Finals.
After being employed by the Lakers for over 40 years, West retired but soon became the President, Basketball Operations of the Memphis Grizzlies on April 30, 2002.