West wore the university's traditional graduate gown of blue with blue velvet trimmed in gold with a gold and blue hat and a blue hood while speaking to approximately 3,300 students and a total crowd of 10,000. He was awarded an Honorary Degree of Letters from the school and shook hands with each doctorial student after they received their degree.
"I have done a lot of things in my life, but speaking here for the University is the most special," he said.
Despite his success, West has remained humble and reminded students to do the same while working hard.
"I had a god-given gift, but that alone was not enough," West said. "I needed character, determination and resolve. I never took myself very seriously, but I took what I did very seriously."
West's speech also focused on how he built his career from humble beginnings in his hometown of Cheylan, W.Va. He got his loudest applause when he referenced WVU's rivalry with Pitt, noting that Mountaineer fans "could out-cheer Pitt fans any day."
West led West Virginia to its only NCAA finals appearance in 1960 and still holds school records in points scored (2,309) rebounds (1,240) and four other categories. Named one of the NBA's 50 greatest players, West – whose silhouette is the NBA logo – was a 10-time NBA first-team honoree and the third player in the league's history to score more than 25,000 points. He led the Los Angeles Lakers to eight finals appearances and one title as a player and was named the first ever Finals' MVP in 1969, still the only time that a player from the losing team has received the honor.
He also coached the Lakers and as the team's president built the squads that won three consecutive NBA titles from 1999-2001. West also won a gold medal on the 1960 U.S. basketball team. He was elected to the NBA Hall of Fame in 1980.
Yet despite all his achievements, West was known as a tenacious player who was rarely satisfied with his performance. He grew up shooting on a basket nailed to a shed. He would often shoot until his fingers bled, then listen to WVU games on the radio. He once became so immersed in practicing that he neglected to eat often and had to receive vitamin injections.
West didn't bloom until late, and actually sat the bench for most of his junior season before becoming the first prep player in state history to score more than 900 points in a season, averaging 32.2 in leading East bank High to a state title.
"Success without a personal satisfaction or sacrifice isn't success at all," West said. "It's posturing. Money is a means of power, but seldom a measure of success."
In addition to having his number retired, West is a member of West Virginia's athletic and School of Physical Education Halls of Fame and was inducted into WVU's Academy of Distinguished Alumni. His son, Johnnie, has signed a letter of intent to play basketball at West Virginia next season.