West was showcased via a five-minute video of his collegiate playing days from 1955-59. It was a montage of Chuck Taylor's, clutch shooting, short shorts, steals, slashes and made free throws – all lost arts in today's run-jump-dunk NBA, and even somewhat in college outside of John Beilein, who attended. The black-and-white production had no sound, but did give a taste for a golden American era with long cheerleading dresses, the French pleat and beehive hair, hoop skirts and t-shirts for jerseys. It had sixth-man Ronnie Retton's jump passes to a cutting West, crowds dressed in suits and, presumably, Mickey Furfari – also in attendance – in the front row of the Fieldhouse (now Stansbury Hall) covering games.
Dana Brooks, Dean of the School of Physical Education, introduced Nehlen, who got a round of applause for his August induction into the College Football Hall of Fame and his 201 career wins and 20 seasons at West Virginia. Nehlen opened with a story he has told in both his books.
"I had never met this guy before," Nehlen said of West. "I mean, I heard of him, and I finally got to meet the guy today, when he got off the plane. I remember when I came home and told my wife, Merry Ann, that I was headed to West Virginia, she said ‘I've heard of Jerry West and the basketball team, but I'm not real sure they have football.' I said ‘Crimony, Merry Ann, if they didn't have a football team I wouldn't be going there.' But to know Jerry West, now this guy is a person of integrity. He could be a big shot with all that he has done, but he is so humble and he loves the state of West Virginia, just adores the place. So that's all from me. Here's the big guy."
The feel and smoothness of West's 40-minute speech was far different from his commencement address, which he called "the highlight of my life, really." The room was smaller and West could connect with the crowd, the importance of which the once-shy lad from Chelyan, W.Va. never lost. The 11-time NBA All-star and one of the top 50 greatest players ever – in addition to his obvious notoriety as being the NBA logo – seemed jovial and brutally honest at times, at one point noting that "it sure was fun to watch West Virginia kick Marshall's butt last week." Only he didn't say butt.
As he had in May, West reflected on his career and the people of West Virginia, and the idiosyncrasies and pure grit and determination that drove him to excellence. He recalled not making East Bank's baseball, football or track squads – "I was about 6-2 and 155 pounds. I had a hell of a body." – which drove him to basketball. He also remembers a neighbor once saying, loud enough so he could hear, "There goes that West boy. He'll never make anything of himself." That doubt drove him, and further stoked the legendary competitive fire inside.
"I did practice on a gravel lot," he said. "Now, I'm not going to say I had to walk miles in five feet of snow to play or anything. But for some reason I loved fishing, and I loved that ball and hoop. There were no drugs and no drinking. You couldn't get in trouble if you wanted to, other than maybe shoot somebody's cow or horse with a BB gun. Both fishing and basketball were solitary activities, and being toward the end in a family of five, nobody paid much attention to me. So I'd take that pole and go fish, or that ball and shoot.
"The one common thing was that, if I were fishing I wanted to catch the biggest fish. And I couldn't even swim. I thought maybe that fish would pull me in, so I just braced myself for the biggest one in the river. But I didn't care. That (lack of swimming ability) didn't stop me from trying to catch the biggest one. In basketball, I wanted to make every shot. I got to the point where I thought I could control games and, since I could not sleep, I always replayed the games in my mind after losses, and it was always my fault if we lost. But I wanted to be the best in that, too. I always liked to compete, and still do. So I'd say to you, set high goals and have a desire to compete."
West said that, when he retired as General Manager of the Los Angeles Lakers after a 40-plus year affiliation with the team, he let himself go, playing golf and cards for money and not taking care of himself physically. He knew he had to have something productive to do, and that led to becoming President of the Memphis Grizzlies.
"I am fortunate that, if I wanted to, I could probably not do anything for the rest of my life," West said. "But it was never about the money. I made $16,500 in my first years as a professional. I thought I had all the money in the world. My dad never made any more than $550 in any one month. Money does just two things. It allows you to tell anybody else to go to hell. And it's a measure of buying power. That's all it is. You have to have a vision to be motivated. Money doesn't motivate anybody. Nothing happens without a dream. A lot of times it's just you competing against yourself. You need daily goals, yearly goals and life goals."
West also spoke about the NBA's early years, when he would play three games in as many nights and once when he played five in five nights, all in different cities.
"It was so bad it was a joke," West said. "There were times when I was so sore I did not think I could play. I had 26 stitches over my eye once, but I played. Some other guy had two and he did not. That's just the difference in people. I've torn ligaments, broken fingers, broken hands, had cuts all over. Our team doctor owned horses, and one time he tried to inject me with a horse needle to cure a constant hamstring pull. There was some colorful language and he never touched me with that needle. I have had nine broken noses. Back then they just shoved an iron metal thing up there and bent it until it looked right. They'd tell you it was all fixed. That's pain threshold, I guess.
"We'd travel to different cities all the time. The guys were real tight. But we'd always argue over who was going to pay the cab fare from the airport to the hotel. We all took cabs. Fred Schaus (WVU's coach who went with West to L.A.) was so cheap that he wouldn't give me the $1 tip on a $5 cab ride. He'd give you 50 cents. … People ask me all the time, ‘Would you like to compete against today's players?' Heck yes, I would."
West also spoke about the problem with agents in today's game, how free agency hurts the game and who he really enjoys watching play before turning very solemn and serious.
"I had a lot of offers to play anywhere," he said, his voice lowering. "I could have gone anywhere, really. But I could not have made a better choice than West Virginia University. My mom never wanted me to go anywhere else. I owe everything that I am to this place. There are probably a lot of you here who are from out of state and have chosen to go to school here. You will learn that you have come to a very special place. There are no people like West Virginians. They are above reproach. They might not have everything that you'd like them to, but there are no better people anywhere.
"I just purchased a house in West Virginia, and I was riding around on a golf cart the other day, and I thought to myself ‘This is where I belong.' I really did not belong in L.A. for 40 years of my life. This is home to me, and this place and West Virginia University have given me the opportunity to do everything that I did. I can't thank them enough for that. I love this place and its people."
West will speak to the general public tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Erickson Alumni Center.