[If you flip through a stack of 1960s basketball magazines, chances are excellent that you’ll find at least one article about Jerry West and his elusive quest for an NBA championship. West, of course, got his NBA crown in 1972. Winning it all went right to the top of his expansive NBA resume, just above NBA Finals MVP (1969), NBA All-Star MVP (1972), All-NBA First Team (1962-1967, 1970–1973), NBA All-Defensive First Team (1970-1973), NBA Scoring Champion (1970), NBA Assists Leader (1972), and NBA All-Star (1961-1974).
What’s missing from the list? West was never voted the league MVP. Though West wanted this honor badly, almost as much as winning a championship, he kept finishing as a runner-up. In fact, the closest the Logo ever came to taking home an MVP award was in 1970. But West got overlooked—again—this time, losing out to Willis Reed and all the thrill and hype swirling around the Amazing Knicks.
This article from writer Bill Libby, published in the magazine Basketball Sports Stars of 1971, tells the story of how The Logo reportedly got robbed in 1970. A quick note. Libby co-authored with West the classic basketball book, Mr. Clutch. Not only did he have easy access to West, the L.A.-based Libby also was a huge Lakers fan. Libby, however, wasn’t a writer with a real clean style. I have done some copy-editing in just a few places to shorten sentences and make the text more readable.]
Jerry West is a modest man, but he also is a proud person. He has accomplished almost everything a player could seek in his long career. But he never has been selected the Most Valuable Player of the National Basketball Association.
So, when players, coaches, and writers around the circuit began to predict that he was certain to win it last season, West began to think that maybe at last it really would come true. He began to admit, frankly, that he wanted it very much.
However, as the poll of players drew near, the injury-riddled Los Angeles Lakers were in second place in the West, while New York was romping to the pennant in the East. And some began to say that the Knick star Willis Reed might draw considerable support.
Few around the Laker camp could take this seriously. They felt that Reed was just one cog on the all-star Knick aggregation. His accomplishments did not even remotely compare to West’s, they argued, and there was some doubt that he was the best center in the circuit—much less the most valuable player. When the voting began, West himself voted for another center, Lew Alcindor, who had almost single-handedly converted the Milwaukee team from last-place status to pennant contention.
Then word began to seep out that Reed had, indeed, won—and West sagged visibly. Questioned by reporters, he responded irritably. “I can only say I’ll be very disappointed if I don’t win,” he admitted. When Reed’s victory was formally announced, West was, at first, deeply depressed, and he said a few things which were not in keeping with his character.
“I honestly believe a most valuable player should be a most valuable player,” he commented. “My conception is it should go to the player who makes the biggest contribution to his team. The thing against me is we’re not in first place.”
Those around West and many around the league seemed even more surprised and disturbed than he was, actually. Laker teammate Elgin Baylor said, “It doesn’t seem fair.” Laker coach Joe Mullaney said, “It’s just not right.” Philadelphia star Billy Cunningham said, “It’s maybe the greatest injustice in the history of the sport.”
Reed said, “It should go to a guy on the winning team. I really felt I deserved the award.”
Possibly he did. In New York, they will tell you he did. In Los Angeles, they will say he did not, of course. But many are not saying so much about any “great injustice” now in the light of Reed’s at-first brilliant, and then gallant, performance against Wilt Chamberlain in the playoffs. It also brought Willis playoff MVP honors, by a narrow margin over West, who won the award in a losing cause the year before.
However, the league MVP voting is conducted before the playoffs each year. Unfortunately, it is conducted before even the regular season is over, which is ridiculous. As it is, the playoffs play no part in the balloting. This, too, is ridiculous.
Granted, some teams do not make the playoffs and some do not get very far, which gives their stars limited exposure. However, in basketball and hockey, the regular seasons are just warmups for the playoffs. The playoffs are the real season. All the rest is just prelude. The playoffs are what count, and the players who are the most valuable not only in the regular season, but also in the playoffs, are the ones who most truly merit the laurels.
West, who holds the NBA single-game scoring record for guards in regular-season play with 63 points, also holds the record for guards in the playoffs with 53, established the season before last in the opening game of the final round of the playoffs against Boston.
He set an all-time playoff record for players of any position with 556 points that season, then surpassed it with 562 last season against New York. He now has the highest scoring average per game in playoff history, 30,9, and the most points 3,708. The latter mark may never be topped, since few will get in as many playoff games as Jerry has played.
Nicknamed “Mr. Clutch,” West has earned the reputation of being one of the finest pressure performers in the history of his sport. He has provided memorable moments, the most recent of which was the incredible 55-foot last-second shot which sent the third game of last season’s final playoffs into overtime.
As far as the words “most valuable” go, Jerry certainly has been of rare value to his teams. In his 10 full pro seasons, the Lakers have dominated the Western Division of the NBA. He has been far from alone, of course. First, he shared Laker leadership with Elgin Baylor. More recently, they have been joined by Wilt Chamberlain. But West has been the inspirational force behind the team’s success all this time.
When Baylor was injured and out for prolonged periods, West always took up the slack—and the Lakers kept winning. Most memorable of these times came when Baylor was hurt in the first game of the 1965 playoffs. West went wild, averaging an NBA playoff record, which still endures, of more than 40 points per game. The Lakers went all the way to the finals before losing.
When Wilt was injured and out most of last season—and even when other Lakers then suffered a stunning series of injuries—West bore down. He won the NBA scoring championships with an average of more than 30 points and single-handedly spurred the Lakers into a close second-place finish behind Atlanta.
But when West has been injured and sidelined for long spells, no one has been able to prevent the Lakers from collapsing. In each of the five seasons of the last 10 that the Lakers failed to win their divisional pennant, West was sidelined for prolonged periods. When West was unable to play in the 1967 playoffs, the Lakers were unable to win even one game. They were wiped out by San Francisco. “There is no question but that he is the Lakers; with him, they are everything; without him, they are nothing,” said teammate Keith Erickson.
Several times last season, the Lakers had to dress and sit on the bench an injured player who could not play simply because the rules required them to suit up at least seven men. West played with sore hands and sore feet and pulled leg and groin muscles, but he played—and he played brilliantly. “Even if they have only West, as long as they have him, they have a team,” said Dick Barnett of the Knicks.
“I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that I know this team looks to me for leadership,” Jerry says. “Over the years, Elg and I have been superstars and the leaders of this team, and the other players have expected us to set the pace for them. This means we have to assume a lot of responsibility. It’s all right—I’m paid very well for it. And I’ve missed more games with injuries than most players. So, if I can, I play, even when I’m hurting.”
He never has played better than he played last season. “I think I’m at my peak as a player,” he said. “I’ve slowed down a little, I recover from injuries more slowly, and it’s harder to get up for games, but I know better how to play this game than ever before. I am a more complete player and a more consistent player than at any time in my life. And the more I’ve played, the more I’ve come to feel consistency is the most-important thing. I’d rather score 20 in two straight games than 10 in one game and 40 in the next.”
“West practically carried us on his back most of last season,” said Laker general manager Fred Schaus. “He not only was the best player in the league, but by far the most valuable. Outside of Bill Russell, West has been the MVP for many years now. And it’s just a shame that he did not win the MVP award and has not won it.”
West, himself, admitted, “It’s something I’ve always wanted to win. Outside of winning the league championship, it is the only thing I have not accomplished that I really want to accomplish in my career.
“Frankly, most of my career, while I know I have been a good and valuable player, I haven’t felt I deserved the award. The big man who gets the ball, the center, is the dominant player in basketball, the single most important player to any team. And when there is a great one around, he is the MVP.
“The Lakers earlier did not have great centers, so maybe Elg or I was the MVP on the Lakers most of the years gone by. But most of those years, Bill Russell of the Celtics was the MVP in the league and, if not him, Wilt Chamberlain. I simply could not do for my teams what Russell could do for his.
“Two seasons ago, another center, Wes Unseld of Baltimore, won the award. Possibly he deserved it. He came in and Baltimore went from a poor team to a pennant-winner. On that basis, last season, Lew Alcindor of Milwaukee may have most deserved it. He came in, and Milwaukee went from last to second place and gave the Knicks trouble.
“I voted for Alcindor and, if he had won, I would not have had much reason to feel rejected. However, Reed won, and I don’t feel he was as valuable to New York as Lew was to Milwaukee. I hope no one takes this as a knock on Willis. He is a wonderful player and hasn’t reached his peak yet. It’s just that I’m not sure if he or Walt Frazier or Dave DeBusschere was the most valuable Knick.”
When the players’ votes were counted, Reed was first, West second, and Alcindor third.
West averaged 31.2 points per game, first in the league, and 7.5 assists, fourth in the league. The Lakers finished second in their division. Alcindor averaged 28.8 points, second in the circuit, and 14.5 rebounds, third best in the circuit. He also has 337 rebounds. His Bucks went from seventh and last place, 28 games under .500, to second place in their division, 30 games above .500, in his first year.
Reed averaged 21.7 points, 15th best in the league, and 13.9 rebounds, sixth best. He also had 161 assists. His team finished first. Another player on his team, Walt Frazier, had almost as many points. Frazier also was second in the league in assists and an all-star and also a member of the all-star defensive team.
No one on West’s team or on Alcindor’s team was close to them in scoring. Neither was any player in the top 10 in rebounds or assists, nor was any teammate on the all-star team.
West sighed wistfully. “All season, other players said things about me which I read in the newspapers or heard on radio and TV which I couldn’t believe. They were so complimentary as to build up my ego enormously. The respect of your peers is something anyone who is in sports for a living really treasures. And I still have that, even if not enough of them voted for me to win the MVP. I wanted it too much and was led to expect it too much. And when I didn’t get it, I popped off a bit, which I now regret. I should have known better. I don’t win championships, and I don’t win MVP awards.”