“Mr. Clutch” is known more for his Hall-of-Fame career in purple and gold and for his success as general manager, which included building the “Showtime” teams of the 1980s and creating the three-peat triumvirate of Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson.
Lost amidst West’s accomplishments is his three-year stint as head coach—making him the third former player to then go on to coach the Lakers. The team won 53 games and lost in the conference finals his first season. The next year, 1977-78, brought only 45 wins and loss in the first round. West was a perfectionist by nature who expected effort and consistency from his players—traits that made him one of the greatest clutch performers the sport has ever seen. In his final season the Lakers finished 12 games above .500 but exited again in the conference finals—unacceptable to someone who had endured eight agonizing final-round losses in his 14-year playing career, six of those bitter defeats coming at the hands of the Boston Celtics.
“He took a loss harder than any player I’ve ever known,” longtime Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn told National Sports Daily. “He would sit by himself and stare into space. A loss just ripped his guts out.”
When he retired in 1974 at the age of 36, West was the NBA’s third-highest career scorer. His 25,192 points in 932 games trailed only Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson. His 27.0 points per game stands as the fourth-highest among retired players behind Michael Jordan and West’s former Lakers teammates Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor. West’s silhouette is the NBA logo and he remains the only player from the losing team to be named Most Valuable Player of the NBA Finals—a distinction well-earned after he scored 42 points, pulled down 13 rebounds and dished out 12 assists in Game 7 against Boston in 1969.
West was so hard on himself that he obsessed over every missed shot, every bad pass, feeling he had let his team down. Reflecting back years later on a game in which he made 16 of 17 field goals, went 12-for-12 from the free throw line and added 12 rebounds, 12 assists and 10 blocks, West harped on how poorly he’d played defensively.
Interestingly, West was not then-owner Jack Kent Cooke’s first choice to succeed Bill Sharman—UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian was, but he backed out at the last minute because he’d just begun a lengthy legal battle with the NCAA. West, in turn, was apprehensive, but he needed money after his divorce settlement had whittled away most of his personal wealth. “I needed something to do with my life besides play golf” West said.
Stu Lantz, now the Lakers’ TV color analyst, played on West’s Lakers teams and remembers how much losing ate away at him: “Jerry was a perfectionist. He obviously was a hard-working coach, but certain mistakes out on the floor just rubbed him the wrong way because he never would have made them.”
Though Cooke later called hiring West to coach was “a terrible mistake,” Buss implored the Laker legend to keep coaching in 1979, but West knew he gave it his all and it was time to move on to his next role as a scout.
Loyalty was of the utmost importance to West—so much so that when coach Paul Westhead was fired early in the 1981-82 season and owner Jerry Buss promoted assistant Pat Riley to coach the Lakers, Buss in turn asked West to “co-coach” with Riley, though West considered himself only Riley’s assistant. Coincidentally or not, the Lakers won 17 of their next 20 games.
As a coach, “Mr. Clutch” never delivered a championship, but he got the team back to the postseason after it had missed the playoffs the previous two seasons and, with Abdul-Jabbar leading the way, a dynasty was in the making.