THOUGH YOU MAY have seen black-and-white footage of his Zeke-from-Cabin Creek buzz cut, Jerry West the collegian eludes sharp focus. West never won an NCAA title, nor did he square off with the other star of his era, Cincinnati guard Oscar Robertson. But West's penchant for coming through at big moments in his West Virginia career foreshadowed the nickname he would earn in the pros: Mr. Clutch.
As a sophomore in 1957--58, West's Mountaineers were 26--1 entering the NCAA tournament but were upset in the first round by Manhattan 89--84 at Madison Square Garden. His clutch bona fides became obvious the next season. In those days the 6'2" West was listed as a forward, not because he couldn't or didn't handle the ball but because he was a rebounding machine and often jumped center. West was unstoppable as the Mountaineers beat Dartmouth, St. Joseph's and Boston University to reach the Final Four. He then scored 38 points to lead a 94--79 rout of Louisville. In the championship against a Cal team that had beaten Cincinnati and Robertson in the other semifinal, West piled up 28 points and 11 rebounds. The Golden Bears, with 6'10" Darrall Imhoff at center, had more height and balance, however, and held on to win 71--70.
West led the tournament in scoring (32.0 points per game) and rebounding (14.6) and was named Most Outstanding Player. The Mountaineers didn't get as far in his senior season, beating Navy in the first round but losing an 82--81 overtime heartbreaker to NYU. West finished his senior year with averages of 29.3 points and 16.5 rebounds, and he and Robertson were first-team All-Americas, co-captains on the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic team and the first two picks in the NBA draft, the Big O going No. 1 to the Cincinnati Royals and West No. 2 to the Minneapolis Lakers, who would move to Los Angeles before West played a game for them.
There was one more aspect to his clutch game, as elucidated during his senior season by Villanova center George Raveling, who twice lost to West's teams. What Raveling said is no small thing: It's the late '60s, and West was born and raised in Chelyan, W.Va.
"I've been in the South about six times," said Raveling, an African-American, "and while there's never been serious trouble, sometimes I've heard remarks about my race or religion. There was nothing like that at Morgantown, and I think it was because Jerry West made it a point, right from the start, to make us feel at ease.
"When we met at midcourt before the game, his handshake was a sincere one. Whenever we lined up near each other on the foul lane, he'd say something funny or make some comment about the game. When I fouled out, he came after me and shook my hand."