Erik Brady: Famous picture of Jerry West playing against Canisius doesn't tell whole story (2024)

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. This one is worth even more.

Erik Brady: Famous picture of Jerry West playing against Canisius doesn't tell whole story (1)

That's Jerry West driving for a basket against Canisius College in 1958, when he was West Virginia University's sophom*ore star. I first saw this photo many years ago in a trophy case at the WVU Coliseum. I was there for USA Today to talk with John Beilein, the former Canisius coach who by then was coaching men's basketball for the Mountaineers.

West died Wednesday at 86. The announcement came from the NBA team he had recently been consulting for, the Los Angeles Clippers. (They began, of course, as the Buffalo Braves.)

When I heard about West's passing, my first thought was of this photo. So, I Googled "Jerry West and Canisius" – and, sure enough, the picture was the first result to pop up. (There it is at the top of this story; you can also see it online here, in the WVU library's Jerry West Digital Collection.)

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The photo caption says: "West scores against Canisius's Greg Britz with a back-handed field goal. WVU won the pictured game, 86-66." That's factually correct, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

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The season before, Canisius had played West Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Under the rules of the time, West, a freshman in that 1956-57 season, couldn't play varsity. The 25-5 Mountaineers came into Madison Square Garden ranked as the No. 7 team in the nation, but the unranked Golden Griffins pulled off a 64-56 upset win. (The Griffs lost to the eventual national champion North Carolina in the next round and finished the season ranked No. 20.)

In 2020, Sports Illustrated ran a story on the greatest "what ifs" in WVU hoops history. If West could have played as a freshman, the story says dreamily, he would have played alongside Hot Rod Hundley, the senior star who played his last game in that loss to Canisius.

"While West dazzled on the freshman team," the story says, "Hundley finished off his career with an average of 23.1 points and 10.5 rebounds per game while 6-10 center Lloyd Sharrar added 16.1 points and 14.8 boards."

The Griffs beat the Mountaineers by holding Hundley to 17 points and 7 rebounds, and Sharrar to 3 points and 8 rebounds. Hank Nowak had 19 points and 16 rebounds for Canisius. Joe Leone added 18 points and Greg Britz 12.

The next season, West soared by Britz at Mountaineer Field House for the twisting layup in this photo. Canisius, coming off three stellar seasons in the NCAA tournament, including two Elite Eight appearances, nosedived to 2-19 in 1957-58, including that loss to the revenge-seeking Mountaineers.

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The following season, West played against Canisius at War Memorial Auditorium, leading all scorers with 23 points as 11th-ranked West Virginia won 77-66. (WVU would go on to lose to the University of California in the national championship game 71-70, though West was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player.)

West would next play in Western New York at the Aud in 1970, when his Los Angeles Lakers took on the Braves in their inaugural season. Ten days before Christmas, the Braves upset the Lakers in overtime 113-111 in what may have been their best win that season.

When LA returned to Buffalo in March, the Lakers won 131-118, but West suffered a season-ending knee injury. (Emmette Bryant and Bob Kauffman of the Braves collided, and Kauffman fell on top of West.)

During the 1981-82 season, when West was general manager of the Lakers, he took a chance on a veteran player by the name of Bob McAdoo, who had led the NBA in scoring three times for the Braves in the mid-1970s. Others in the LA front office felt that McAdoo was a difficult personality, past his prime, who would not mesh well with Lakers stars Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But West listened to Lakers scout Dave Wohl – a former Braves guard – and McAdoo was a big contributor off the bench as the Lakers won the NBA championship.

West had first seen McAdoo play in a high school summer camp. As West later told the tale, he talked with McAdoo that day and said, "Son, you've got the ugliest shot I've ever seen. But don't change it, because it goes in."

I was once fortunate enough to spend some time with West in 2017, when I was working on a story for USA Today about athletes coping with various forms of mental illness. My colleague Scott Gleeson and I talked with eight athletes willing to share their stories; seven of them, including Michael Phelps, were relatively young. West was 79 at the time.

Men of his generation rarely speak of such things, even now, but West said if his speaking out helped others in their struggles, then he was more than happy to do it.

"Some people hide their pain,” he told me. “I’m not proud of the fact that I don’t feel good about myself a lot of the time, but it’s nothing I’m ashamed of.”

Some years earlier, West had written a candid memoir in which he told of his chronic depression. "West by West: My Charmed, Tortured Life" revealed that his father was so physically abusive to him as a boy that West sometimes slept with a shotgun under his bed.

"I was raised in a home, a series of them actually, that was spotless," he wrote, "but where I never learned what love was."

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He offered that same sort of raw honesty in his talk with me.

“This is something that doesn’t go away, this depression,” West said. “When I go through it, it’s almost always based on my (low) self-worth and self-esteem.”

How could a man of such high talent have such low self-esteem? That's why West was willing to talk about it: Depression can come for anyone, he said, and he wanted the world to understand that.

West told me how he poured himself into basketball as a boy growing up in West Virginia coal country.

“Everyone is driven by different things in life,” he said. “To some degree, based on some of the things I saw growing up, I was looking for an escape. I was just looking for something that I’d be appreciated for. I guess I was looking for a sanctuary.”

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He emerged from his childhood sanctuary to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time and the sleek silhouette on the NBA logo. The darkness never left him, though. “I feel that same sadness at times now,” he said.

As a player, West's Lakers made the NBA Finals nine times and lost eight. When they won it all in 1972, West didn’t feel the elation he thought he would.

“All I could do right then was go back to the other losses," he told me. “I’ve learned way more in my life through failure than I ever did from success."

West became a splendid team exec who helped to build NBA champions with the Lakers and the Golden State Warriors. He believed that he was able to see talent and character through a different lens than other talent evaluators.

“Some of these kids, these players, they’re survivors,” he told me. “In many cases, I thought I was a survivor. That’s who I’m attracted to. Someone who’s been through something."

A picture is worth a thousand words. The picture Jerry West painted of how to fight through depression and stay strong is worth ... everything.

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Erik Brady: Famous picture of Jerry West playing against Canisius doesn't tell whole story (2024)
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