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Who was Jerry West, the inspiration for the NBA logo? Who designed it?

Jerry West, the player depicted in the NBA logo, is one of the most important figures in the history of the Lakers and the league as a whole.

Jerry West, the player depicted in the NBA logo, is one of the most important figures in the history of the Lakers and the league as a whole.

Jerry West, an NBA legend and the person behind the world famous logo of the competition, has passed away aged 86 years old. Here is a look back at West’s life and career, and the story behind the logo that became the face of elite basketball the world over:

Of all the colours of the rainbow, green was without doubt Jerry West’s least favourite. And it’s little wonder. As a player, he lost six NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics - a team that inhabited his worst nightmares, Bill Russell casting his long shadow over the light that seemed to shine in Los Angeles every day of the year except when the green tide came in. The same number of rings that Michael Jordan won in the 90s against five different opponents - that’s how many slipped through West’s fingers against a single team, one that won 11 titles in 13 years and dominated the NBA more than any other in the league’s long history. Among the Celtics’ many victims, one team stands out: the Lakers.

A leader by example after a difficult childhood

West’s story is replete with adversity, the least of which are the battles he lost against the Celtics. The fifth of six siblings, he was abused by his father as a child, and had to sleep with a gun underneath his pillow out of fear that he might have to kill him in self-defence. An aggressive child to begin with, he became a shy, introspective boy when his brother, David, died in the Korean War in 1951. It was a moment in West’s life that had a profound impact on him. A weak, scrawny child who needed vitamin injections, he didn’t have the look of a future NBA star; indeed, he was initially reluctant to take part in organised team sport because he feared suffering a serious injury.

Scarred by the abuse suffered at the hands of his father and the death of his brother, which both significantly influenced his personality, he began slowly taking shape as a player at his high school in East Bank, West Virginia, shaking off the difficulties caused by his slight stature to develop the traits that made him the force he was on the basketball court. These included his renowned rebounding prowess and an extraordinary physical capacity for playing through the pain, as he showed at several points in his professional career.

His character was key, too: though a solitary individual, he led by example and set the standards in teams that always looked to him. In his first year at high school, he was named captain and inspired East Bank High School to the state championship on 24 March 1956, averaging 32.3 points per game. This led the school to change its name to West Bank on 24 March every year in his honour, a tradition that remained in place until it closed in 1999. The influence his family still had on him persuaded him to go to college at the University of West Virginia, rejecting offers from 60 other candidates. He spent four years with West Virginia, where he was a two-time All-American, was MVP in the NCAA Final Four in 1959 and had his number 44 shirt retired.

His exploits earned him a place at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where he won gold alongside contemporaries such as Oscar Robertson, before making the jump to the NBA. Chosen at number two in the Draft, he took his leadership to Los Angeles, moving far away from his family for the first time. That same year, he married Martha Jane Kane, with whom he had three children before the couple divorced 16 years later.

Jerry West played for the Lakers from 1960 to 1974.
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Jerry West played for the Lakers from 1960 to 1974.Sporting News ArchiveSporting News via Getty Images

Finally an NBA champion in 1972

You can’t get much done in life if you only work on the days when you feel good.” It’s a mantra West swore by as a player, but there were times when it seemed like only the first half of that phrase would come true, and that he would finish his NBA playing career empty-handed. But he finally won the championship in 1972, the Lakers beating the New York Knicks two years after losing to them in the Finals. The 1970 championship series was West’s first against a team other than the Celtics, who lifted the last of those 11 titles in 1969. Seven came against the Lakers, the seventh of which was one of the most embarrassing defeats in the history of the championship series. That day, the Lakers endured probably their toughest loss, made particularly bad by the balloons that the franchise’s owner, Jack Kent Cooke, had readied in the rafters of the old Forum, in anticipation of a victory that never came. It infuriated West, who finished the game with 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists, but could do nothing about the late Don Nelson basket that capped the Celtics’ era of domination in a tight, 108-106 win for Boston.

West, who averaged 37.9 points in the series, had to content himself with being selected as Finals MVP, in the first year of a prize that would later take arch nemesis Russell’s name, much to West’s consternation. To date, West is the only player to win the Finals MVP award despite being on the losing side. Curiously, that’s something he had already achieved in the NCAA, when West Virginia went down to California in the 1959 Championship Game. Not even LeBron James was able to emulate that feat in his immense 2015 Finals, when the Cleveland Cavaliers were beaten to the Larry O’Brien Trophy by the Golden State Warriors. LeBron, by the way, has so far contested as many Finals as West did: nine. And, to an extent, he shares with West a habit of losing them. The latter finished up with just one win in nine, returning to the Finals for the last time in 1973 and losing to the Knicks, who were - even if this seems hard to believe now - the benchmark in the US in the early 70s.

The man who took Kobe Bryant to the Lakers

If West’s name sounds familiar to younger fans, it’s probably because he was responsible for the Lakers’ selection of Kobe Bryant in the 1996 Draft. That’s without doubt his greatest achievement as an executive, a role he took up in 1982 after coaching the team for three seasons - three seasons in which a monotonous Lakers played with the same lack of passion that West showed for a post he felt had been imposed upon him. That team always came unstuck in the Playoffs because of its lack of enthusiasm or ideas, beyond giving it to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had joined in 1975, continuing the franchise’s big-man tradition that had previously seen George Mikan and Wilt Chamberlain star for the team. Since the days of Mikan’s Lakers, when the franchise was still based in Minneapolis, the team had won just the one championship. It was not until Jerry Buss took over the franchise, two decades after its move to Los Angeles, that the team would start winning NBA titles regularly once more, led by ‘Magic’ Johnson, James Worthy, Pat Riley… and Jabbar, of course.

Magic is one of the few things West was wrong about as an executive (albeit he didn’t officially occupy a role in the Lakers’ front office at the time). It was partly at his prompting that owner Jack Kent Cooke, who was about to sell the franchise to Buss, was willing to pass on the talented Michigan State point guard in favour of bringing in Sidney Moncrief. In the end, however, the Lakers saw reason and West’s advice was not heeded. And while Moncrief, who finally joined the Milwaukee Bucks, had a great career in the NBA - he was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and a five-time All-Star - there can be no comparison with the impact Magic had.

West was named as the Lakers’ general manager in 1982, just a few months after rejecting the opportunity to return as head coach. Instead, in came Pat Riley, who West knew well and had shared the locker room with in the Lakers’ championship-winning 1971/72 season. Riley only accepted the role after West agreed to help him out in some games, and in the knowledge that his former team-mate firmly backed a man who had been assistant at the Lakers but didn’t have experience of such a big job. Right at the start of his coaching career, Riley was up against the challenge of piloting a championship contender. West’s support was crucial to him taking on the role, and only with such guidance was he able to forge a team in which the egos of its constellation of stars were kept in check. During those first years after Magic’s arrival in the NBA, coinciding with the start of Jerry Buss’ ownership of the franchise, Buss barely put a foot wrong, playing a hands-off role in sporting terms and focusing instead on business matters - not to mention a string of young girlfriends.

By the time he had been in charge for three years, Buss had not only thanked head coach Paul Westhead for his services, which included the 1980 championship, and replaced him with Riley, now one of the most respected figures in NBA history, a man who immediately led the Lakers to another title in 1982. A man who became a giant of the Forum. Most importantly, Buss had found a role that suited West, a figure he was determined to keep in the franchise. In the front office, West would show an appetite for his work not seen since he retired from playing. For eight years, the Buss-West-Riley trio were the Lakers’ off-field spine, building a golden age for the franchise known as the ‘Showtime’ era. With Magic and Jabbar leading the team on the court, Los Angeles won four titles in that period; five if we count the 1980 championship.

Jerry West built a team around Magic Johnson that dominated the NBA in the 1980s.
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Jerry West built a team around Magic Johnson that dominated the NBA in the 1980s.Jayne Kamin-OnceaAFP

West’s abilities as an executive were amply demonstrated in the 1980s, before being further underlined in the following decade. Immediately after becoming GM, he selected James Worthy in the 1982 Draft, and under his management more names would arrive that would be intrinsic to that legendary Lakers team, such as Byron Scott and AC Green. Green came in after Los Angeles won the championship in 1985, the first of the era in which it was the Celtics who were beaten in the Finals. West enjoyed further revenge over Boston in 1987, before the following year the Lakers saw off a Pistons team that would get its own back in 1989. With Jabbar now retired, the team still had time to get to another Finals, in 1991, with Vlade Divac (another West recruit) as point guard.

Divac would be a key element in the selection of Bryant in 1996. Two seasons earlier, Mitch Kupchak had taken over as general manager, but West had remained in a role of major responsibility, as executive vice-president. In his first season in the position, he won Executive of the Year, after hiring Del Harris as head coach and correcting the catastrophe of the Lakers’ absence from the Playoffs in 1994, only the fourth time the team had missed out on the postseason in franchise history. Los Angeles registered 15 more wins than the year before and reached the Western Conference Semi-Finals. However, West knew that it was a Lakers team that still had limits to how far it could go, and waited for the moment to strengthen the roster with a statement piece of recruiting. That moment came in 1996. The arrival of Shaquille O’Neal was the major news of the summer, but the masterstroke came a few days earlier, and the player at the centre of that masterstroke was a youngster from Lower Marion High School in whom West had seen something that the rest hadn’t.

West agreed to trade Divac to the Hornets in exchange for Charlotte’s 13th Draft pick - a deal the Serb would never forgive him for, as he had wanted to stay in Los Angeles, where he and his wife had settled. However, West had to free up salary space to bring in O’Neal, who would arrive on 18 July, a week after Bryant’s recruitment was confirmed. The Hornets needed a point guard, the Lakers had one too many, and West spotted a golden opportunity to snare a player that he viewed as a future star. He didn’t tell the Hornets who they should pick until just before it was their turn, though, for fear that they would change their mind. Then 17, Bryant was the future of the Lakers, West believed - and, as we now all know, he couldn’t have been more right.

A four-decade association between with the Lakers comes to an end

By bringing Shaq and Kobe together that summer, West began a project that would add three more championships to the Lakers’ trophy cabinet - the first since the ‘Showtime’ era. And he ensured that the franchise was in safe hands on the court for two decades, the duration of Byrant’s career. West wouldn’t witness all of those 20 seasons as a member of the Lakers, however. In summer 2000, he left the franchise under a cloud. He had already come close to retiring in 1998, as a result of the stress that comes with the NBA, but held on and made another decision that would have a major impact on the franchise, when he appointed Phil Jackson as head coach ahead of the 1999/2000 season.

All manner of rumours have flown around about West’s departure from the Lakers, and it remains the subject of debate even today. Where there can be little doubt is that, while the explanation that he was tired was clearly true, his role had changed a lot with the arrival of Jackson, who was paid $8m a year, more than any other coach in the NBA. It was a salary that West never felt was fair. The ‘Zen Master’ had just won six championship rings in the 90s and hadn’t lost a Playoffs series since 1995. It didn’t take long to see the influence he had on Buss, whom he had surprised by promising “three or even four rings” on the day of his unveiling. Jackson had his way of doing things, and not only took Tex Winter and his offensive triangle to Los Angeles, but also his habit of keeping the players isolated from front office - something that West didn’t like one bit.

After a Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers, things came to a head: Jackson asked West to leave the locker room to allow him to speak privately with his players, a move that West took as an insult. In that moment, he made the decision to leave the franchise after 40 years of service.

West’s relationship with Jackson was the catalyst for a divorce that had been coming, as a result of gestures by the franchise that he felt were unfair to him. His impeccable reputation within the NBA, which uses him as its logo (more on that to come), did not tally with the treatment that he had received from a franchise he had dedicated his life and soul to. West led the Lakers to a championship and nine Finals, made the team an eternal contender and the chief rival to Russell’s Celtics, then took the job of head coach when he didn’t want it, before showing tremendous abilities in front office. He was behind the hiring of Pat Riley and the laying of the foundations of a project that dominated the 80s, before rebuilding a team that would go on to further title glory, having been directly responsible for the arrivals of Bryant, O’Neal and Jackson (not to mention Derek Fisher, Ron Harper, Brian Shaw…). Because of all that, West never understood why Buss, who had been so determined to keep him at the franchise early in his tenure, offered a small stake in the team’s ownership to Magic, but didn’t pay him the same courtesy. He also couldn’t understand the level of power handed to Jackson, whose relationship with Jeannie, Buss’ daughter, gave him the kind of front-office access that coaches were normally forbidden.

West’s career post-Lakers

West never returned to the franchise. True to his style, he continued to avoid wearing green, a colour that reminded him of the torture he didn’t want to relive, but he never repaired his relationship with the Lakers. In 2007, there were rumours that Bryant had made West’s restoration a condition of extending his contract with the Lakers. Both West and Bryant went on to deny this claim, and although he was available that summer, he did not return to a franchise that Kobe finally did not leave.

Two years after his exit from the Lakers, West made the unexpected decision to head for the modest Memphis Grizzlies, who proceeded to enjoy the best run in their history with him as general manager. “After being a part of the Lakers’ success for so many years, I have always wondered how it would be to build a winning franchise that has not experienced much success,” West said on his arrival in Memphis. “I want to help make a difference.” In 2004, after a 50-win season under head coach Hubie Brown, West won Executive of the Year for a second time, with Brown claiming Coach of the Year. The Grizzlies reached the Playoffs in three consecutive seasons and Pau Gasol was named an All-Star in 2006, all major achievements for such a small team. West left in 2007, but went into retirement rather than to the Lakers, despite Bryant’s rumoured best efforts.

He remained out of the game until 2010, when he joined the Golden State Warriors as an adviser. While he didn’t have the same key role as at the Lakers or the Grizzlies, he did crucial things for the future of what has been the NBA’s most recent great dynasty. He it was who advised Bob Myers not to trade Klay Thompson, who went to be a key figure in a number of championship wins for the Warriors, and West also had an influence on the recruitment of players such as Andre Iguodala and Kevin Durant. He was also in favour of the 2014 hiring of Steve Kerr, a head coach who, like Riley decades earlier, didn’t have any experience in an NBA hotseat.

West spent six years with the Warriors before becoming a consultant with the Clippers. His return to Los Angeles brought with it further doses of magic: he championed the trading of players like Tobias Harris, helped strengthen Doc Rivers’ power and aided in the recruitment of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, as the Clippers shed their ‘little brother’ status to become a major NBA contender. The Clippers was where West remained until his death.

The NBA logo.
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The NBA logo

There’s one more thing that Jerry West is known for - and it’s perhaps the most famous of the lot: he is the inspiration for the NBA’s logo, which features the white silhouette of a player on a blue and red background (the colours of the US flag). The figure in the design matches West’s exact physical characteristics: his slim, distinctive frame, which is far from the athletic physiques seen today, but was nevertheless capable of exceptional rebounding and allowed him to master every area of the game.

The logo was created in 1969. Walter Kennedy, the then-NBA commissioner, was the driving force behind the idea, which was motivated by the rivalry between the NBA and its competitor, the American Basketball Association. The NBA and the ABA had similar logos, and Kennedy entrusted the publicist Alan Siegel with the creation of a new brand - one that ended up drawing on a photo of West in action, an image in which he strikes a dynamic pose that captures the essence of the game.

Siegel has acknowledged that West inspired the logo, but the NBA has never officially confirmed this - neither Kennedy, nor the men who have occupied his role in the years since. Indeed, during David Stern’s tenure as commissioner, league spokesperson Tim Frank said there was “no record” at the NBA that the logo was based on West. The man himself never publicly admitted that it’s him, either, or that he ever received any money for the image, which is worth $3bn a year in revenue. Attempting to explain the NBA’s reluctance to tie the logo to West, Siegel has said: “They want to institutionalise it rather than individualise it. It’s become such a ubiquitous, classic symbol and focal point of their identity and their licensing program that they don’t necessarily want to identify it with one player.” Rest in peace, Jerry West.