Jerry West's legacy: a relentless pursuit of winning over eight decades in the NBA

The lasting legacy of Jerry West (3:51)

Take a look back at the career of legendary Basketball Hall of Famer Jerry West, who died at the age of 86. (3:51)

On a warm morning late in the summer of 1969, Jerry West and a friend were running down San Vicente Blvd. in Santa Monica, on the western edge of Los Angeles, when a man on the street passed him. "You're a choker," he growled.

It was one of the few times West had been willing to go out in public in several months, needing to start training for the coming season. West's Los Angeles Lakers had lost in seven games to the Boston Celtics in the Finals that May. They'd lost Game 7 by a single basket on their home court at the Forum, a stinging upset in Bill Russell's final game as a Celtic. It marked the sixth consecutive time West and the Lakers had lost in the Finals to the Celtics. Twice it happened in Games 7s by a single basket.

West had 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists in that Game 7 and was named the first ever Finals MVP after he'd averaged 37.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 7.4 assists in the series. He remains the only player to win the honor in a losing effort. And then he shut himself inside for weeks in misery.

So when that unfortunate passerby had the audacity to say something, West exploded. Red-faced and sweating, West doubled back and went after the heckler, thinking for a moment about strangling him, his frustration and anger rising to a boil. His friend, knowing West's legendary temper, restrained him and managed to yank West away amid a stream of curse words and threats.

Forty-two summers later, LeBron James called West in a dark place of his own, following his loss in the 2011 NBA Finals. James knew NBA history as well as any star player the league had seen. So he reached out to West, who was an acquaintance but not a friend, because he wanted to talk about losing.

At the time, West had seven NBA Finals rings in his possession. He'd finally won one as a player in his ninth trip to the Finals and then added six as an executive with the Lakers. (He would later win two more with the Golden State Warriors' front office.)

But West didn't tell James -- deeply hurting after a miserable performance by his standards when his Miami Heat were upset by the Dallas Mavericks -- any stories about those titles.

Instead, West told him the story of almost tearing the guy's head off back in 1969. He told James the story because that moment ate at him for years. He knew James, because of social media and the tenor of analysis in mass media, was getting that same feeling but now a million times a day.

"I told him, 'Oh my god, how do you deal with it?'" West said in 2014, recounting the conversation. "I had to get past it because I knew I was killing myself to win and I knew LeBron was killing himself to win. Looking back, I wished I had someone to reach out to when I was in those dark times, someone who could relate to having the ultimate goal in your life to win and then falling short."

This moment encapsulates West. For a man who accomplished so much -- gold medalist, becoming the iconic NBA logo, three times enshrined at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- losing is what truly drove him. His many defeats were deeply embedded in his character and affected his relentless pursuit of victory across eight decades.

The conversation with James also showed the breadth of West's influence. He was a dominant figure in basketball from the late 1950s until the early 2020s -- a legend from when he was the Most Outstanding Player (in a loss) in the 1959 Final Four, to when he brought Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal to the Lakers in an eight-day span, to his role advising modern stars on how to deal with Twitter, to talking the Golden State Warriors into not trading Klay Thompson and the LA Clippers into trading for Paul George.

As much as his career is defined by achievement, it's far more a tale of perseverance. That is perhaps the biggest lesson he leaves following his death at age 86 on Wednesday.

West did not like to talk about his defeats, whether it was 1969 or 2019. It was clear they still ate at him, and his simmering temper didn't cool with age. Just ask the producers of "Winning Time," who he threatened to sue over his portrayal in the series. The show told the foundations of his lifelong relationship with Pat Riley, who had his own way of saying what West lived so often: "There is winning and there is misery."

Because of all the misery, West did all the winning. He never stayed down. He always kept going. That's the lesson he imparted to James in 2011 and what James personified as he marched to eight straight NBA Finals, losing five of them but never slowing.

When West talked, it was routinely with firmness and frankness. He often punctuated the end of declarative sentences with a rhetorical "OK?" It wasn't a question. It was a hammer.

When he talked about the pain of losing, his jaw would set and his eyes would narrow, because, in talking about losing, he was actually talking about winning, a lifelong pursuit West knew firsthand.

Whatever was teaching or telling, it was always worth listening. The smarter you were, the more you did. The more you did, the smarter you were.