Why Jerry West Will Receive The Presidential Medal of Freedom
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The word came as it always does this days from the President of the United States, via Twitter, and it failed to take into account anyone’s deadline for it was sent somewhere around midnight.
“The Great Jerry West will be receiving our Nation’s highest civilian honor, The Presidential Medal of Freedom, for his outstanding career, both on and off the court,” Trump tweeted.
That it missed deadline, that there wasn’t much of a fuss to be made over him receiving the highest honor a civilian can receive, would not bother West a bit for while the spotlight shined on him constantly from the moment he stepped onto the West Virginia University campus, he never asked for it.Certainly nothing that I ever posted on social media came near matching the reaction this news created, and other than the to-be-expected political references concerning the man who conferred the honor upon him, the reaction was universally congratulatory.
That was a one-word response.
“WHY???” it asked.
Certain he has never flown faster than the speed of sound like Chuck Yeager, a brother West Virginia so honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
He can’t sing like Aretha Franklin, act like John Wayne or Robert De Niro.
He can’t write like John Steinbeck or T.S. Eliot.
In fact, he can’t play golf like Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus or Charlie Sifford, although at his best he wasn’t far off their games.
So why Jerry West?
One could look at his two All-America years at WVU, to playing on what probably was the greatest amateur U.S. Olympic basketball team of all-time in 1960, for becoming the player and the person that led the NBA to choose his silhouette for its logo, for becoming perhaps the best executive ever in the NBA.
But that barely scratches the surface.
What makes Jerry West a fitting recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom is that he represents what we all believe to be the man who clawed his way to the reach the American dream.
Early on pundits hung the nickname “Zeke from Cabin Creek” on him, a name that he despises for the negative hillbilly connotation it carries, a shot at his state at a time when hard times were plaguing WVU and its coal industry and when such television shows as “The Beverly Hillbillies”, “Lil’ Abner” and “Hee Haw” were on the air.
Born in Chelyan, not Cabin Creek, which is the hollow where he lived, he was of common people and says he grew up with an abusive father.
“I would go to bed feeling like I didn’t even want to live,” West told Bryant Gumbel on HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” when his biography was published. “I’ve been so low sometimes and when everyone else would be so high because I didn’t like myself.”
Basketball became an escape and an obsession, consuming his very being.
While he was shy and avoided the limelight, he was a hero to an entire state that was all too used to being ridiculed and abused.
To think where he came from and where is now is more than a biography. It should be a movie, maybe even a Broadway musical.
Shy, depressed young man from a small, coal mining community is driven to become a great athlete, a great executive, a man who goes from being a great player to one who creates great teams.
He become philanthropic with his success, but does it quietly, not looking for praise or recognition, simply to share what he has with those who don’t.
They make a statue of him. They name a street after him.
It can’t be, but it is.
What drove him? Part of it came from the death of his older brother, David, in the Korean War.
David was playing basketball with some friends, when Jerry approached the group and asked if he could play. David explained to his younger brother that he wasn’t big enough, but Jerry didn’t like the answer and responded with some language that he wouldn’t repeat.
They argued and David threw the ball at his younger brother. West caught it and ran, yelling “You’re going to be sorry. I’m going to be the greatest basketball player ever from West Virginia.”
West made the promise come true but his brother never had a chance to see it.
The greatness did not come naturally. He had to be driven and he recalls after his junior year in East Bank High School the best he could do was be named honorable mention All-State, being passed over for first, second or third team.
“That was the lowest ebb of my career,” he has said.
And now he is ready to reach the pinnacle of his career… and there’s no reason to ask why.