The NBA Championships began Thursday between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Pundits seem intent on debating Lebron James’ place in history should the short-handed Cavaliers win the title over the Warriors’s well-stocked team, led by the deadly marksman, Stephen Curry. With victory, would James move past the legendary Michael Jordan as the greatest in the game? Who knows.
Neither James nor Jordan has been called the “Symbol of Perfection.” That is the moniker bestowed on the great Jerry West of the Los Angeles Lakers by the NBA’s marketing team. They chose a likeness of him for the NBA logo in 1969. That logo remains the symbol of the league to this day.
After a storied career at West Virginia, West joined the Lakers and quickly established himself as one of the game’s all-time greats. “Mr. Clutch” is the nickname most often used throughout his playing career. After retiring, West coached the Lakers and served as their General Manager before joining the Memphis Grizzlies as their GM.
West made the game seem far too simple. He confounded his opponents and irritated anyone that was not a fan with his skillful ease. As a New York Knicks fan of the day, West’s smoothness drove me crazy. That did not keep me from relishing photographing West when they played the Chicago Bulls in Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium on January 6, 1970.
The NBA in 1970 was far from being the booming financial success it is today. Often teams could not book all their home games in their city’s arena. Wilt Chamberlain scored his 100 points in the basketball hotbed that is Hershey, Pennsylvania, in 1962. The NBA moved a variety of games to Kansas City and Omaha, testing the waters before splitting a schedule between the two cities when the Cincinnati Royals became the Kansas City-Omaha Kings in 1972. Omaha fell away and the Kings called Kansas City their home through 1985.
On that January night in 1970, the Lakers lost to the Bulls. The Lakers defense, playing without Wilt Chamberlain, allowed all five Bulls starters to score in double figures. Yet, West scored 37 points, and an 18-year-old photographed “perfection.”