Jerry West's star still shines over all (VIDEO)
Wherever he stepped at the Greenbrier Classic this week, he found well-wishers eager to shake his hand, request an autograph and to pose with him for a picture.
West always obliged, generally with a smile, and he draped a hand on the shoulders of those who stood beside him for pictures.
His reputation for shyness and modesty still lingers - and that's undoubtedly still who he is - but at age 72 he seems comfortable in his role as an unofficial spokesman for his native state and for The Greenbrier, a place he says has shaken its once-stuffy image.
"At one time,'' he said, "I almost felt that it got to the point where this was kind of an elitist place. That's not what West Virginia is all about.''
West, a two-time basketball All-American at West Virginia University before a hall-of-fame career as a player and executive with the Los Angeles Lakers, owns a home in the area and spends three months a year here between August and October.
This year, he came back early to support the latest undertaking of his close friend, Greenbrier owner Jim Justice, and to get an up-close look at some of the world's best golfers.
More than anything, West seems to be enjoying the golf. He arrived at the practice tee shortly after dawn Friday morning to watch the PGA Tour pros prepare for another round of the Greenbrier Classic. Like the man legendary for his pursuit of perfection, West hits practice balls incessantly.
West shot a 69 recently on what he called a short course in Los Angeles and plays to a 4 handicap. He didn't take up golf until age 24 but eventually played his way to a plus-3 handicap, meaning that on average he scored three strokes below par each round.
Watching the pros hit practice balls is especially interesting for him, he said, and it's easy to imagine his brilliance as an evaluator of basketball talent going to work on golf's mechanics.
"It's a game I love to watch; I love to watch guys hit balls,'' he said. "I can go out and watch them do it all day. There are a few players I know pretty well, and I particularly think they have pretty good swings. And when they hit the ball, it sounds differently.''
But seeing the pros hit the ball effortlessly brings out the competitor in him.
"Watching these guys make me sick,'' West said. "They make it look too easy, that's for sure. To watch some of these guys putt out here breaks your heart because they hit the ball so well, and on any given week whoever putts well has a chance to win.''
Could West have enjoyed golf as much as basketball, and could he have found as much satisfaction in it?
"Oh, absolutely,'' he responded quickly. "I don't think there's any question. Golf, I think, is probably the single-most difficult sport there is. You take a golf ball and a golf club, and you say, 'Oh my gosh, there's not very much room to miss this thing.' For people who like to be by themselves, which I did, that to me would have been the greatest thing in the world because that's when you get better. The more time you spend hitting golf balls and knowing your swing, the better you get.''
Golf seems to rival basketball as West's greatest sporting love.
"It's usually you against the golf course. It's not four other guys like in my sport trying to be involved,'' said West, who owns a home at The Greenbrier. "It's just one person, and I've always admired people who have played individual sports because it takes a lot of courage, it takes a lot of skill and it takes a lot of soul searching when you're not playing very well.''
If the Chelyan native had taken up golf at a younger age, would his athletic life have been different?
"You never know. You never know,'' West said. "But I'm happy I found basketball.''
He touched on other subjects:
Reach Mike Whiteford at 304-348-7948 or mikewhitef...@wvgazette.com. Andrew Clevenger contributed to this story.