Jerry West is too nice to snap at anyone who says West Virginia isn’t most people’s idea of a storied college basketball program. And anyone who says this Final Four wouldn’t be interesting without Duke should tell that to all those West Virginia coal miners who were so likely to call off work en masse last week during the Mountaineers’ tournament games that management pre-emptively decided to pipe game broadcasts into the mines.
Or try telling West — the legendary former Los Angeles Lakers guard and Mountaineer who still spends three months a year back in West Virginia — that the school's run isn’t riveting.
It’s been 51 years since WVU’s last trip to the Final Four in 1959, and to this day only a lousy, stinking one-point loss to Pete Newell’s miracle California team — still haunts West.
All of which explains why West’s phone conversation with his son, Jonnie, a reserve junior guard on the current team, went something like this moments after WVU upset top-seed Kentucky in the Elite Eight on Saturday:
Jonnie: “You’re coming to the Final Four, Dad, no matter what.”
Jerry: “I don’t want to bring bad luck to the team. The last time we went to the national championship game and I was there, we lost.”
It’s not exactly the bring-on-the-world sentiments from the movie “Hoosiers”, the only basketball folklore that’s being invoked more than Jerry West’s name ahead of Saturday’s Final Four showdowns between Michigan State and Butler, West Virginia and Duke.
Butler’s campus is a 20-minute drive from downtown Indy and the Bulldogs’ picturesque on-campus court, Hinkle Fieldhouse, the setting for “Hoosiers”, the movie based on tiny Milan High School’s upset of Muncie Central for the 1954 Indiana state high school title.
A title win by West Virginia would be less shocking than Butler's, even though Butler is a top-20 program. The Mountaineers are the champions of the Big East, this season’s toughest conference. Coach Bob Huggins is a homegrown West Virginian like West. He was angry the Mountaineers got a No. 2 seed rather than a No. 1 on Selection Sunday, and the Mountaineers have been taking out the slight on everyone since. Huggins has a team that’s tough, resourceful and unawed about beating boldface names like Duke.
Many of WVU’s players are from other states, a big change from the last time WVU was this relevant, back when Hot Rod Hundley, West and Rod Thorn's back-to-back-to-back careers unfurled from the late 1950s through 1963. All three went on to NBA careers. Much like their far more romanticized counterparts in Indiana and Kentucky, all of them grew up in West Virginia shooting baskets on dirt courts and listening to scratchy broadcasts of their state university's basketball games on the radio.
West, whose father was an electrician in the coal mines, is so proud to be from West Virginia he was never fond of one of his NBA nicknames, "Zeke from Cabin Creek.”
Hundley, who preceded West to Morgantown by a couple years, also defied the usual stereotyping. He’s as big-city loquacious as much as West is small-town humble.
Thorn, now president of the New Jersey Nets, was a freshman guard at WVU when West was a senior legend. When I asked Thorn once what that was like, Thorn laughed and said, “I had to guard Jerry in practice.
“He ruined my confidence for about three years."
Some lean years and close-but-not-quite seasons at WVU followed their departure. The Mountaineers had nice tournament runs in 2005 and 2006, when WVU's best player was another homegrown star, Kevin Pittsnogle.
Remember him? A 6-foot-11, jug-eared center. Learned to shoot on a patch of gravel near the rural trailer park where he grew up. Served corn dogs and Domino's pizza at his wedding reception his junior year. Said he likes a good tractor pull and tattoo as much as the next guy.
Really, what’s not to love?
West, now 71, attended a few of those games. But the passage of time has never dimmed West’s pain about WVU’s loss in 1959 to Cal, which also upset Oscar Robertson and Cincinnati in the semis.
West was a skinny junior playing forward on an undersized team. He had 28 points and 11 rebounds in the title game and he was named the tourney's outstanding player. Yet what galls him is he missed some of the game with three fouls and later found the rebound of a missed Cal free throw in his hands with Cal winning, 71-70, and just two seconds left — not enough time to sprint the length of the court or even get off a good last-second shot.
West went on to win seven titles as a player and executive with the Lakers. He still often appears at WVU’s fantasy basketball camp, among other things. But he still insists he won't be in Indy to see WVU, doesn’t want to be a jinx, a spectacle, a story.
"I think the one thing he regrets most in his life is not winning the national championship for the school and for the state,” West’s son Jonnie explained to The Charleston (W. Va.) Daily Mail. “He always talks about just how much the state means to him. It's special to the whole family. Winning this would mean a whole lot to us."
If WVU pulls it off, those coal miners’ cheers might actually be heard above ground.
Somewhere, Kevin Pittsnogle would be smiling. And Jerry West would finally have that happy ending he craves.