WVU loss in 1959 title game still haunts West
The most celebrated moment in West Virginia basketball history happened 51 years ago, and it still resonates with Jerry West. Painfully.
“It was certainly a bitter time for me,” he said.
West was the Mountaineers’ greatest player, a legend with the Los Angeles Lakers and a top NBA executive, not to mention the model for the league logo. But he once told a reporter, “My basketball career has sort of been on the tragic side of everything.”
To West, the defeats always carried far more weight than the victories. And one of the most painful was West Virginia’s 71-70 loss to California in the 1959 NCAA championship game in Louisville. It’s the Mountaineers’ only previous Final Four appearance (although it wasn’t called that back then) heading into Saturday’s game against Duke in the national semifinals in Indianapolis.
“Jerry absolutely took us there,” ex-forward Willie Akers said. “We rode on his shoulders.”
But not far enough. After beating Louisville on its home court in the semifinal, West Virginia blew a 13-point first-half lead against Cal, as center Darrall Imhoff tipped in what proved to be the deciding basket with 17 seconds left. The Golden Bears missed a free throw with 2 seconds remaining, and West grabbed the rebound but couldn’t get a shot off.
Asked if he ever discussed the game with Imhoff, later a Lakers teammate, West said, “I didn’t talk about it very much. Sometimes, you don’t like to conjure unpleasant memories.”
A 6-foot-3 junior forward (he was a guard in the pros), West had 28 points and 11 rebounds despite playing the last 15 minutes with four fouls. He was decisively named the tournament’s most outstanding player, which meant nothing to him.
“I felt like we let the state down and all the people that supported us,” said West, a native of Chelyan, W.Va.
Also in Louisville were Cincinnati and Oscar Robertson. West and Robertson were the two best college players by far, and many anticipated a championship showdown. But Cal beat Cincinnati.
Although they would serve as co-captains of the gold medal-winning 1960 U.S. Olympic team and wage a long, spirited rivalry in the NBA, West and Robertson never met in college.
“He was just a phenomenal player you had the utmost respect for,” West said. “Our careers kind of mirrored each other. It would have been fun. But you have no control over those things.”
Bob Smith, known as Bobby Joe Smith while playing at West Virginia, recalled, “It was sort of disappointing to play California because all we heard was ‘Jerry West and Oscar Robertson.’ And we thought Jerry was better than Oscar.”
The West Virginia coach was Fred Schaus, a big, tough bear of a man, a former pro whose animated sideline outbursts earned him the nickname (behind his back), “The Stomper,” by his players.
Under Schaus, who died last month in Morgantown at 85, the small, quick Mountaineers (6-foot-6 center Bob Clausson was the tallest starter) ran a fast-paced offense and finished second nationally in scoring. Defensively, they tormented opponents with a rarely seen full-court zone press Schaus learned from West Virginia Tech coach Neal Biasi.
Akers said the long-armed West keyed the press, roaming the court like a free safety in football. “They turned Jerry loose,” said Akers. “They let him go. He could read where the ball was going next.”
The Mountaineers had a relatively easy path to the Final Four, although two of the wins were close. In fact, the 1958 team, led by West, guard and Ellwood City native Joedy Gardner, along with 6-10 center Lloyd Sharrar, was considered better. But with West Virginia comfortably ahead in the Southern Conference semifinals, starting guard Don Vincent suffered a broken ankle.
“We had the game won, and Coach Schaus was taking each player out one by one, and Vincent was going to be the last one taken out.” Smith said.
With Vincent injured, Manhattan upset the Mountaineers in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“We got up on them early and thought we were good enough to coast in,” said Gardner, the West Virginia coach from 1974-78.
Most of the ’59 team hailed from the state, and many attended summer school in Morgantown, living in a rooming house owned by pharmacist Ann Dinardi, who watched over them like a second mother.
“If we didn’t go to class, she’d throw water on us,” Smith said.
They played basketball in a Wheeling summer league and shot pool together, forging a special bond.
“We had great camaraderie,” said longtime West Virginia radio analyst Jay Jacobs, a backup guard on the ’59 team.
“We were so close,” Smith said. “I mean, we were together every minute off the court, as well as on. We were just tremendous friends.”
Some still remain friends, and some, like Akers and Jacobs, are headed to Indianapolis for this weekend’s Final Four.
But not West, whose son, Jonnie, is a reserve guard. West said he doesn’t want to be a distraction. Karen, his wife, will represent the family.
Superstitious about even watching on television, West might not see every minute. But he is hardly detached. He said if the Mountaineers win their first national championship, it would mean as much to him as anyone.
“People in West Virginia are very special to me,” he said. “A big part of my life is still there. I’ll never forget the way people treated me. It was the foundation for me for everything. The work ethic there is unbelievably important, the loyalty is unbelievably important, and the humility is unbelievably important.”