Even Jonnie West, son of famous father Jerry, isn’t sure what his dad will talk about when Jerry presents the Commencement speech at the WVU College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences Sunday, May 16.
Jonnie, a member of the Mountaineers’ Final Four team and a CPASS graduate this year, said his mother usually gets to preview Jerry’s speeches.
Click the arrow to hear Jonnie West discuss Commencement and his future plans:
[ Download as MP3 File ]
Despite a career that includes an Olympic gold medal, multiple NBA championship rings as a player and executive and a bust in the NBA Hall of Fame, Jerry West, the WVU and national icon, often discusses his failures to illustrate how most of life’s most rewarding accomplishments are hard-fought. It’s a message he says he will convey to the CPASS students.
“There aren’t many things worthwhile in life that are achieved without overcoming obstacles,” Jerry said in a recent interview.
“As you go through life, it’s important to develop the ability to become tough-minded enough to overcome these obstacles,” he said. “There will always be people saying, ‘No, you can’t do this.’ And you have to have the resolve to say, ‘Yes, I can do this.’ There are a lot of wonderful stories of people who have achieved a lot just because they had the inner drive to accomplish what other people told them they couldn’t do.”
Seemingly, there wasn’t much Jerry West couldn’t or hasn’t achieved but, in a life framed by competition at the highest level, it’s all a matter of perspective. He’s still haunted by the Mountaineers’ 1-point loss to California in the 1959 NCAA Championship and many heart-breaking defeats in the NBA postseason. The losses taught him humility, which is a characteristic he exudes, admires and strives to instill.
Along with his speech, Jerry West will hand Jonnie, who will earn a degree in sport management, a diploma.
“Just for someone to ask me to speak at Commencement is very, very flattering,” Jerry said. “And with Jonnie there, obviously, it makes it even more special.”
It will mark West’s second Commencement presentation at WVU. His first was as the main speaker in 2006 when he received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.
Jonnie’s looking forward to the moment.
“It’s something I can remember for the rest of my life and he’ll remember for the rest of his life. I think it’ll just be a fun experience,” Jonnie said. “I’m excited because I like listening to him speak. I don’t get to see that side of him all the time.”
One thing is certain: Jerry West will need no introduction.
A 1960 graduate, the All-American led the Mountaineers to the NCAA final in 1959 and was co-captain of the 1960 U.S. Olympic gold medal team in Rome. He led the Los Angeles Lakers to an NBA championship in 1972 and won a host of awards during his 14-year career. In 1980, he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He was voted one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history in 1996 and was the model for the NBA logo.
As a coach, West led the Lakers to three consecutive playoff appearances, and then went on to win seven NBA championships as a general manager, building the 1980s Lakers dynasty under coach Pat Riley and players like Magic Johnson, Kareem-Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. He repeated that success in the 2000s under Coach Phil Jackson and players Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. West retired in 2007 after serving five years as the general manger of the Memphis Grizzlies.
“Take away Jerry’s statistics and accomplishments as a basketball player and you’ve still got an outstanding leader, a person of extraordinary character and a person who loves WVU and never forgets the people of West Virginia,” WVU President James P. Clements said. “It’s a thrill having him come back to his alma mater to speak at commencement, and we’re just as thrilled to add his son and fellow graduates to WVU’s distinguished legacy of success.”
Jerry said that being surrounded by supportive people is a big help in conquering obstacles.
Both father and son learned that lesson through the friendships they made at WVU and through their relationships with their coaches. Fred Schaus, Jerry’s coach, and Bob Huggins, the current mentor of the Mountaineers, led with a passionate intensity that was tempered with love and caring off the court.
“I’ve learned some of the best lessons I’ll ever learn in my life from WVU, a lot of them from Coach Huggins,” Jonnie said. “He’s had an instrumental role in making me grow up as a person. I think what a lot of people don’t see about Coach Huggins is how he helps a lot of people off the (court) and helps them mature into men, really. All the things that happen on the court stay there and, off the court, he will do anything he can to help you.”
Click the arrow to hear Jonnie West discuss his admiration for Coach Bob Huggins:
[ Download as MP3 File ]
Although he quickly became a campus icon, Jerry admitted the transition to college life after growing up in tiny Chelyan, Kanawha County, was not easy.
“I almost felt like a social outcast,” he said. “I came from a small town and not having seen or experienced very much, it was more difficult to fit in socially. When you’re shy and retiring you tend to shy away from everything. I remember sitting in class and thinking to myself, ‘What am I doing here?,’ and not even concentrating on the things that were important. It took a lot of growth from me to learn how to become a student, to learn how to be someone who would fit. It was a tremendous adjustment.”
Jonnie grew up in much different circumstances. He was raised in big cities, got to meet and mingle with star athletes and traveled extensively. Still, he says, adjusting to college life is the same for everyone – a learning process.
“I grew up in big cities but I went to real small schools. The high school I went to had 50 people in my graduating class. Coming to a school that now has 30,000 people was a big difference. I had classes with more people than I had in my entire high school. But I think I fit in right away, It’s easy to fit in when you have classes with a lot of the same people. You make friendships that way,” Jonnie said.
Instead of being burdened by following in his famous father’s footsteps, Jonnie said he never felt uncomfortable at WVU or among fans of the Mountaineers.
“People would think that being here would be added pressure but the people (at WVU) and the people of West Virginia have been great to me. I think if they were different to me, I would have had a tough time here but they’ve been great. They’ve helped a lot with me maturing over the years and letting me grow as a person,” he said.
Jonnie will continue his education at WVU after graduation but, despite one more year of eligibility, will not play a final season on the basketball team. He will pursue a Master of Business Administration degree in WVU’s College of Business and Economics with the idea of eventually landing in the front office of a sports team.
“All my life I really wanted to be involved in professional sports, kind of like my dad did,” he said. “With my undergrad in sport management, I’m getting the business side of sport but with the MBA, a specific, focused business degree.”
Along with his WVU education, Jonnie’s foundation for success also includes a proud father.
“He’s been a very good student,” Jerry said. “It’s been fun watching him grow up to be a young man and I’m happy to see he’s going to graduate in four years time. That’s tough as a student-athlete with all the demands you have on your time.”
By Dan Shrensky
WVU News and Information Services
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