Politicians like to think of themselves as being influential, movers and shakers, at least in their own minds. They like to be out front, with a pasted-on smile, with an automatic handshake, with a photographed kiss for a baby.
But politicians come and go. Many are there that can’t be gone fast enough for the public’s good.
In the state of West Virginia, like most places, owners of the largest businesses, college presidents, and the richest of the citizenry are also among the most well-known and have some considerable influence at times.
The flagship college in this state— West Virginia University—can usually supply two of the more influential people in the men’s basketball coach and the football coach.
Sports—especially things concerning WVU, the high schools, and Marshall—are well-watched in this state. Many athletes or coaches could be placed on a Top 30 list of “Most Influential or Well-Known” West Virginians at any given time in the last 100 years of our history.
Politicians almost scream for attention. Magnates from the business world want the same spotlight shone on their enterprises .
Those with immense influence on the lives of others that don’t want the notoriety, don’t need the applause, don’t crave the attention are very few in number.
As famous as anybody now living from the state is basketball great Jerry West.
Jerry West is as revered as any athlete ever to be born and be raised in West Virginia. Yet, he never sought the storms of praise, the mountain-high fame, or the even the thinnest beam of limelight.
But all the expression of emotion sent his way by the state has never been stanched.
When West played for now-gone East Bank High School in Kanawha County, the politicians that were proclaimed the school’s name be changed to West Bank High School for a day.
While at WVU, West and his teammates drew attention to Morgantown like spring picnics draw pesky gnats or other critters.
The Mountaineers won three consecutive Southern Conference championships in West’s three years of eligibility. West Virginia went to the NCAA tournament in every year West was a player with Coach Fred Schaus. In West’s junior year, the Mountaineers reached the national championship game.
And that championship game loss to California in 1959 is the one college game West remembers most — not remembers “best”, but remembers most.
West Virginia lost. Do politicians dwell most on their lost elections? Do business moguls dwell most on one underperforming quarter? Do college presidents chide themselves for long over one fewer Rhodes Scholar from the student population or one fewer grant from Exxon or Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing?
Jerry West will tell you the one game that overrides everything he and his teammates accomplished was the loss to California by a single point.
He will tell you that the love, kindness, and complete interest shown him (and a few other teammates) by Ann Dinardi, the owner of the rooming house he lived in while at WVU, touched and influenced him most of all while he was in Morgantown.
While a 14-year member of the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, West played on one playoff championship team. The Lakers lost six times to the Boston Celtics in the league finals.
The losses to the Celtics, West will say, can’t be forgotten. Those games are there just as clearly as is the loss to California.
West averaged over 30 points a game in his long NBA playoff history, and still the losses in the championship finals are the most indelible marks or memories.
In 1960, West was a co-captain of the United States Olympic basketball team that swept through its games with mostly 30- and 40-point wins.
After his NBA playing career was over, West coached the Lakers for three seasons and then was the architect of league championship teams that featured Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant and coaches Pat Riley and Phil Jackson.
Now at age 73, West has left a short retirement to be an adviser to the Golden State Warriors of the NBA.
With all his accomplishments that form his background, West still values most his friendships and personal relationships, some of which have lasted for more than 50 years, more than what ever happened in college or professional basketball.
Recently, when it was revealed that West would be visiting the Eastern Panhandle to sign copies of his autobiography “West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life” the limited number of tickets for the event in Martinsburg sold out in a day.
No doubt there will be politicians there for the April 28 book signing. No doubt there will be business owners, members of various clubs and civic organizations. An no doubt, though Jerry West will be the focal point of the event, he will not be seeking the spotlight . . . and will be as unassuming and soft-spoken as always.