Could the top basketball players of the 1950s and ’60s compete with those of today?

“It’s easy to say ‘yes,’” Jerry West told the media Sunday after serving as commencement speaker for West Virginia University’s 2006 graduating class.

“I feel it’s very easy to say ‘yes,’ knowing how I feel about the competitive nature inside me.”

West was WVU’s greatest player ever from 1957-60, then went on to become a superstar in the NBA for 14 years. He still owns records he set as both a collegian and professional.

“When we played, and particularly what they call professional basketball, it pales in comparison to the learning and training tools that we have today,” he recalled

“We had to work in the summer to support ourselves. There was no (big) money involved.

“Today kids have opportunities. So there are more reasons for them to work hard on a skill level and everything else.

“But I’d like to say that was kind of an advent of the modern athlete during my period of time.”

Then, after a brief pause, West continued:

“I marvel at the ability of some players today. But the game is not always about what kind of athletic ability you have.

“I was athletic myself. You weren’t supposed to dunk then because it was showing off. And I’ve learned a lot of great lessons in life.”

West, who later earned national acclaim as both an NBA coach and award-winning executive, said he’s never seen anyone who scared him.

“I’ve seen people that admired great players with dedication and commitment to the game,” he noted. “But I think they would be able to compete against these guys today.”

West, now president of basketball operations with the Memphis Grizzlies, said he never thought in his “wildest imagination” that he would ever be asked to be a commencement speaker and also receive an honorary doctorate.

“I always viewed ourselves as a different kind of people,” he said. “People talk about humility and other things that certain people possess.

“I don’t mean to talk about myself. But I do think I’m a humble person. And I’m always flattered when somebody thinks enough of me to honor me in any way.”

Indeed, he readily admits that this has been quite a year for him at his alma mater.

WVU retired his No. 44 jersey as the first in basketball. That in itself had to be a thrill for West.

Then his son Jonnie signed a binding national letter-of-intent to become a student-athlete in the Mountaineer fold.

“And now getting an honorary doctor’s degree and have one of the highlights of my life to address a graduating class,” West said.

“When you’re up here speaking, there are so many things you’d like to say about your time at the university. But it really was what set the foundation for my life.

“And many things I believe in — and very strongly — also were goals made here. I learned to be competitive in my dreams and visions when I was a kid.

“I also learned about the different types of people we have in the world.”

West said he’s always been — and remains — an extremely competitive person.

“But to me this is a culmination of everything I’ve learned in my life,” he added.

“And what I said to the students comes from the heart. These are experiences that I’ve had in my life.

“I’ve seen the people that gave up — the people that ran away. I didn’t want to be that kind of a person.”

Recommended for you