WVU Loss in 1959 Title Game Still Haunts West

By Cohn, Bob | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, March 31, 2010 | Go to article overview
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WVU Loss in 1959 Title Game Still Haunts West

Cohn, Bob, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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.

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