Happy Chandler, the two-term governor of Kentucky, sat courtside in Lexington’s Municipal Auditorium, shaking hands and bemoaning the lackluster play in the first half of his Kentucky Wildcats’ game against West Virginia University. As the Mountaineers returned to the hardwood for the second half, the famously glib governor eyed sophomore Jerry West. He was hard to miss. West broke his nose in the first half and, after a tape job in the locker room, he emerged ready to play with a strip of cotton gauze packed up each nostril to staunch the bleeding.
“Break it again,” growled the governor.
And so the greatest player in West Virginia basketball history began his collegiate career in December 1957.1 Like Larry Bird several years later in Indiana, West would become a folk hero in his home state and a revered symbol of its proud basketball heritage. Biddy basketball leagues were renamed “Jerry West leagues,” a designation that persists, and every West Virginia high school star for at least the next twenty years aspired to be the next Jerry West.
Like Bird, West owed much of his popularity to his humble roots. He was a regular guy from a regular town called Chelyan, population five hundred. West also stood out as a unique, self-made talent and a positive reflection on the state. In 1958 he helped the Mountaineers to the numberone postseason ranking in both the AP and UPI polls and, a year later, to the finals of the NCAA Tournament. As every longtime Mountaineer fan still rues, “Mr. Clutch,” as West would later be nicknamed for his propensity for last-second heroics, had the ball in his hands to win the state’s first NCAA championship when the buzzer sounded.
Pointing to the wealth of instate talent on the West and earlier “Hot Rod” Hundley teams, some have suggested that West Virginia was the nation’s premier basketball state in the 1950s. The claim is worth examining. In that decade, WVU had a 205–74 record—a winning percentage of .735, making it ninth-best in the nation. Ahead of WVU were Kentucky (.872), North Carolina State (.788), Seattle (.773), Dayton (.763), Holy Cross (.753), Kansas State