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April 24, 2017

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How Jerry West Became "The Logo"

April 17, 2017

 

Shortly after the 1969 NBA Finals, in which Bill Russell led the Boston Celtics to his eleventh – and final – championship by defeating the Los Angeles Lakers, the league unveiled a new logo, though it did not depict the Celtics’ retiring star. Since the late sixties, the logo has become synonymous with the National Basketball Association, depicting a basketball player silhouetted amidst a field of blue and red dribbling a ball with his body angled in such a way that the letters “NBA” are below his hips but next to his feet. Today, this image can be found on nearly all league-related merchandise, adorning hats, t-shirts, trading cards, press releases, movies and posters, generating more than $5 billion in annual revenue for the league.[1]

 

So if the logo was not based on Russell, the winningest player in league history, who is symbolized in this ubiquitous image? Publically, the N.B.A. refuses to acknowledge any specific player. Commissioner David Stern declined comment during his long tenure in the league office, offering only the vague response of “there’s no record of it here,” through a league spokesman.[2] Another league official, who wished to remain anonymous, declared in 2006 that any supposition that the logo depicted a specific individual was an “urban myth.”[3]

 

Although the league refuses to identify the inspiration behind the popular logo, its designer is not so diffident. According to Alan Siegel, “it’s Jerry West.”[4] Siegel , the founder of the Siegel+Gale marketing agency, designed the logo for $10,000 in 1969, basing it on the logo he helped design for Major League Baseball the year prior which depicted a silhouetted batter on top of a red and blue background. Baseball was America’s most popular sport in the late sixties and to establish a brand that strongly resembled that of the MLB allowed the NBA to associate itself with the nation’s sports leader. Commissioner Walter Kennedy ordered the logo design, requesting that the New York-based graphic designer put together something that promoted “a family relationship with baseball and to use red, white and blue to position basketball as an All-American game.”[5]

 

But who could be used as the league’s “All-American” poster boy? Certainly not the acerbic and recently retired Russell. Instead, Siegel needed someone who could be the face of the league, even if the NBA never acknowledged his inspiration. Siegel spent days thumbing through the photograph archives of Sport magazine, at which his friend Dick Schaap worked, seeking the perfect image. He settled on a photograph taken by Los Angeles Lakers photographer Wen Roberts depicting Lakers star guard Jerry West driving past Celtics guard Larry Siegfried. The image was “dynamic, it was vertical, it captured the essence of the game.”[6] Ironically, it showed the right-handed West dribbling left-handed, something he was not known for doing extremely well. Having exclusively played forward in college, West was far better known as a scorer than as a ball-handler. But based on this image, Siegel came up with 40 or 50 designs to pitch to Commissioner Kennedy. Kennedy made the decision unilaterally to adopt the current logo – “there was no research. There was no discussion. He said, ‘We’re doing this.’”[7]

 

Although privately, Commissioner Kennedy told West, “Jerry, that’s you,” the league remained publically silent on identifying West as the model for the logo.[8] Siegel believes he understands the league’s reticence. “They want to institutionalize it rather than individualize it,” he contends. “It’s become such a ubiquitous, classic symbol and focal point of their identity and their licensing program that they don’t necessarily want to identify it with one player.”[9]

 

For years, Jerry West has lived with the uncomfortable reality as the unacknowledged symbol of the NBA. Calling it “awkward” to comment on the veracity of the depiction, West nonetheless remembered the first time he saw the logo, commenting that it “looks like somebody familiar.”[10] “If that’s me, I’m extremely flattered,” West maintains.[11]

 

So why choose Jerry West? Siegel was certainly a big fan of the Lakers guard, having grown up watching West play against Siegel’s hometown Knicks. But, according to Siegel, there was no ulterior motive – the photograph simply spoke to what Siegel was trying to portray in his logo design.

 

Some observers, though, appreciate the choice of West on different levels. “By 1969, the NBA, trying to snuff the upstart ABA, unveiled a new logo: Jerry West dribbling,” recalled one historian. “To put [Bill] Russell or Oscar [Robertson] on the logo would have made the league seem even more black when it was desperately trying to lure white fans.”[12] Jerry West came to symbolize all that was right – and white – in the league during the late sixties and early seventies. West was not only blessed with immense physical ability – he wore 38-inch sleeves despite standing just six-foot two – but also was a hard-working and tenacious player.  Hall of Famer Bob Pettit called West “the greatest player at both ends of the court the game has ever seen,” praising his defensive ability as much as his offensive acumen.[13]

 

Fans also celebrated West’s seemingly uncanny ability to make baskets at the end of tightly contested games. In Game Three of the 1962 Finals, West stole the ball and raced end-to-end to lay the ball in as time expired to give the Lakers the win over the despised Celtics. Eight years later, his sixty-foot heave sent Game Three of the 1970 Finals into overtime. And West’s jump shot from the top of the key won the 1972 All-Star Game for the Western Conference in an era when players on both teams actually competed hard to win that star-studded affair. Those are just three of the countless times in which West won a game in the waning seconds. Bill Russell, himself no stranger to tight victories, called Jerry West, “the greatest clutch shooter ever.”[14]

 

In fact, West so regularly led his teams to victory in nail-biters that he gained another nickname, “Mr. Clutch,” to go along with “Zeke from Cabin Creek,” “Blade” (for his thinness), and – of course – “The Logo.”

 

Despite his on-court brilliance, Jerry West had a dark side that was often hidden from the public, and in many ways whitewashed by his image as “The Logo.” The media portrayed West as an “all-around nice guy, the personification of everything that was right with professional sports.”[15] Sports Illustrated writer Jack McCallum once confided to West that he had idolized West as a youngster, modeling his game after that of the Lakers guard. West modestly responded, “Yeah, a lot of guys have told me that.”[16]

 

But West could also be moody and sullen, prone to outburst of anger in which he would lash out at teammates, media, and family. He was, at times, rebellious and defiant. In his own words, he was “an enigma” and “obsessive.”[17] Losing really grated on West, especially after years of coming up short against the despised Celtics. He could simply not understand why his teammates did not take losses as hard as he did. “I hate guys who don’t hate to lose,” West admitted in his 1969 autobiography. “I’m not a satisfied person.”[18] So while West wrestled with this inner turmoil and struggled through personal issues that led him to call the late sixties a “miserable period of my life,” the NBA made his likeness the very public symbol of the league.[19]

 

The new logo debuted on the cover of the Official National Basketball Association Guide for the 1969-70 season. The NBA published the Guide annually as a repository for the statistical history of the league as well as a means to update fans and the media on changes to team personnel (both on the court and in the front office). After once again gracing the cover for the 1970-71 Guide (which included a small banner celebrating the league’s twenty-fifth year in existence), the logo went away from most NBA publications. It returned almost a decade later and, under the leadership of Commissioner David Stern, soon became part of the league’s global marketing strategy. Beginning in 1986, Stern reintroduced the logo to team uniforms, where it has remained ever since.

 

Over the years there have been calls to update the logo, perhaps styling it on a more recent superstar like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, or Michael Jordan or at least including a more modern looking player with baggier shorts dunking the basketball, rather than a short-shorts clad silhouette simply dribbling. “Fine with me,” West has said. [20] But changing the logo is a divisive issue. “I wouldn’t change it,” argues logo creator Alan Siegel. “I wouldn’t try to modernize it. I wouldn’t put longer pants on it. It’s an iconic symbol that represents a classic presentation of basketball.”[21] Hall of Fame coach, and former New York Knick forward, Phil Jackson agrees. “I like the logo we’ve got,” Jackson said. “It works fine. It’s a flowing style that makes sense, whether it’s Jerry West or not.”[22] But not everyone sides with Jackson or Siegel.

 

In an article attacking the league’s dress code in 2005, journalist Selena Roberts called for an updated logo and accused Commissioner Stern of micromanaging, railing against “forcing N.B.A. players into resembling the Jerry West template for the league’s ancient logo – short shorts, please.”[23] For some, the logo had become an outdated anachronism, no longer in touch with a new generation of fans. “‘Mr. Clutch,’” argued one writer, “no longer seems to personify the on-court or off-court stylings of the NBA.”[24] Whether or not the league ever changes the symbol of the National Basketball Association, Jerry West – by virtue of an old photograph in Sport magazine and through decades of association – will always be “The Logo.”

 

 

 

[1] http://www.forbes.com/sites/kurtbadenhausen/2013/01/23/billion-dollar-knicks-and-lakers-top-list-of-nbas-most-valuable-teams/. Accessed 27 February 2015.

 

[2] Quoted in Crowe, Jerry, “That iconic NBA silhouette can be traced back to him,” Los Angeles Times, 27 April 2010.

 

[3] Quoted in David Davis, “If West Is the NBA’s Logo, Should He Be?,” Fox Sports, 18 February 2006.

 

[4] Crowe, Jerry, “That iconic NBA silhouette can be traced back to him,” Los Angeles Times, 27 April 2010.

 

[5] Quoted in Crowe, Jerry, “That iconic NBA silhouette can be traced back to him,” Los Angeles Times, 27 April 2010.

 

[6] http://sigelgale.com/case_study/nba. Accessed 27 February 2015.

 

[7] Quoted in Crowe, Jerry, “That iconic NBA silhouette can be traced back to him,” Los Angeles Times, 27 April 2010.

 

[8] West, West by West, 89.

 

[9] Quoted in Crowe, Jerry, “That iconic NBA silhouette can be traced back to him,” Los Angeles Times, 27 April 2010.

 

[10] Quoted in Crowe, Jerry, “That iconic NBA silhouette can be traced back to him,” Los Angeles Times, 27 April 2010.

 

[11] Quoted in Crowe, Jerry, “That iconic NBA silhouette can be traced back to him,” Los Angeles Times, 27 April 2010.

 

[12] Richmond, Lord of the Rings, 241.

 

[13] Quoted in West, Mr. Clutch, 3.

 

[14] Quoted in West, Mr. Clutch, 3.

 

[15] Rosen, Pivotal Season, 42.

 

[16] Lazenby, Jerry West, 285.

 

[17] West, West by West, xiii.

 

[18] West, Mr. Clutch, 20, 227.

 

[19] West, West by West, 89.

 

[20] Quoted in Crowe, Jerry, “That iconic NBA silhouette can be traced back to him,” Los Angeles Times, 27 April 2010.

 

[21] Quoted in David Davis, “If West Is the NBA’s Logo, Should He Be?,” Fox Sports, 18 February 2006.

 

[22] Quoted in David Davis, “If West Is the NBA’s Logo, Should He Be?,” Fox Sports, 18 February 2006.

 

[23] Selena Roberts, “N.B.A. Dress Code Confuses the Long And the Short of It,” New York Times, 7 December, 2005.

 

[24] Quoted in David Davis, “If West Is the NBA’s Logo, Should He Be?,” Fox Sports, 18 February 2006.

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