Jerry West turns 76 today. He’s been the literal symbol of the NBA for 45 of those years.
The symbolic image used to silhouette the logo of the National Basketball Association was chosen by Alan Siegel, founder of branding firm Siegel + Gale, in 1969 by thumbing through the photo archives of Sport Magazine. He came across a photo of the Los Angeles Laker All-Star West, in what he thought was one of the most fluid, natural poses that truly captured the essence of the game. It was designed to complement the Major League Baseball logo created a year before in which a white silhouette was on his back foot ready to swing. That silhouette isn’t fashioned after any particular player.
The NBA has never gone on record to say it is truly Jerry West’s silhouette, probably to protect the rights to it so that Mr. West or Wen Roberts, the late sports photographer who captured the shot believed to be the inspiration for Siegel’s design, won’t ever see a dime for it. Kinda shitty if you consider the NBA generates $3 billion using West’s likeness and a slight tweak of Roberts’ original photo to represent what is now one of the top pro sports worldwide.
No other athlete in American professional sports can claim to be the embodiment of their league. MLB’s ready batter wasn’t based on any one player and the NHL and NFL both use shields to represent their leagues. In that sense, West is a unique, profound symbol not one player, past or present, can replace. Not Russell. Not Wilt. Not Jordan. Not Kobe. Not LeBron. Michael Jordan’s Jumpman logo—a timeless symbol in its own right—brings in about $2 billion less than good ol’ Mr West’s. West served as Lakers coach and a team exec for 25 years before retiring and assuming his current gig as executive board member with the Warriors. Regardless of the league’s official stance and his title changes, in one really important way, West will always be irreplaceable.
Happy birthday, Jerry.