Zeke

 by Mike Peters

There's a sign on Interstate 77 that proclaims Cabin Creek the home of an NBA legend.  Some sportswriters called him "Zeke" because it rhymed with his hometown, as in "Zeke From Cabin Creek."  It was a futile attempt at comedy, a failed experiment with wit, a dig at his proud heritage.

Jerry West did not like the nickname.  But he played during the heyday of Lil' Abner, the Beverly Hillbillies and Hee Haw. Jerry West attended West Virginia University in Morgantown.  He had to be a hick, a "Zeke," a lazy hillbilly caricature in a straw hat, Snuffy Smith napping in front of a still.  Probably descended from the Hatfields and McCoys. Didn't they all?

Jerry couldn't have been further from the stereotype.  He led his high school team, East Bank, to the West Virginia State title in 1956.  Jerry led the Mountaineers to the National Championship game in 1959, a game they lost by one point to California.  They had never been there before.  Haven't been back since.  Jerry was a co-captain on the 1960 Olympic squad, a group that brought home the Gold Medal from Rome, a team that may be the best America ever sent to an Olympics.  Jerry and his L. A. Lakers won an NBA title in 1972.  As an executive with those same Lakers, he helped build a dynasty, winning six more titles before his retirement in 2000.

Jerry was high profile at our house.  Mom was always telling me about famous West Virginians such as Chuck Yeager, Don Knotts, Sam Huff and Lou Burdette.  But with Jerry, she'd throw in a little extra, tell me about our connection to the hoopster. "Your Uncle Bob used to work at Guthrie, Morris and Campbell with one of Jerry West's close relatives."   Don't remember which relative. I relayed that fact to my blacktop buddies, as we played a game of 21 we called Chicago.  "I am related to someone, who works with someone, who is related to Jerry West."  Their cross examination was swift and economic, void of any extra words and lacking complex sentences.

"Have you ever met Jerry West?"

"No."

"Has your Uncle ever met Jerry West?"

"I don't know."

"Big deal!"

Bang the gavel!  Case closed!  The final verdict was that I needed a picture of Jerry standing next to me, an autograph or tickets behind the Lakers' bench as evidence to prove the connection.  They weren't impressed.  But I sure felt better.

Jerry's name was uttered in reverence by the white ballplayers playing on the concrete courts of the late '60s and early '70s. Jerry was the complete ball player, a prolific scorer, tenacious defender and decent rebounding guard.  He was what the coaches called "fundamentally sound." Many of us wanted to wear his number 44.  I liked his lunchbox work ethic.

Jerry was "old school."  He played hard and he played hurt.  I remember a hard-nosed West, who broke that nose many times, playing with a special device to soften the blow of an opponent's elbow.  But there was still pain.  You could see it in his grimace.  But he played on.

That's how things are done in Cabin Creek.  The boss pays you to do a job.  You get up early every morning and go to work. Sometimes you're sick.  Most times you're tired.  Maybe, like the lyrics from an old Waylon Jennings' song, "You're sick and tired of waking up sick and tired."  You're always on time and often leave late.  You are dedicated.  You have responsibilities. The family needs to eat.  You've got to keep a roof over their heads.  The job is hard and without glamour.  You age quickly.  Maybe you acquire the disease that only those of your profession can obtain -- Black Lung.  Life in the mines isn't supposed to be easy.  But you sure could use a break, every now and then.

Cabin Creek is a tributary that empties into the Kanawha River.  Cabin Creek is the "holler" through which it flows.  Cabin Creek is a district, as I first found out when I started reading Kanawha County census records.

Some of the towns along Cabin Creek, according to researcher Sandy Muncy, are no more than "tiny little groups of houses" she refers to as "4 or 5 room boxes."   Rick Stewart, another researcher, calls the Cabin Creek area "a typical WVa holler -- a little creek, a road and houses perched wherever they could build."

Those towns, those little groups of 4 or 5 room boxes include Sharon, Miami, Dawes, Giles, Ohley, Wevaco, Carbon, Republic and Notomine.  There is also Leewood, Dry Branch, Decota, United, Acme, Eskdale and Red Warrior.

Kayford is another of the small towns in the Cabin Creek area.  Chelyan is another.  My grandmother, Sadie Stover, was born in Kayford.  Jerry West was raised in Chelyan.  Played his high school ball near Montgomery.  Sadie's Dad, "Tom" Stover, was a miner.  Jerry's father was an electrician in the mines.  My connection to Jerry West is much closer than the young boy ever realized.

A 12-year old, wearing black Chuck Taylor lowtops and white wristbands, watched the 1970 NBA Finals, between Jerry's Lakers and the New York Knicks, from the couch in his living room.  Jerry hit a 60 foot shot at the buzzer, a shot that tied game three of the series and sent it into overtime.

Jerry wanted the ball with the game on the line.  He thrived in those situations.  Led to the nickname he preferred -- "Mr. Clutch."  I remember Jerry going to the bench after the tying basket.  His teammates were ecstatic, jumping, pumping their fists and patting him on his back.  Jerry just sat down, took a towel and wiped the sweat from his face.  Even keel.  Ever the workman.  No premature jubilation.  The job wasn't finished. Cabin Creek mentality.  The New York Knicks won the game and eventually the series.

After the game, reporters asked Jerry about the 60 footer. "It doesn't really matter, does it, because we lost," he replied.

Jerry West was one of the best to ever play the game.  His image is incorporated into the logo of the NBA, a league that's all about the money, the individual, pampered players and whining prima donnas.  Quite the contrast to Jerry.  For his is the silhouette of a team oriented, hard working perfectionist, and extremely successful man.  His is the representation of a man who did his best work when the game was on the line. His is the likeness of a hero. Does this sound like a "Zeke" to you?

Sincerely,

Mike Peters
npeters102@aol.com

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