The National Basketball Association’s logo, the iconic image of a player dribbling the basketball, is a lasting image in the world of professional sports. As a child, I was always curious about the player depicted in the photo. Was that a real NBA player? If so, which basketball player appears as the silhouetted logo?
In fact, the image was a real player. A Hall of Famer actually. The logo was a picture of basketball great, Former Los Angeles Laker Jerry West. Here is the story of how Jerry West became “The Logo”.
1969 – Looking for a Facelift
In 1969, NBA commissioner J. Walter Kennedy was looking to revamp the league’s brand. The league was growing and now contained 14 teams. Two years prior, however, the NBA began feeling some pressure from an upstart competitor the American Basketball Association (ABA).
Kennedy tasked Alan Siegel to give the NBA the new refreshed look that it needed. Siegel was no stranger to branding a professional sports league as he was responsible for the MLB’s iconic logo one year prior.
Siegel was good friends with Dick Schaap, then a sportswriter at the Sporting News, and asked Schaap if he could take a look at the magazine’s expansive photo collection for some inspiration. While searching the photos, Siegel’s attention fell upon a particular image of league standout, Jerry West dribbling the ball, and loved it.
In an interview, Siegel said of the image:
“I was attracted to it because it was nice and vertical, and it had him leaning and dribbling… had a little motion to it.”
Siegel had some other images in mind – superstars like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, and John Havlicek – but ultimately decided on the West photo. Once Siegel’s decision was made, his team traced its outline and supplanted it in the NBA shield to give us what we have today.
Is The Logo Actually Jerry West?
While it is fairly common knowledge among fans and basketball inner circles alike that the logo is indeed Jerry West, the NBA has never officially recognized him as the official logo. When Siegel submitted the design, he never mentioned that it was West in the image, but never denied the fact in conversations.
So why was the league so hesitant in recognizing West as the face of the league’s “new look”?
A big reason is the league’s goal at the time was to “institutionalize, rather than individualize” the league’s image. Basketball is the ultimate team sport and in the 60’s the idea of one-on-one, or iso, style of play was completely foreign.
Jerry West: “I wish they would change it”
Another interesting wrinkle in the story is that West was never officially told about the logo until it came out and even then wasn’t 100% sure that it was him in the picture. He and Siegel have never spoken at great length aside from a couple of introductions through the years, where Siegel noted West’s less than friendly demeanor towards him.
In April of 2017, Jerry West appeared on The Jump, a popular NBA show on ESPN, and shared his thoughts on the matter. And they may not have been what fans would expect:
“I don’t know, I don’t like to do anything to call attention to myself, and when people say that, it’s just not who I am, period. If they would want to change it, I wish they would. In many ways, I wish they would.”
When asked if West had any suggestions on who’s image should replace him, he had one. Michael Jordan:
“He’s been the greatest player I’ve ever seen. And I’m probably a harsh judge of talent, in the sense that I admire players that are really good defensive players and really good offensive players. . . . And he made his teams win.”
The designer, Alan Siegel, has been asked on countless occasions if he believes the league should update and change their logo and his response has always been an emphatic “NO”.
“It’s a really elegant, powerful presentation of basketball. It’s hard, graphically, to do something that static like this. To have tension in it, movement and grace. It’s very hard. I don’t believe they should change it. I’ve done so many sports symbols, and it’s hard. You can’t have too many images in it. It has to be simple. It has to be powerful. It has to be dynamic. This has all these elements.”
The story of which player is behind the silhouette of the NBA logo is a fascinating one and plays a huge part in the lore of the early days of a league on the rise.
Talks to update the logo haven’t been too serious and I, for one, hope they never change it. It is a part of a league that has grown leaps and bounds since it was first introduced during the 1971 season. The league also has so many other concerns, and the image of the league, now a global powerhouse, is not a top priority for current commissioner David Silver.
One thing that is a priority with the league having the right balance of improving the game that we all love while continuing to honor those who were the pioneers and excelled on the court and help put the NBA on the map.
The indelible image of Jerry West’s tall athletic silhouette on the league shield epitomizes the league’s vision of celebrating the present while honoring the past.