One of Jerry West’s nicknames during his 14-year NBA career was “Mr. Clutch.”
And the 63-foot shot he made at the buzzer during Game 3 of the 1970 playoffs was certainly clutch. The Lakers, who led by 14 at the half, trailed by two points with three seconds remaining in regulation and no timeouts when West took an inbounds pass from Wilt Chamberlain.
West dribbled three times and launched a long shot from the right side, just a few feet beyond the free-throw line. New York’s Willis Reed stretched to block the basketball, but West’s shot eluded him and found the net, sending the game into overtime.
“Would you have bet some money on that shot? Probably not,” Lakers center Mel Counts told the Los Angeles Times. “Would you have bet your house on it? I know you wouldn’t have bet your house on it. It was unbelievable.”
Although the Lakers eventually lost 111-108, West’s shot remains one of the NBA’s more memorable moments.
A large version of a photograph capturing the moment is part of SCP Auctions President David Kohler’s “Laker Shrine” collection. The 15-inch by 20-inch shot, autographed by West in a silver Sharpie, recently received a Type I designation from Henry Yee, principal authenticator of PSA Photo Authentication Services.
Type I means the photograph has been developed from the original negative within approximately two years of when the image was taken. The photograph that Kohler has is a rare, large print that he has owned for more than 25 years.
George Long of Sports Illustrated snapped the photo in that April 29, 1970, contest at The Forum. It is the only physically verified photo from that angle, showing the basketball swishing through the net. The scoreboard above the court shows the clock at zero and the score still reading 102-100 in favor of the Knicks.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, it’s pretty straight,’” West told the Times. “You just never think it’s going to go in.”
While the shot was lucky, Long was also fortunate to capture the moment.
“It was amazing because the photographer had to be on the floor by the baseline,” Kohler said.
In the photograph, the Lakers’ Happy Hairston and the Knicks’ Dave DeBusschere can be seen jockeying under the basket and New York’s Bill Bradley is standing near the top of the key. Knicks coach Red Holzman, wearing a coat and tie, is leaning backward on the sidelines, attempting to use body language to repel the shot. Behind the bench, with his hand in the air, is the Knicks’ Phil Jackson, who did not play in the game and was wearing street clothes.
West is hovering near the halfcourt line, watching the shot.
“The camera angle is just so remarkable,” Yee said. “It is a perfect worm’s eye view.
“Everyone is looking at the same object. When it comes to a photograph, sometimes you get lucky. I was remarkably surprised.”
The photo originally appeared in the May 11, 1970, issue of Sports Illustrated, one of several accompanying a story written by Frank Deford.
The 3-point play would not be introduced into the NBA until 1979, so West’s shot merely tied the game at 102 and sent it into overtime. Even though the Lakers eventually lost, West’s rainbow toss is indelibly etched in pro basketball history.
“It’s one of the all-time greatest shots in NBA history,” said Kohler, who added that the photograph was from the collection of “a person associated with the Lakers, let’s leave it at that.”
On the Knicks’ side, guard Walt Frazier was incredulous.
“The crowd was in a frenzy, everybody was going crazy, and there we were looking up at the scoreboard wondering what happened? What the hell happened?” Frazier told the Times. “I’m saying to myself, ‘Man, if God wanted us to win that game that shot would have never went in.’”
Yee said that the photograph checked the boxes of what he called the “five C’s” — contrast, content, clarity, composition and condition.
“Sports Illustrated photographs are distinctive,” he said. “They are oversized for publication in a magazine, are made of double-weight paper stock, and there is the original stamping on the reverse.
“It’s a bona fide Type I.”
PSA does not grade photographs. They merely authenticate them. The photographs were meant to be handled.
Kohler keeps the photograph, along with other Lakers memorabilia, in his “Lakers Shrine.” It’s a custom-built room with vaulted ceilings and plenty of security.
“It’s a man cave,” said Kohler, who said the shrine took up “a couple of bedrooms” at his previous home before moving to his current residence in 2000.
He decided to send the photograph to PSA for authentication and contacted Yee.
“He said, ‘Wow, you need to send it to me,’” Kohler said after contacting Yee. “‘It looks like a Type I.’”
And it was. Yee estimates the photo is worth upwards of $50,000.
“Sports Illustrated photos are remarkably rare to begin with,” Yee said. “Sports Illustrated never sold their archives.
“The AP and UPI would print 25 to 50 copies of a shot and send copies to their subscribers (on the wire services). What Sports Illustrated shot, they used.”
Kohler said he showed the photograph to West when the NBA Hall of Famer came to his home. He also showed off his shrine, which had West shaking his head.
“He asked ‘How do you find the time for this?’” Kohler said.
West played all five minutes of the overtime game in the 1970 NBA Finals and finished with 34 points. But it was not enough. The Lakers would go on to lose the series to the Knicks in seven games, giving New York its first NBA crown.
“I never will forget Jerry West’s shot, but all that did was put us into overtime,” the Knicks’ Bill Bradley said. “We have a chance to play five more minutes. Do we believe in ourselves or not? And we did, and we won.”
And so did Long, who snapped a sports photograph for the ages.
“This photo is in incredible condition,” Yee said. “I don’t think there will ever be another Type I of it.
“Those indoor photographs back then weren’t always the greatest. But this one’s a classic.”