By T. Scott Boatright
He was the leading scorer in the Tigers’ only men’s national basketball championship ever, but now Grambling State University is remembering former basketball great Hershell West, who passed away at the age of 82 Monday in his hometown of Rayville following a short illness.
West was a standout player at Eula D. Britton High School in Rayville, leading the Dragons to a Louisiana State AA Championship in 1959 before becoming a standout for Grambling, where his brother Ezell also played under then Tigers head coach Fredrick C. Hobdy.
At GSU, West played for four seasons, helping lead the Tigers to a Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) championship in 1961 with teammates and other GSU hoops greats like Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer Willis Reed as well as Rex Tippett and Charles Hardnett.
West was Grambling’s leading scorer in that 95-75 national championship win over Georgetown College of Kentucky, pouring in 27 points while adding six rebounds and four assists for the Tigers.
He was also a two-time first-team All-Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) selection for Grambling in 1962 and 1963.
“West was one of the best shooting guards — one of the best scorers — Grambling ever had,” said College Baseball Hall of Fame Coach Wilbert Ellis, who was a young assistant hardball coach for the Tigers’ during West’s collegiate playing days. “He had an amazing touch and was a very good defender who could pass, too.”
West was selected as the 15th overall selection in the 1963 National Basketball Association by the Syracuse Nationals but he never played in the National Basketball Association (NBA).
Former NBA player Aaron James, who later served as head coach for the G-Men, got to know West when James was playing for Grambling from 1970-74 and West could come to visit the team.
“When I was in school (at Grambling), Hershell would always come to the games, and you always look up to those people who played before you,” James said. “When Hershell and Willis walked into that gym, you knew you had to play well because everything you had heard about Grambling basketball was about those guys and the national championship they won.
“Hershell was a man of few words, but everybody talked about the way he could score. And I was a scorer, and proud of it. But I always admired Hershell because that’s what everybody talked about — what a great scorer he was.”
West went on to become basketball coach at Richwood High School in Monroe, Louisiana, where he served as a mentor to future Grambling standout Larry Wright, who went on to become a first-round draft pick for the Washington Bullets, helping that team win an NBA championship in 1978.
During his high school coaching career — West also taught math for more than 30 years — won more than 600 games, two state championships and 15 district titles.
“He touched my life as much as anyone ever did,” said Wright, who remained a close friend of his former coach until West’s final days. “He was simply somebody that cared about everyone and especially his players and their families. He was a man of few words. He did the majority of his speaking with his actions and the way he treated people.”
When Wright was deemed eligible to play high basketball in Louisiana his senior year, West got on the phone and arranged for Wright to play the final high school season in Washington D.C. before returning to Louisiana to play for Grambling.
“I would have been nothing without Hershell West,” said Wright, who later on became head coach of the GSU men’s basketball team. “When I was in the eighth grade, I was headed down the wrong road — in the wrong direction and not attending school like I was supposed to. But then Hershell saw me in the gym.
“He took me under his wings and never took his hands off me until just now. He made me who I became … helped shape me. Without him, I would have become nothing.He was a special and wonderful man.”
West was inducted as an inaugural member of the Grambling Legends Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete under the direction of Tennant Funeral Home in Rayville.