Hall of Famer Jerry West, designer Alan Siegel and the drama behind the NBA logo
The conversations, the awkwardness, the consideration of Kareem and Wilt for the silhouette
Six years ago, when Hall of Famer Jerry West embarked upon a book tour to promote West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, the co-author of the autobiography, Jonathan Coleman, often marveled at a particular sight. “Wherever we went, there would be usually some younger kids who would recognize him and say, ‘There’s the logo!’ … What’s interesting is, for so many people who never saw him play, he’s simply recognized as the logo.”
For more than half of West’s life, he’s been the globally identifiable symbol of the NBA. It’s been an inescapable part of his identity because a silhouette of his likeness is in the logo. In 1969 — Richard Nixon took presidential office, Jose Feliciano won best new artist at the Grammys and the NBA had just 14 teams — NBA commissioner J. Walter Kennedy tasked brand identity consultant Alan Siegel to give the NBA a fresh new look. Siegel supervised the Jerry Dior-designed Major League Baseball logo a year before, and Kennedy wanted his league’s logo to mimic MLB’s red-white-and-blue design, completed in 1968 for baseball’s centennial, and to similarly feature the silhouette of a player. While searching for inspiration, Siegel stumbled upon a Wen Roberts photograph of West dribbling. The rest is history.
“The logo, this is not something he was at all seeking. It was Walter Kennedy’s idea. Walter felt it was important to have a brand for the league,” said Coleman. “Jerry’s proud to be the logo, but it’s also embarrassing to him, in equal measure.”
For legal and financial reasons, the NBA has never officially recognized — and it never will — the fact that West is the logo. But we all know it’s him.
“I wish that it had never gotten out that I’m the logo, I really do,” West, now an executive for the Golden State Warriors, said on ESPN’s The Jump in April. “I’ve said it more than once, and it’s flattering if that’s me — and I know it is me — but it is flattering. … If I were the NBA, I would be embarrassed about it. I really would. … I don’t like to do anything to call attention to myself … that’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.”
After West’s April remarks in April, The Undefeated caught up with Siegel to discuss the backstory of the logo’s creation, his relationship with West and whether the NBA will ever respect the Hall of Famer’s wishes by making a change. Despite multiple attempts, West was unavailable for comment for this story.
Why did you select Jerry West as the silhouette of the NBA logo?
I started thinking about it and was very close with Dick Schaap, the sportswriter. He was working at SPORT magazine, so I asked him if I could look at their photo files. I went through the files and I found a number of images of NBA players … I found a picture of Jerry West, which is what I used as the basis of the logo. I was attracted to it because it was nice and vertical, and it had him leaning and dribbling … had a little motion to it. I designed eight, nine or 10 different versions, and that turned out to be the most effective. I presented it to the NBA, and they approved it immediately and began to use it. Today, they would’ve gone through some sort of crazy research process for six months, but it was spontaneously accepted, and it’s been used now for 40-plus years.
Who were some of the other players you considered?
I looked at some logos where there were hands up around the net and the ball. I looked at Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s hook shot. I looked at Wilt Chamberlain, Tom Havlicek, Tom Gola and a few others that I remember. The one with West just really worked. It was really kind of elegant and classic. … At the time, he was on the All-Star team like 12 times. He was the MVP in one of the Finals.
Did you originally tell the NBA that the logo was West?
When I presented it, I didn’t make a deal out of it. I didn’t say it was West. I said it was based on a picture that I found. Somehow, people traced it to that. I never said anything about it. I met commissioner David Stern when I was on vacation, and I talked to him about it. He didn’t want to recognize that it was based on a West picture, for whatever reason.
Did you ever talk with West about how he felt?
I’ve never had any conversations with him. I met him in a restaurant in L.A. He was with a PR guy having lunch. He was sitting at this table, and I was introduced to him as the guy who did the logo. He said, ‘Who was the commissioner?’ I said, ‘Walter Kennedy.’ He looked down and started eating and didn’t speak to me. Then I met him before a Lakers game. I had dinner in the private club with Jeanie Buss, who’s now the president of the Lakers, as her guest. West was sitting at a table with his son. I went over and introduced myself again, and he was gruff and didn’t say anything. And then when his biographer [Jonathan Coleman] wrote his book, he called me and I spoke to him a little bit. West wouldn’t get on the phone. West … seems to be sort of uncomfortable with being the symbol of the NBA. When I did the Major League Baseball symbol, Harmon Killebrew called me and said, ‘Is it based on me?’ And I said, ‘No … sorry.’ Various other people called me and said, ‘Was that me? Can you say it’s me?’ And I said, ‘No.’ In baseball, these guys wanted it to be them, and here’s West, who’s the symbol for the NBA, and he’s uncomfortable with it. God knows why.
When was each of these moments?
When I first saw him in the restaurant, I think it was in the late ’90s. When I saw him at the Laker game, it was in the 2000s.
Why do you think the league denied for so long that you used West as the basis for the logo?
Maybe they didn’t want it to be a real person, because other people would complain. Maybe they thought West would want a fee. Those are the two things that I think. It kind of makes sense, but that was the reality, you know?
You talked with former NBA commissioner Stern about the logo and a possible change. Why has a new one never come to fruition?
He had me send the files, and I think he was wondering if it needed to be modified or changed. He never expressed exactly why. [The logo is] very successful. It does what it’s designed to do. It’s a mirror of the Major League Baseball concept, where you have an actual player in motion. It’s very elegant. It works in reverse, and black-and-white, and it works in vertical applications. As you can see, it’s used on television in creative ways. It’s been around for a long time, and it’s one of the most recognized symbols in the world. Wherever I go, despite all the things I’ve done in my life, I’m introduced as the guy who did the NBA logo. People come up and ask to take my picture. When I’ve done press stuff, when people have done interviews with me, some of the people in the press have asked for my autograph. It’s really insane.
Should it be updated? Do you think it ever will be?
I’ve been in the branding business for 45 years, and the kinds of things I’m proudest of are things that last for a long time. Major League Baseball, NBA, 3M are the three things I did 40, 45 years ago. It’s a great symbol of basketball. It’s used around the world. I have files of about 70 sports logos from around the world that are based on it. I guess with all this craziness I’m going to end up doing a book on it. People say, ‘Well, the pants have to be longer,’ and the sport is now dominated by black players. I believe that the symbol has great value and it works very well. It’s so recognizable that it’d be a mistake to change it. Is it going to be changed? Yes. Because we live in a world of change. Some new commissioner is gonna come in and, in order to make his mark and signify change, is going to change it.
Who do you think might take West’s place as the silhouette?
I’ve seen things where people have said it should be Stephen Curry. Obviously, Jordan is one of them. I don’t think it can be based on any one player. There are 50 to 80 world-class players in the history of the NBA. It should be symbolic of the sport. I think it would be a mistake if it was patterned toward anybody, LeBron James, or whoever. If they ever update it, I don’t think it would be particularly based on another player. Is it gonna be a black player? Are the pants going to be longer? I don’t know. That’s what everybody talks about all the time.
If the NBA called tomorrow and asked you to update the logo, would you be open to doing it?
No. Because I really believe they shouldn’t change it. It would be enormously expensive to change it, and I don’t think I could do anything better. And I believe that to respect the heritage of the sport, it doesn’t have to be a black player, it doesn’t have to have longer pants, it doesn’t have to be some guy slam-dunking. 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. Another thing: Basketball has changed a lot now. It’s starting to be a point guard game. He was a point guard. There’s a lot of dribbling and a lot of movement. It really holds its own.
Do you hope to one day have that conversation with West?
No, I don’t care about West saying anything to me. I admire him as a player, and as a general manager, he’s had a great career. I don’t feel an affinity to him or any interest in him. I was glad to watch him play.
What doesn’t the average NBA fan know about the logo?
When this recent spate of articles came out, because West said on television recently that he didn’t like [the logo], that he was uncomfortable with it, I got about 2,000 [emails] and things — 95 percent of them say, ‘Don’t change it.’ One guy sent me something that was incredible, as a joke. He sent me alternative people who might be symbols. One, he had a close-up of Dennis Rodman’s face with only hardware in his lips. He sent me a cartoon of Latrell Sprewell choking P.J. Carlesimo. And he sent me a picture of Manute Bol standing next to Muggsy Bogues. I would say 90, 95 percent of the people said it shouldn’t be changed, and congratulated me, and were really happy with it. I feel good about it. I hope they keep it, but I’m a realist.