COLUMN: Joe Mazzulla is making a strong case to become West Virginia’s next favorite son

MORGANTOWN — Maybe there is a part of all of us in West Virginia who want to believe no matter how much Jerry West hated the Boston Celtics, he still found a way to smile down from above Monday night, as Boston dispatched the Dallas Mavericks to win the NBA Finals.

Somehow there might have been a piece of West, who spent his entire NBA career battling and losing to Boston in the playoffs, that could have looked past all of that for just a moment for him to cheer on Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla.

As we all know by now, Mazzulla — a beloved and respected player at WVU and a key part of the 2010 Final Four team — led the Celtics to the title in just his second season as a head coach.

“You get very few chances in life to be great and you get very few chances in life to carry on the ownership and the responsibility of what these banners are, and all the great people, all the great players that came here,” Mazzulla said after Monday’s clincher. “When you have few chances in life, you just have to take the bull by the horns and you’ve got to just own it. And our guys owned it.”

West died last week at the age of 86, and his passing created a tremendous void in West Virginia.

Calling West the state’s favorite son doesn’t come close to encompassing what he meant to all of us. West was also a hero, role model and a legendary figure. He can never be replaced.

Serious thought here: Did Mazzulla just take up the mantle as the state’s most-celebrated inspiration with West’s passing?

It’s a question that never needed asking ever since West guided the WVU men’s hoops team to an appearance in the 1959 national championship game. He spent 14 years as an NBA All-Star, played in nine NBA Finals and then somehow surpassed all of that by becoming the league’s greatest general manager.

West just may have played a pivotal role, too, in getting Mazzulla steered onto the right path.

“My junior year in college, I wasn’t living up to anyone’s standards, and I get a call and it’s Jerry,” said Mazzulla during an NBA Finals press conference. “A lot of (expletives), but he essentially told me that I was F-up and was ruining an opportunity to be great at something. He just let me have it for like 10, 15 minutes. I thought it was one of the most impactful phone calls that I had, really, in my life.”

To be sure, there are very-distinct differences to their stories, most notably that West is a native of this state, while Mazzulla was born and raised in Rhode Island.

West spent 14 years as an NBA player. Mazzulla never spent a single day playing professionally, rather taking an assistant coaching job at Glenville State right out of college.

But to say Mazzulla isn’t a West Virginian, one of us, is as wrong as wrong can be.

And his story is just as inspirational, a rags-to-riches type built on hard work, determination and opportunity.

If Mazzulla is not a native, he’s damn sure an adoptive son of West Virginia, something that came out of him back in 2017, when he was hired as a head coach for the first time by Fairmont State.

In his introductory press conference, Mazzulla mentioned the state as “home” five times, something he had cleared with family members prior.

“I knew I was going to do that,” he said afterward. “I talked to my uncle and I didn’t want to disrespect him. I said to my uncle, ‘I know I’m a Mazzulla and we’re the Mazzulla family from Rhode Island, but I grew so much here. Would it be disrespectful to mention this as home?’”

In the realm of professional coaches, maybe only Kansas City head coach Andy Reid of the NFL stands above Mazzulla these days.

In his two seasons with the Celtics, and at just 35 years old, Mazzulla is already the winningest coach in NBA history by percentage. Including the playoffs, Mazzulla has won 72.9% of his games (148-54). The next closest guy you may have heard of — Phil Jackson — who won just over 70% of the games he coached.

And that is a fact that should have all West Virginians proudly pounding their chests today, like we were all somehow part of that NBA championship.

No, there is no replacing what Jerry West meant to all of us.

That shouldn’t take away from the fact Joe Mazzulla is rapidly becoming the next flag-bearer for West Virginia. Even though Mazzulla coaches the Celtics, even West would probably agree with that.

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