The silhouette on the NBA logo—a player dribbling and swiveling between a red and blue background—is Lakers legend Jerry West. Fans know this. West knows this. Alan Siegel, the man who designed the logo, knows this ("It's Jerry West," Siegel told the Los Angeles Times in 2010). But does the NBA pay West royalties for using his image and printing it on the mountains of merchandise they sell?
The short answer is "No." That's also the long answer, because the NBA won't admit that it's West on the logo. “I knew a long time ago," West told Grantland in 2011 about his image being used in the design. "[The NBA] would always say it’s an urban myth."
When asked about the identity of the man in the logo by the Los Angeles Times in 2010, former NBA Commissioner David Stern's spokesperson said, "There's no record of it here." As recently as 2021, NBA.com writer Shaun Powell wrote an article stressing that the league has still never officially acknowledged that it's the Hall-of-Famer's silhouette gracing every court in the sport (though the league's very own website refers to West by his now-famous nickname, "The Logo.")
According to the Q&A Powell conducted with Siegel, the NBA wanted something similar to Major League Baseball's logo when they approached Siegel to design it in 1969. "Commissioner [James Walter] Kennedy wanted a logo that had a family relationship with Major League Baseball, because the NBA was having a lot of trouble with their reputation at that time and wanted to uplift the image," Siegel said.
While researching ideas for the logo, Siegel said he was instantly struck by a picture of West that his friend Dick Schaap, an editor for Sport Magazine, had in his photo file. "I saw the picture of Jerry West. Of course I watched him in college and the NBA. I always admired him, but I liked the picture because it was a nice vertical and had this motion to it," Siegel said. "I never mentioned it was based on a picture of him. It was just discovered years later."
When speaking to the Los Angeles Times in 2010, Siegel elaborated on the league's secrecy about the logo's origin: "It's become such a ubiquitous, classic symbol and focal point of their identity and their licensing program that they don't necessarily want to identify it with one player." West graciously agrees with that sentiment. "It’s not honoring a person," he told Grantland. "That’s not what it’s doing. It’s promoting an image of the league, which is always important to me.”
In recent years, West has said he would be happy for the league to have Kobe Bryant, who died in January 2020, replace him as the new silhouette. But, as Forbes points out, that would also mean officially admitting the new logo is based on Bryant, which could open up the royalties discussion.
In the meantime, West is currently taking issue with one popular use of his likeness. A fictionalized take on his post-playing career is partly the basis for the new HBO show Winning Time, which focuses on the "Showtime" era of the Lakers dynasty of the '80s. West's attorneys released a statement about the way the NBA legend is shown in the series, saying "Winning Time falsely and cruelly portrays Mr. West as an out-of-control, intoxicated rage-aholic." While HBO released a statement standing by the show, West himself doubled down, saying, "The series made us all (the Lakers) look like cartoon characters. They belittled something good. If I have to, I will take this all the way to the Supreme Court.”
This article originally ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2022.