Before there was LeBron, Kobe, Jordan, or Magic, there was Mr. Clutch, Jerry West. His list of accomplishments is mind-blowing: MVP of the NCAA tournament, co-captain of the 1960 Olympic gold-medal team, 14-time NBA All-Star, 1972 NBA champion, and Basketball Hall of Fame inductee both as a player and as front-office executive. The NBA even uses a silhouette of a fast-breaking Jerry West on its iconic logo. Yet, despite all his success, he remains a flawed and tormented individual. For West, basketball was a way to escape from his abusive childhood in West Virginia and the despair he felt for the loss of his beloved older brother in the Korean War. In West by West, West tells his story, describing the highs and lows of the 50-plus years he's been deeply involved with the game of basketball. Author and journalist Gay Talese raves,
West by West is a rounded, honest, and moving exploration not just of West's life under the arena spotlights, but his passages through his darkest hours. With remarkable clarity and courage, West explores his flaws and ghosts, his glory on the court and his struggles off. Few would have the courage to look so deeply into the mirror, but in this exceptional book, West has done so.
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Shawn Donley: There have been several occasions in your life that would have served as an opportune time to write a book like this, maybe after you retired as a player or after you left the Lakers organization as an executive. Why did you decide to do it now?
Jerry West: There have been a few books and things written about me, including one recently that was supposed to be an autobiography of my life. Even though I didn't read that book, I thought it was time for me to try to dispel some rumors and myths about me.
I was approached by two or three people about writing this book, and I had to figure out:Could I be — not courageous enough — but could I be candid enough about my life, and particularly growing up, to make it worthwhile? Hopefully, it's also a book that a lot of people who've grown up in similar circumstances can read and find support to overcome some things in their lives. To me, it was a perfect opportunity to do that at this point in my life, because I'm not going to take a real active role with anyone else. Even though I'm an advisor for the [Golden State] Warriors, it's not the same as being there on an everyday basis.
Shawn: The subtitle of your book is My Charmed, Tormented Life, and I would imagine many readers would be surprised to hear about some of the difficulties you've faced. Were the folks around you aware of some of your personal struggles?
West: Family members probably were, but to what degree I don't know. I think everyone faces moments in their lives that maybe they don't know how to cope with. You're struggling to grow up, and you're struggling to find a place that's safe and secure for you. Most people would hope that would be a family, but in this case it wasn't. It wasn't a place of comfort for me. It wasn't a place of encouragement, and that, to me, is what made the book so... I don't want to say different, but maybe interesting to some people who've read it. I was being interviewed the other day about it, and a guy said to me, laughingly, "How can someone who's led the kind of life you've had be in any way tormented? You know, you had a lot of success as a player. You had a lot of success working in the basketball arena for many years. You've achieved this, and I think you've achieved some financial security."
I said to him, "Well, you obviously don't understand some of the things that go on inside people who do a very good job of masking it." He was really puzzled by why I didn't enjoy my life, and why I didn't enjoy some of the things that I think most people would like to have been a part of. I've led a tormented life, and a lot of it probably has to do with my own insecurities and lack of self-esteem. Those things are always going to be a challenge, particularly when they're in a kind of a mind that becomes very melancholy and depressive a lot of the time.
Shawn: One of the other things I learned from your book was the extreme level of competitiveness that's necessary to thrive on the professional level in sports. Despite the fact that your relentless drive had so much to do with your success, have you ever felt that it was more of a curse than a blessing?
West: I've often said that it's like sleeping. Sometimes, because my mind doesn't shut off, I think I'm a much deeper thinker than most people would give me credit for and particularly in areas that most people wouldn't understand. When you're second guessing everything about your life, your career — how it could have been better, what we could have done better collectively... I do think about those things. I think about all the losses we had in the NBA finals. I think there's one phrase in the book, "often a prince, but never a king," which sums it up. Those areas have always been complex for me, but I think so many of the things that we see in our childhood can dictate how we feel about ourselves.
If it weren't for a few people in my life, I'm not sure where my life would have led me. Particularly if I'd never picked up a basketball, I'm sure I'd be dead by now. And I'd probably have never accomplished anything in my life that I wanted to do when I was a kid, and had all these great dreams and imagination. I have a very vivid image of things I had hoped to achieve in my life, and it certainly wasn't always about basketball.
Shawn: I was happy to see so many literary references in a sports biography. You mention Joan Didion, Joseph Campbell, John McPhee, and David Halberstam, to name just a few. Have you always been a big reader?
West: When I was going to school, I hated to read. I got by in school because I think I was bright enough to do enough be able to graduate on time, but I didn't really start to enjoy books until about six years into my career. Early on, I was limited to books like mysteries, but in the last 10 years or so, I've become a much more serious reader. In particular, I've been trying to read things that other people have undergone in their lives and battles that they've fought, and, frankly, it's opened up a whole new world for me. I do enjoy reading things that I think many people can learn from, by people who are enormously talented and also able to put their thoughts down in a way that makes sense to the average person.
There are also some references to books in there that Jonathan Coleman, who was the co-author of my book, encouraged me to read. I was fascinated with two or three of these books.
West: I just read it for the third time. I'm here in West Virginia, and I just read it a third time here.
Shawn: Was it helpful in dealing with your own struggles?
West: It was helpful. The average person will say, "How can you be depressed or feel bad or feel down?" I don't think anyone who feels that way would ever want to be that way. Everyone's brain is wired differently. Everyone responds to different stimuli in life.
I think sometimes I get really low and don't feel very good about myself, but it was just amazing to me, in reading Darkness Visible, how Styron was so helpless and couldn't handle anything. He went into hospitals several times and got so much care there. He might feel okay when he got out, but ultimately he was going to go back to that incredibly dark place.
Shawn: He was at a point in his career, as well, when he was very successful as a writer.
West: I think that's when you begin to really question yourself. For me, reading the book was a kind of a reawakening of how I felt about myself, though not to the level that he expressed it. And I'm sure there have been other people who've fought the same battles that he has and have not been able to write about it, or write about it so brilliantly as he did. It's an easy read.
For the most part, I don't put myself in the same category that Styron was in, because he suffered from deep depression. Mine will come and go, and there's usually nothing that really sets it off for me. It's just something that I feel, from time to time, and, frankly, why it happens isn't something that I would even try to explain.
Shawn: One of the unique skills you had as a player was the ability to so often anticipate what was going to happen next on the court. I feel as a general manager you used the same skill as a way to draft and trade for underappreciated talent. Do you feel that you were born with this ability to visualize, or is it something you've been able to develop?
West: Well, another book that I mentioned in West by West is Blink.
Shawn: By Malcolm Gladwell.
West: Yes. I admire what he writes. He's written two books in particular that I think have been very compelling, The Outliers and Blink.
I've been a person that has been able to process information pretty quickly. Whether it's a gift or a curse, I don't know. I've never been afraid to trust my instincts in life, and I think Blink kind of spelled out to me that it's okay to do that. I look at things maybe a little bit differently than the average person. I think you have to look beyond the resumé sometimes. It's easy to look at a kid in college who scores a lot of points and plays on a great team. But can he get better? Can he progress? Or is he not going to get any better? Is he a finished product? Those are things that I love to do.
As I say, I wasn't always right, but we had a great amount of success in not only drafting, but in putting teams together. The people I work with certainly will shake their heads about things that I think would be interesting to do. But I think my experience working for an owner who encouraged and supported my desire to do that was, frankly, pretty enlightening. It was good that he would allow me to do that. We didn't always agree, but at the end of the day he would listen. I'd describe something that I think would be helpful on our team, and then we'd try to go with it, and in more cases than not it worked.
Shawn: With this sense of vision that you have and your nonstop work ethic and competitive drive, I would have thought coaching would be something that perfectly suited your personality, yet you only coached for three years before resigning.
West: I did.
Shawn: What was it you didn't like about it?
West: The first year, I had a great time. I had two men working with me because I really had no experience in coaching or organizing a practice or an offense. Defense was something that I felt was pretty easy for me to understand — what I really liked to see as a defensive team. But I had two men in my life who came in, Jack McCloskey and Stan Albeck. They were mentors to me, and they certainly were able to help me through that first year, which was an awkward year. But we won more games my first year — with a team that didn't even make the playoffs the prior year — with little or no changes to that team. It was one of the most gratifying years I've ever spent.
But, during that period of time, I was going through a pretty traumatic, ugly divorce, and I was much more concerned about trying to get through that. In the process, I lost my way, and I became very difficult with the players. We had a bunch of changes to the team — we were bringing in younger players because we had kind of a team that was going to be built for the future. The ownership wanted to bring a bunch of young guys in.
And it was very difficult for me to accept the fact that younger players are going to make their mistakes, and I wanted them to be something that they couldn't be at that point in their lives. So, actually, in the book I apologize to a couple of them for being so harsh and not very nice to them.
Today, it's not one of my proudest moments as a person, to do something like that. Ultimately, I think you should respect everyone's desire to play and, more importantly, everyone's abilities. The ability to learn and get better is going to be through encouragement and support, which I think all of us need in order to move forward.
Shawn: For me, as a lifelong sports fan, after you retired as a coach, one of the most emotional memories was when Magic Johnson announced his retirement after he contracted HIV. When did you first become aware that he had been infected?
West: I knew there was something wrong, and I knew it was one or two things. There was cancer and then, the other one I didn't even want to think about, HIV. There was so little information about people who had contracted HIV, and it seemed like a death knell, a death letter. It was probably one of the most awkward periods in my life. I had so much respect for him, not only as a player but as a person, and to watch this magnificent athlete... I'm saying to myself, How much longer is he going to be here? I didn't want to work any more; I really didn't.
It probably took me about 10 days to get to the point where I thought, Hey, we've got a job to do here. My emotions toward him would never change. And even to this day I value him as a person; I value him as a friend. To me, it's just remarkable what he's accomplished, to see what he's done with his life and that he's able to live a healthy life. But, at the time, that wasn't very much fun, and I was so worried about him.
Shawn: It was an extremely courageous act then, I think.
West: You know what? It was typical of him. It was just typical of who he is. He was a person who looked at life as one big party in the sense that he was an effervescent, bubbly person who to me was more than a basketball player.When you're around athletes enough, you learn to admire them and you learn to admire their courage. And this was an extension of his courage.
Shawn: In the book you include the list of all the injuries you suffered as a player, and I was shocked at how long a list it was. You had your nose broken nine times?
West: Yeah, I had my nose broken. I just had so many. As a lot of athletes do, you have so many things that are wrong with you, and then you go play anyway. Back then, it was a little bit different; the doctors found a way to get you out there. You had a lot of injections, that's for sure. You played sometimes when you had numerous things wrong with you. The average fan doesn't know that; they don't know what players had to endure. But it was almost a sign of courage to go out there and do it then. Today, the medical care that players get is so much better. Their training conditions are so much better.
So, for me, it was just an extension of what I saw with other players who would go out and play injured and also let themselves be injected to play. It was just part of the sport at that point in time and something that was vitally important to me because I just wanted to compete. That's the thing I cared about. Competing was the most important thing.
Shawn: Do you feel like the game has become more violent?
West: Oh, gosh, no. It's a lot less physical. I mean, it was violent then, and everyone had somebody who was kind of an enforcer on their team. You expected that at certain times in a game somebody was going to come in and knock someone's ass off. And it could be anyone. They didn't care if it was a star or not a star. But, once in a while, if you really got it rolling, you had to be a little bit extra careful.
Shawn: Speaking of violence, you were courtside coaching, I believe, during one of the most infamous incidents in NBA history, that altercation that ended with Kermit Washington punching Rudy Tomjanovich — the punch that almost killed him.
West: It was just the perfect punch, the perfect angle, everything happened. At that point in time Kermit was out of control. He's one of the nicest people ever, the most giving. And I saw him just brutalized, frankly, by everyone. And when we let him go, I didn't feel very good about it, I'll be honest with you. One of the reasons why... After I saw that, I went home that night and said to myself, My God, I was part of something that I didn't think I'd ever see. You know you're going to see fights, and you know you're going to see physical play, but that was just the worst of the worst. And even sitting around and trying to reminisce on that... There's not a lot of things I really remember vividly about it, but it was just ridiculous how I felt about it. I felt so poorly for him. Even though I was very supportive of him, I probably wasn't supportive enough. And to this day so many people write about it.
Shawn: Didn't John Feinstein write a book about the punch?
Shawn: One of my favorite chapters in your book was the one titled, "Dream Game," where you put together a dream team, not only of players, but also coaches and referees and sportswriters — and even fans, including a few wild cards like Monet and Picasso. It must have been a fun chapter to write, but was it a challenge to come up with that perfect team of players?
West: I don't say it's necessarily a perfect team of players. Most of them were players that I had great admiration for, and there are a lot of players that were excluded because you just couldn't have that many people involved in a game. But I thought it was pretty interesting, because there are so many people in this world I admire. The average person might not know it — because they think you're so stuck in a world of athletics — but I love really talented people and am especially curious about people who are so different than me and, more importantly, so much more accomplished than me. I think it would be interesting, I mean, could I even have a conversation with Einstein?
But the people I name there are just people that I've admired and admired their works, plus the coaches and players that have played an extraordinary part in the growth and history of the NBA.
Shawn: Is there one player in particular that you would have loved to compete against?
West: Oh, boy, yes. Absolutely. There were two of them: Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. When you play, you always want to know if you can measure up to those people. And it's fun to stand in front of someone great — it really is, to see the difference in them and average players or good players. There's a huge difference between an all-star player and an all-pro player. There's a huge difference.
To play against those two guys, knowing how competitive they were, are, I think would have not only been a real challenge but unbelievably exciting. I think it's something that you'd feel really excited about, going to the game to have the chance to compete with players like that, particularly because you see them play so much, and you do admire them. You admire their skill, and you admire their courage when they play the game.
And those are just two at my position. Some of the other ones, you really don't play against them. Even though you're in the same game, you don't play against them. But I just think match-ups are intriguing, particularly when you put players out there that can do some extraordinary things. I think that would be the allure for me.
Shawn: Basketball's been such an integral part of your life. What if you had blown out a knee, or something like that, in high school? What do you think you would have done with your life?
West: That's really the scary point, because I'm sure I wouldn't be alive today. I was always someone, when I was young, who tried to do odd jobs, and I tried to do them better than everyone else so people would want to hire me, so I could buy the things that I had a great affection for at that point in my life — fishing, hunting, walking in the mountains.
All of a suddenthis round ball came into my life, and it changed my life forever. When I was playing with it, it wasn't practice; it was never that. It was just something to do to escape from not wanting to go home, to be honest with you. So, it was something I loved to do.
I was very solitary. There weren't a lot of kids that liked to do what I liked to do. When you're like that, your best friend is your imagination, and I had a very vivid imagination. So, whether I was aware of it or not, I was setting up a kind of a playing field for myself — a playing field that I didn't know if I could ever succeed in. When you grow up with little or no encouragement, so much of it has to come from within.
Shawn: I believe it's jokingly mentioned several times in your book that you feel like you're now in God's waiting room.
West: Absolutely, and, no, that's not joking. It is true. We all live a life, and once you get to a certain point in your life... I don't want to even think about it when it's going to end, because I don't care. I've lived an incredible life. To think that I come from where I came from and was able to live every dream that I've had, to meet people in my life I never dreamed possible, and go to places I never dreamed possible — I mean, that's a hell of a life. It has gone beyond my wildest imagination.
Shawn: You are at a time in life when many people start thinking about their legacy. How do you want to be remembered?
West: I'm not so big on legacies. I would just wish that the people around me, particularly the people I've played with and worked for, know how much I cared about them. More importantly, I hope they know how they were kind of a family that I'd always hoped to have but never quite achieved. I'm talking about my home life as a young kid. Particularly when working with the Lakers and also with Memphis, I wanted a family-like atmosphere where people felt like they had a piece of the action and felt good about coming to work.
One of the best quotes I've ever heard in my life is, "Find an occupation that you love, then you'll never work a day in your life." Confucius said that, by the way. So, I just feel I've never worked a day in my life because it's been an extension of my love for the game and, also, the competition.
Shawn: You've accomplished so much in your career as a player, as a coach, as an executive. Do you have any regrets, things you would have liked to have changed?
West: Oh, there have been a lot of regrets. I wish I'd been able to articulate to some of the people in my life how meaningful they are, and I was just never capable of doing that. I wish I could be a better communicator. Sometimes when people call me, I won't say I'm lax in getting back to them, but I should get back to them more promptly. Because sometimes I get in these moods, and when I get in these moods I'm much more reluctant to want to call. It has nothing to do with the person that called me. It's just me, and sometimes my inability to do it. I might be in one of my down or depressed moods, and that's more likely when I won't communicate.
Shawn: With the current strike leaving many NBA fans with lots of free time this season, I think you picked a great year to release a basketball book!
West: Yes! [Laughter]
Shawn: Any thoughts on how this impasse may be resolved?
West: It's not something I can talk about, but I'm just hopeful that this gets settled and we'll have basketball again, because I think it's important for everyone who loves the game.
Shawn: After being involved with the Lakers for 40 years or so, is it difficult to work for other teams, like Memphis or now Golden State?
West: No. I would never take a job unless I believed in the ownership. I've never done that in my life. That's the most important thing. The people you work with make it fun; they make it challenging. Again, you don't want to work just to have a job. You want to work because you love it. As I say, I don't think I've ever worked a day in my life, even though I'm busy and active and everything, and there's a lot of travel. I just don't think I've ever really worked a day in my life, to be candid with you.
Shawn: That's a great life. I've got one last question for you, West. This one's important. Do you have any advice that can help our hometown Portland Trailblazers get past the first round of the playoffs?
West: The only advice I have to anyone in the NBA is that you've got to have good fortune, and they certainly have had a lot of injuries, and that just really, really hurts. I think they've done a terrific job up there, and hopefully they'll be able to get through the year injury-free.
Books mentioned in this post