West by West

That’s the promo from the Jerry West segment on Real Sports a few months ago. I saw it and immediately bought his new book. It’s an auto-biography without a lot of cheer. He’s a tortured soul who’s unmitigated success in all things basketball hasn’t been able to stop terrible bouts of depression. It made for a tough read at times.

Basketball was my first sports love. To me, it’s about Magic’s ear-to-ear smile, MJ’s fist pump after the buzzer-beater over Ehlo, Larry diving for a loose ball, and LeBron clapping rosin in the air at the scorer’s table. It’s fantastic. It’s a spectacle, but a spectacle with substance. I still contend that these guys are the greatest athletes in the world. Period.

If you’re not careful, this book can suck that spectacle right out of the sport. West admits in the credits that he wasn’t writing a basketball book necessarily. In my view, this is a form of therapy for him.

Let’s talk about this guy and basketball. He is the NBA. I’m serious, he really is the NBA. He’s the guy on the logo. He was a great player for the Lakers (check his stats) and a great GM for the Lakers (think showtime and Kobe/Shaq). The guy threw down some amazing numbers. He then went on to have a successful, albeit short, stint with the Memphis Grizzlies. He’s achieved about everything you can achieve in the sport.

But it’s been a labor for the guy. He had an ugly childhood. His dad was abusive and he lost a beloved brother to the Korean War. These things, along with growing up on the brink of poverty in rural West Virginia, beat him down, but also made him hungry to make something of himself, to seek out a better life. He was, and remains, an intensely competitive individual, which probably contributed greatly to his success on the court. Off the court, his self-confessed personality flaws haven’t been much of a hindrance. Here’s how he describes his demeanor.

I am often painfully awkward or detached when I greet someone, including family, and today was no exception. I am not very demonstrative. I hardly ever hug. I rarely do it with my own children, or with Karen. It doesn’t mean I am not glad to see them; it doesn’t mean I don’t care. It’s the same as not easily picking up the phone to call someone; it’s just how I am. And much of that, I am convinced, has to do with the almost complete lack of nurturing I received as a child. Cookie refers to the home we grew up in as “the ice house,” but that isn’t even the half of it. (page 18)

You can see that he may not be very likable. He also described instances like this, which gives him kind of an unpleasant vibe:

… Aside from the fact I eat very quickly, I am also particular about what I eat (as I am about what I wear). One time I went to a little Italian restaurant in Los Angeles and I ordered a caprese salad with heirloom tomatoes. When the salad came out, I could see right away the tomatoes were not heirlooms and told the waiter that. He assured me that they were and I insisted they weren’t. So he went back into the kitchen and checked with the chef and came back to report that I was right. (page 110)

Let’s face it, you can’t get to know athletes while they are playing. They can cover up a host of foibles and flaws during their playing years because they really just have to go out every day and score.

The post-playing life is a little different. Some athletes are extroverted and intelligent, so they go on to be announcers. West, however, was introverted and intelligent, so he went into management. His success in management was about equal to his success as a player, so he’s had the media spotlight on him for much longer than the average athlete. That’s had to have weighed on him.

So he’s over 70 and reflecting on his life, which spans almost the whole history of the NBA, in an honest and forthright manner. That’s what old people do. They say what’s on their mind and don’t care so much about the backlash. I have to believe this was a wonderful release for the guy.

He cuts loose. Well, as loose as he can cut, I guess.

I do like his sensibilities. He’s thoughtful and it felt throughout like he was being very honest. Here’s his take on a few things and some of his ruminations:

On the average West Virginian:

What I don’t understand is that some of these coal miners make sixty to a hundred thousand dollars a year and yet their first impulse is often to get a new car. I am loath to tell other people how to live, but I feel strongly that if their first instinct would be to embrace the enduring importance of education, their children would be better off. (page 28)

On Tiger Woods:

I decided to reach out to Tiger because my sense was that very few people were. I sent him a letter and a copy of The Noticer, a little inspirational book that urges one to keep a larger perspective no matter what kind of crisis is being faced. … To this day, I don’t know if Tiger ever received the book, but if he did, I hope he read it. (page 53)

On racism, playing in the Boston Garden, and the fact that the Celtics play second fiddle to the Bruins:

I, on the other hand, always seemed to be a fan favorite. Part of the reason, I guess, was the way I played—giving my all each and every night—and part of it was no doubt because I was white. (page 128)

On Magic:

Earvin asked me all sorts of questions when he first came to the team, and I did my best to answer all of them. I liked that he didn’t come in with the attitude that he knew everything. He wanted to know “how to play in the NBA” and what the essential difference was between the pros and college. (page 151)

On Phil Jackson:

The difference was this: Pat and I were close and had a long history together; Phil and I had no relationship. None. He didn’t want me around, and he had absolutely no respect for me—of that, I have no doubt. (page 180)

On Wilt:

As for all Wilt’s claims of having slept with twenty thousand women? That is such a joke, because he was with me a lot of the time. When his sister Barbara would stop in unannounced to see him, she would go searching for any sign that a female had been there, but she could never find anything, not an article of clothing, not a photograph, nothing. (page 188)

On Kobe, referencing “the encounter with the woman in Colorado in the summer of 2003”:

I am not naïve about things like this, but to this day I feel he was set up. (page 198)

On Shaq, referencing the unveiling of the Jerry West statue in February 2011:

In the audience, Shaquille O’Neal, at the time a member of the Boston Celtics, if you can believe it, mouthed the words I love you, and I did the same in response. That he came meant as much, if not more, to me than anything. (page 304)

So that’s what you get, unvarnished, heartfelt, and kind of depressing. But it is an important glimpse into the NBA and a deep dive into a guy who’s always been kind of a mystery.