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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Roland Lazenby Describes Jerry West's Triumphs and Torments, Part II

Jerry West is one of the most accomplished and yet paradoxical figures in basketball history. He is known as "Mr. Clutch" but his Lakers lost six times in the NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics and one time to the New York Knicks before winning the NBA Championship in 1972.

Roland Lazenby's Jerry West: The Life and Legend of a Basketball Icon (Ballantine Books/ESPN Books, 422 pages, $28.00) provides a fascinating, in depth look at one of the NBA's true icons--a Pantheon-level player and a shrewd executive who helped build two Lakers' championship dynasties (Showtime Lakers in the 1980s, Shaq-Kobe Lakers in the early 2000s).

Part I of this article focused on West's high school, collegiate and NBA careers up to 1971. Today, we will look at the conclusion of West's playing days and his emergence as one of the league's top executives.

The Long Awaited Championship Season


In a last ditch attempt to make a run at the title, the Lakers fired Joe Mullaney and hired Bill Sharman, the Hall of Fame guard who played on Boston's first four championship teams. Sharman had coached for two years in the NBA before jumping to the rival ABA and leading the Utah Stars to the 1971 ABA championship. Sharman decided that the Lakers should play much like his Celtic championship teams did: defend, rebound and run, run, run. Sharman had the right combination of credibility, toughness and charm to get the Lakers to buy into his system; he quickly discovered that the best way to persuade Wilt Chamberlain to do something was to let Chamberlain take ownership of the idea and portray it as his own, while West was so eager and desperate to win a title he likely would have agreed to do just about anything that seemed to have the remotest chance of working. Sharman convinced Chamberlain to voluntarily reduce his scoring in order to concentrate even more on rebounding and defense, while Sharman converted West from shooting guard to point guard; West was the team's best passer, while his backcourt mate Gail Goodrich was a shoot-first player, so this move made a lot of sense, but many stars in West's position might have chafed at making such a change. West thrived in his new role, reducing his scoring to 25.8 ppg (his lowest average since his rookie season but still good enough to rank seventh in the league), leading the league in assists (9.7 apg) and earning many honors, including All-Star Game MVP, First Team All-NBA, All-Defensive First Team and second place in the MVP voting. Goodrich ranked fifth in the NBA in scoring (25.9 ppg), while Chamberlain made the All-Defensive First Team for the first time (the award was created in 1968-69) and he led the NBA in both rebounding (19.2 rpg) and field goal percentage (.649). The 35 year old center was still an iron man, finishing seventh in minutes played (42.3 mpg).

What about Elgin Baylor? The end of the Hall of Fame forward's career turned out to be a very delicate situation. The 37 year old's wrecked knees clearly left him unsuited to play Sharman's uptempo game and before the season began Sharman was seriously considering benching Baylor in favor of the younger and more mobile Jim McMillian. Then some injuries to other players--including West--bought Baylor a brief reprieve but during the season's first nine games Baylor was just a shell of his former self (averaging 11.8 ppg in 26.6 mpg) and after the team promised him a front office position he retired; that very night, the Lakers began their amazing 33 game winning streak, setting a record that has never been threatened and will likely never be broken. Lazenby mentions that injuries forced West to miss the three early games that the Lakers lost in 1971-72, so dating back to the previous season West played in 41 straight victories, an unofficial record that is simply incredible--half a season's games without a single defeat!

The Lakers rolled to a 69-13 record, the best single season winning percentage in league history until the Jordan-Pippen Bulls cranked out a 72-10 mark in 1995-96 (the Bulls then went 69-13 the following year). Although the season should have been joyous, the Lakers' numerous final round failures meant that there would be a certain tension in the air until the team won the title. Pat Riley--a reserve guard on that team who later became a Hall of Fame coach for the Lakers--recalled, "It was a storybook year. But even as we were winning the world championship, we were waiting for something to happen, something bad to happen again" (p. 322).

The Lakers swept the Chicago Bulls in the first round, pushed aside the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks in six games in the Western Conference Finals and met the New York Knicks in the Finals for the second time in three years. This time, though, the Lakers clearly had the better team: Willis Reed missed most of the season and the entire playoffs due to injury and the team had traded away some of its depth to acquire Earl Monroe, who did not fully blossom in New York until the following season. Even though the Knicks convincingly won the first game on the road the Lakers were undaunted, taking the next four games to end West's long chase for his first championship ring. West had won a postseason MVP in college and a postseason MVP in the NBA after playing for the team that lost in the championship round but when he finally reached the NBA summit he did not play up to his normal standards, shooting just .376 from the field during the playoffs. West was nagged by feelings that his poor shooting had somehow hurt the team during its playoff run--even though Sharman privately and publicly praised West's all-around game and willingness to do whatever the team needed for him to do. After the team's success despite his reduced numbers, West wondered if perhaps his scoring dominance in previous years had held the team back. Such thoughts are a reflection of West's perfectionist nature; this pattern of thinking not only made him miserable when the Lakers lost but it made it difficult for him to fully enjoy the team's long awaited success. "I don't know where I'm going to celebrate," West said shortly after the Lakers won. "The feelings I have now are private ones. I'm going to go home and lock the door" (p. 328).

Chamberlain--despite being limited by a fractured right hand and a sprained left hand--averaged 19.4 ppg and 23.2 rpg (including 24 points and 29 rebounds in the clinching game) to earn the 1972 NBA Finals MVP. "Wilt was simply the one who got us here," West said after game five (p. 327). Although Bill Russell's Celtics--stacked with Hall of Famers--rolled to 11 titles, when Chamberlain had the requisite talent around him he produced some impressive results, including a then-record 68-13 won-loss mark with Philadelphia in 1966-67; those 76ers dethroned Russell's Celtics and went on to win the title. The 1972 Lakers were not nearly as talented as the 1967 76ers but the West-Chamberlain-Goodrich trio--ably supported by some very solid role players--meshed together extremely well, guided by Sharman's superb leadership. Sadly, Sharman suffered a great deal due to the exertion of that season; he strained his vocal cords and ignored his doctor's pleas to rest his voice, resulting in permanent damage that ultimately forced him to retire from the coaching profession.

Builder of Two Lakers Dynasties

Even though the Lakers enjoyed great success in 1972, their organization was filled with acrimony. West was not on speaking terms with General Manager Fred Schaus; West felt that his former coach had treated him poorly when West was a rookie and West was also convinced that Schaus later tried to trade him, though Lazenby reports that everyone who has knowledge of that situation denies that the Lakers made an offer to deal West. Soon after the 1972 season ended, Schaus resigned to become Purdue's basketball coach. Pete Newell replaced Schaus.

The players were insulted and very upset when owner Jack Kent Cooke paid them a playoff bonus of $1500 each, significantly less than the $5000 each player had received in 1971 when the Lakers did not even make it to the Finals. Cooke also refused to give Sharman a playoff bonus, insisting that the players should compensate Sharman on their own. West believes that Cooke also convinced a local writer to publish a story saying that the players were trying to deny Sharman a playoff share. The team's end of season banquet turned into a disaster, with none of the players willing to even speak with Cooke. Lazenby declares, "For years, West had done a remarkable job of keeping his anger and resentment out of the public eye in Los Angeles, but this incident changed all that. His dislike for Jack Kent Cooke would first smolder and then burn in a fire so white hot that it ultimately consumed his playing career" (p. 330).

Despite the bad feelings, Sharman's voice problems and a rash of injuries, the Lakers went 60-22 in 1972-73, tying Milwaukee for the best record in the Western Conference (the league used a coin flip to award Milwaukee home court advantage in the Western playoffs). West missed 13 games and slumped to 22.8 ppg but he still averaged 8.8 apg, which would have ranked second in the NBA if he had played enough games to qualify for the leaderboard. West had no complaints about his reduced scoring, explaining, "As you get older, you have to compensate and do other things. One of the reasons I've been able to play so long is that Sharman hasn't made me shoot and has let me pass the ball. If I were in another role as a scorer, I don't know if I could handle it every night" (p. 337). That is an intriguing observation about just how difficult it is to be an elite scorer in the NBA as opposed to being an elite playmaker--and West's perspective should be kept in mind during contemporary debates about the value of a 30 ppg scorer compared to the value of a top notch playmaker: West has filled both roles and he clearly believes that it is tougher to put up big scoring numbers on a consistent basis.

The Lakers returned to the Finals for a rubber match with their New York nemesis but this time it was no contest: hamstring injuries limited West's effectiveness and the Knicks won the series in five games. West, Chamberlain, Jim McMillian and reserve guard Keith Erickson held out of the 1973 training camp in order to pressure Cooke to renegotiate their contracts. Cooke held firm, fined West $200 a day and eventually West returned without getting a new deal--but the Lakers traded McMillian and Erickson, while Chamberlain became a player-coach for the ABA's San Diego Conquistadors. Injuries limited West to just 31 games in 1973-74 and the Lakers bowed out in the opening round of the playoffs, with West playing just 14 minutes and only scoring four points. Meanwhile, Cooke had some health problems, Sharman's voice continued to deteriorate and Sharman's wife Dorothy died of cancer. It seemed likely that West would retire but during the offseason he reached a tentative agreement with Cooke to play for two more years--but then West made a discovery that poisoned his relationship with Cooke: West had been told by Cooke that he and Chamberlain had always been paid the same salary but it turned out that Chamberlain had been making at least $400,000 a year, much more than the $250,000 that West had thought they each were being paid. As a matter of principle, West now insisted that Cooke upgrade the deal to meet those terms. "I have always viewed trust as an important issue," West said. "Trust in a coach, trust in the people you've got around you. And I lost that trust with Jack Cooke. I just felt I wasn't compensated correctly" (p. 324). Not surprisingly, Cooke has a different version of those events, insisting that he only promised West that his salary would be equal to Baylor's--not Chamberlain's. Either way, West felt that Cooke was playing "mind games" with him and he decided that he would never play for the Lakers again as long as Cooke owned the team but he also did not want to start over somewhere else. That left West no choice but to retire. In 1975, West filed a $6 million lawsuit against Cooke, contending that the owner owed him back wages and had reneged on a deal to retain him in the Lakers' front office for at least five years after his playing career ended. Cooke responded with a countersuit.

West was also going through turmoil in his personal life; he separated from his first wife, asked her for a divorce and moved out of the family home to an apartment in Brentwood. He soon became involved with a Pepperdine University cheerleader who he eventually married. West paid a heavy price in the divorce proceedings, signing over to his first wife a house valued at more than $1 million plus custody of their three children. He struggled to figure out what to do now that he no longer played in the NBA. West spent a lot of time on the golf course but his perfectionist nature and his desire to play quickly meant that he was not temperamentally suited for that sport even though his skill level was so high that some people speculated that he might take a shot at the PGA Tour.

The Lakers became an NBA afterthought without West and Chamberlain. Cooke maneuvered to acquire Kareem Abdul-Jabbar but it cost the Lakers so much talent to get him that even though he won his fourth MVP in 1975-76 the Lakers missed the playoffs with a 40-42 record. That proved to be Sharman's final campaign on the bench; Newell retired and Sharman replaced him as the GM. The Lakers needed a coach, West needed a job after his costly divorce and Cooke understood that for p.r. reasons it would be a good idea for the team to reconcile with its former star. Cooke hired West and both sides dropped their lawsuits; Cooke insisted that the timing of those events was a "coincidence," while West has consistently refused to discuss the matter.

West had no coaching experience at any level, so in an era when NBA teams typically only had one assistant coach he brought in two coaching veterans: Stan Albeck served as the de facto offensive coordinator, while Jack McCloskey ran the defense. West possessed all the necessary talents to be a good coach in terms of his understanding of the game but his perfectionism made it very difficult for the players to relate to him--or for him to relate to them. Also, the Lakers--like many teams in the mid to late 1970s--had a significant drug problem that the organization did not know how to effectively handle.

One of West's conditions for taking the coaching job was that Cooke would provide the resources to upgrade the team's overall talent level--and it did not take West long to figure out exactly who he wanted to acquire. The NBA had just added four new teams by merging with the ABA. The 1976 ABA champion New York Nets were struggling to come up with enough money to survive and they were willing to trade three-time ABA MVP Julius Erving in exchange for cash. West knew that pairing Abdul-Jabbar with Erving could be a championship combination much like the one that Abdul-Jabbar later formed with Magic Johnson or the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant duo of the early 2000s. According to West, Cooke refused to foot the bill (the 76ers eventually paid $6 million to obtain Erving--with roughly half that amount going to the Nets and the balance funding a six year deal with the sport's most exciting player). West claims that instead of spending the necessary money to bring in a second star Cooke kept signing cheap "retreads." West later said, "When you're letting people who don't know a damn thing about basketball make your decisions, you're going to have a problem eventually" (p. 353). Cooke denies West's version of events, citing as proof that he previously had spent big money to acquire Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar.

The Lakers started out 4-6 in 1976-77 but West guided them to the best record in the NBA, 53-29. Abdul-Jabbar won the MVP award again and the players seemed energized by West's enthusiastic leadership. The team won 28 out of 38 games in one stretch and looked like a legitimate championship contender but then two key players--Kermit Washington and Lucius Allen--suffered season-ending injuries; the Lakers were never the same and they lost in the playoffs to eventual champion Portland, a team that the Lakers had been able to handle when Washington and Allen were healthy.

That first season turned out to be the high point of West's short coaching career. In 1977-78, Abdul-Jabbar missed 20 games after breaking his hand by hitting Milwaukee center Kent Benson in response to a cheap shot from Benson. Then, in one of the most infamous incidents in NBA history, Washington nearly killed Houston's Rudy Tomjanovich with a powerful punch to Tomjanovich's face as Tomjanovich ran in from behind Washington to break up a fight between Washington and Kevin Kunnert. Washington received the largest suspension in NBA history (a record later broken by Ron Artest after the infamous "Malice at the Palace" brawl) and the Lakers soon traded him away, leaving the team without a credible power forward. West lasted just one more season on the bench, finishing his NBA coaching career with a respectable 145-101 record (.589). Cooke was forced to sell the team as part of a huge divorce settlement and new owner Jerry Buss wanted West to remain the coach but West had been through enough to realize that coaching was not for him.

West became intrigued by the challenge of being a member of the front office. Unlike many executives, West did not just sit at a desk and read reports--he loved to go to games and see players for himself. He had exactly the same work ethic as a talent evaluator that he had as a player and in short time West became a highly respected figure among executives and scouts. In 1982, Buss made West the Lakers' General Manager. The team had won the championship in two of the previous three years based on the greatness of the Abdul-Jabbar-Johnson duo (with plenty of help from players like Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon, Michael Cooper and Bob McAdoo) but West made several acquisitions and deals that enabled the Lakers to capture three more titles from 1985-88. His first big move was selecting James Worthy over Dominique Wilkins in the 1982 draft. West understood that both players would be very good in the NBA but he felt that Worthy's style would fit in better with the Lakers because Worthy would not constantly demand the ball. Next, West traded the popular Nixon in exchange for Byron Scott, another choice based more on chemistry than talent; Johnson and Nixon had overlapping roles because they were both point guards but Scott was strictly a scorer, making him a perfect complement to Johnson.

West's first two years at the helm ended in painful Finals losses, first a sweep at the hands of the 76ers in 1983 and then a seven game defeat administered by the hated Celtics in 1984; the Lakers made several embarrassing gaffes during the latter series and Buss strongly felt that Worthy should be traded but West argued that dealing Worthy would break up a nucleus that was destined to win multiple titles. West finally convinced Buss and the rest is history: the Lakers beat the Celtics in Boston Garden to capture the 1985 title and then won back to back crowns in 1987 and 1988, becoming the first repeat champions in the NBA since Russell's Celtics in 1969. West's acquisition of veteran big man Mychal Thompson proved to be a key move for the 1987 and 1988 teams.

West suffered so much misery as a player during the Finals but as an executive he had many moments of great success. Unfortunately, his personality often made it difficult for him to fully enjoy his triumphs; he is such a perfectionist that he simply cannot stand to see his players make any mistakes, so West developed a habit of not even watching his teams play. This quirk began with West standing in the tunnel and sneaking peeks at the action but by the end of his career as an executive West would often leave the arena until the game was over.

The "Showtime" era ended with Magic Johnson's shocking announcement that he had tested positive for HIV and would have to retire immediately. West spent the next several years trying to put together another duo like Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson, even though such a goal sounds improbable if not crazy. Finally, in 1996, West seized two special, unique opportunities and in one summer laid the foundation for the Lakers to win three more championships. First, West watched a 17 year old kid named Kobe Bryant work out against Cooper, a former Defensive Player of the Year who had been retired for a few seasons but was still in good shape. West immediately saw that Bryant not only had amazing athletic gifts but that his skill set was very polished, an indication that Bryant possessed a work ethic much like West's. Bryant was jumping to the NBA straight out of high school and it appeared that he would be one of the first 15 players selected, well above where the Lakers were slotted in the draft. West traded veteran center Vlade Divac, an All-Star caliber player, to the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for the 13th pick. Meanwhile, West was also working on an even bolder deal; Orlando's superstar center Shaquille O'Neal was a free agent and West literally bet more than half of his roster in order to get far enough under the salary cap to sign him: in addition to trading Divac, West renounced the rights to seven players. West was playing basketball poker for the highest stakes and the Lakers were definitely "all in"; they would either sign O'Neal and draft Bryant or they would be left with virtually nothing to show for their efforts. Of course, West's gambles paid off and during one wild summer the Lakers obtained arguably the two best players of the next decade.

Although the championship foundation was now in place, the Lakers still needed the right coach and the right supporting cast. After several playoff failures, West tweaked the roster and brought in Phil Jackson, the man who led the Chicago Bulls to six championships in eight seasons. West did not have a great personal relationship with Jackson but West knew that Jackson was the right man to lead the Lakers to the championship--and Jackson indeed took the Lakers to three titles in his first three years with the team, though West was only a member of the organization for the first of those championships. Lazenby writes that during his tenure in Chicago Jackson became "adept at corporate in-fighting" (p. 383) and Lazenby indicates that Jackson made some subtle moves--and some not so subtle moves--that resulted in West deciding to leave the organization. West eventually resurfaced in Memphis, where he hired Hubie Brown to be the coach and helped transform a moribund franchise into a playoff team.

Errata

The book is put together very attractively and has a nice photo section in the middle, though the only color images are on the dust jacket. I found only two mistakes in 387 pages of text:

1) Oscar Robertson is credited for winning "the 1968 scoring title at 29.2 points per game" (p. 317). Robertson did in fact lead the NBA in scoring average that season but he did not win the scoring title because until 1969-70 the scoring title was based on total points, not average. Dave Bing won the 1968 scoring title with 2142 points, while Robertson missed 17 games due to injury and finished sixth with 1896 points.

2) Chamberlain's 1972 Finals MVP is described as his "second" (p. 327). Chamberlain surely would have won the award in 1967 if it had existed but the NBA did not recognize a Finals MVP (an honor which initially was called "Playoff MVP") until 1969.

Jerry West's Lasting Legacy

The 1960s produced three epic NBA rivalries: Celtics-Lakers, Chamberlain-Russell and West-Robertson. Jerry West and Oscar Robertson will always be linked together; for six straight seasons they comprised the All-NBA First Team backcourt and for the better part of two decades--until the emergence of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan in the 1980s--they were almost universally considered the two greatest guards in NBA history (some people still rank Robertson as the greatest all-around player in basketball history and many of their contemporaries insist that West was just as good as Robertson was). They did not direct overt animosity toward one another but they were keenly aware of the comparisons: West always measured himself against Robertson--who routinely posted bigger numbers--while Robertson often felt that the predominantly white media did not give him a fair shake not just regarding West but in other ways as well.

Despite the great individual success that both players enjoyed throughout their careers, they each won their sole NBA title only after being paired with a dominant big man who won the Finals MVP. It is interesting to speculate about how Robertson and West would be perceived if their careers had played out in similar fashion under the glare of the modern day media spotlight: before turning him into a transcendent icon, the media spent years branding Michael Jordan as a selfish scorer who would never lead a team to a championship, while two decades later the media insisted that Kobe Bryant's first three NBA championships meant nothing (!) until he won a title without Shaquille O'Neal (a requirement that curiously never seems to be brought up regarding Dwyane Wade). Even though West certainly earned the nickname "Mr. Clutch," it is very easy to picture modern media members brutally mocking that sobriquet if the player in question lost in the NBA Finals seven times in a nine year period before winning a championship.

The dust jacket to Lazenby's book boldly calls West "a man who has done more to shape basketball than anyone on the planet." When I first read that line I was inclined to dismiss it as typical hyperbole penned by some publicist but upon further reflection--and after reading Lazenby's tremendous account of West's life and career--that statement cannot be lightly disregarded. Lazenby is not arguing that West is the greatest player of all-time but rather that the sum total of West's accomplishments had an unparalleled impact on the sport. West is not only literally the symbol of the NBA game but he had a major role--first as a player, then as an executive--in transforming the Lakers from a financially troubled organization into one of the league's premier franchises

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:50 AM

6 comments

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6 Comments:

At Wednesday, March 24, 2010 5:58:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really appreciate this post, David. Your site is one of the few that I even bother looking at anymore. Keep it up, man.

What were you thoughts about West wanting to acquire Julius Erving? I know he's your favorite player... it's intriguing wondering what would have been if Erving had been paired with Abdul-Jabbar and how that would have affected the Lakers being able to draft Magic Johnson a couple of years later.

-Forest

 
At Wednesday, March 24, 2010 11:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Forest:

Julius Erving has consistently said that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the greatest player he ever played against. An Abdul-Jabbar-Erving duo with both of them in or near their primes would have been tremendous and I think that they would have won multiple championships together. The variables that are hard to project are who else the Lakers would have on their roster and also what other teams would do if the Lakers in fact became a dominant team (i.e., what trades and signings would other contenders make in order to try to match up with the Lakers).

The Lakers acquired Magic with the draft pick that they received in compensation for the Jazz signing Gail Goodrich so, at least in theory, the Lakers could have signed Erving in 1976 and still drafted Magic three years later.

 
At Monday, March 29, 2010 2:23:00 PM, Blogger madnice said...

west actually doesnt like the book. he didnt even read the book. he said he is coming out with his own book about himself and that lazenby did a terrible job in telling west story. west said that lazenby knows nothing about him. west was on siruis/xm with maddog today and was upset about the book. i had no idea jerry didnt like the book since i havent heard him say this anywhere else.

 
At Tuesday, March 30, 2010 3:45:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

How can West know that he doesn't like how he is portrayed in Lazenby's book if he has not read the book? Since West is writing his own book it is only natural that purely for commercial reasons he does not want Lazenby's book to do well, because that could potentially cut into the sales of West's book.

Lazenby has interviewed West many times over the years. In the process of writing this book Lazenby spoke with several members of West's family plus West's coaches, teammates and opponents. It is not an "authorized" biography but it is a well researched and well informed work. It is clearly inaccurate to suggest that Lazenby knows nothing about West.

Lazenby's book presents a well written and balanced portrayal of West's life. Although Lazenby makes it clear that he highly respects West he does not engage in hero worship, nor does he dig around in dirt the way that many biographers of celebrities do; for instance, Lazenby very delicately describes the fact that shortly after his playing days ended West left his loyal and devoted wife to marry a much younger cheerleader. Rest assured that Lazenby could have provided a lot more salacious details about that period of West's life, but Lazenby simply stated the facts--which were relevant to West's professional life because the costly divorce settlement influenced West's decision to become the Lakers' coach--and moved on with the story.

 
At Tuesday, March 30, 2010 10:55:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

obviously people have told west about the book by asking him questions about things that occurred in the book. wests wife didnt approve of the book either.

why would west care about lazenbys book sales? if west liked the book why wouldnt he just say it? from hearing west in the interview yesterday west said lazenby wrote many inaccuracies. west did say that lazenby interviewed him before but still didnt approve of what he heard was written.

 
At Tuesday, March 30, 2010 4:55:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

My point is that a person is not really qualified to comment about what is in a book unless that person has actually read it. Getting secondhand information from what other people say or from questions asked by members of the media just doesn't cut it, because that secondhand information may be inaccurate or taken out of context.

When multiple books are issued close to the same time about the same subject that one book tends to be recognized as definitive and therefore has more commercial success. If a lot of people buy Lazenby's book and consider it to be a good read then those people may be less inclined to buy another book about Jerry West so soon after they purchased Lazenby's book.

 

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