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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Gary Smith on Jerry West and Prometheus

Great writing is hard to find and should always be cherished. Gary Smith's October 24, 2011 Sports Illustrated article about Jerry West--titled "Basketball was the Easy Part"--is a must-read for anyone who is a fan of great writing. I cannot find a link to the article online and I can hardly blame SI for that--no doubt they want to use Smith's piece as a hook to entice readers to buy a hard copy of the magazine, which I strongly urge you to do. It is not fair to SI or Smith to quote large chunks from the article but I will whet your appetite by sharing Smith'e opening lines with you:

Here's the trouble with the gods: They don't come clean. Not even to fellow gods. So maybe it wouldn't work.

Maybe Jerry West couldn't do what he would love to do: gather them in a room--Michael and Kobe and Magic and Larry and Tiger and Ali--and begin digging to the bottom of what separated them from the mortals.

"But they don't talk about these things," he says. Maybe they don't know, or want to know, what's at the bottom. Maybe they're afraid knowing might diminish their power. Maybe they've not stared down there as many nights as he has, waiting for light to find its way to his window.

The opening sentence reminds literate readers of John Updike's famous declaration about Ted Williams--"Gods do not answer letters"--but then Smith takes the metaphor in a different direction, comparing West to Prometheus, the Greek god who stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to humankind; Zeus chained Prometheus to a boulder and sent an eagle to devour the helpless Prometheus' liver. In Smith's eyes, West is a basketball god, a Prometheus who consumed his own innards with a toxic combination of anger, doubt, anxiety and depression.

Smith recounts West's prodigious achievements--including a 27.0 ppg regular season scoring average that ranks fourth among retired players (topped by only Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor) and a 29.1 ppg playoff scoring average bested only by Jordan--and declares that West authored "perhaps the most statistically stunning game the NBA has ever seen: 44 points on 16-for-17 shooting from the field and 12 for 12 from the foul line, 12 rebounds, 12 assists and 10 unofficially counted blocked shots." West won an Olympic gold medal and an NBA title as a player before helping to build four more championship teams as a general manager. West could have basked in the glory of those accomplishments but, Smith writes, "Instead he anguished for more than three years co-writing a book with Jonathan Coleman--West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life--that's choking with the truth about the fire that made him a god."

West says that he fueled himself with anger: "Just hoping someone on the other team would say something, anything, even something small and stupid, to (tick) you off. You'd want to embarrass that person. You'd turn from a player who was competing to a person who was a monster. That anger was like having mental steroids. Driven to the point of being crazy. I'm not sure I loved the game. I loved the competition. I'd think, I've got to get it out, but how can I take this out on someone who's an equal, someone of equal size, so it's fair?"

When West first laid eyes on Kobe Bryant he recognized a kindred spirit--at least in terms of competitive mindset. In his book, West writes about watching Bryant work out against Michael Cooper, a former NBA Defensive Player of the Year: "Even though Kobe was only 17, it was clear that he was a once-in-a-lifetime player. His fierce competitive drive was innate. You need more than a little nastiness to play basketball at the highest level, and Kobe had that in abundance. You need the coldbloodedness of an assassin, and he possessed it."

Run, don't walk, to the nearest store that stocks SI and pick up a copy of the October 24, 2011 issue. You won't regret it.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:47 AM



At Saturday, October 22, 2011 10:00:00 AM, Blogger Matt said...

I was meaning to ask a couple of weeks ago if you were going to review West by West. I skimmed some of it on Amazon.com and was a bit surprised by West's candor, both about himself and others. High achievement doesn't always come coupled with a great sense of self-awareness.

At Tuesday, October 25, 2011 12:31:00 AM, Anonymous khandor said...

Gary Smith is one of my all-time favourite featured SI writers. This is yet another terrific read.


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