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Thursday, November 03, 2011

West by West Paints an Intimate Self Portrait of a Driven and Complex Man

"I played with an angry, emotional chip on my shoulder and a hole in my heart."--Jerry West

West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life is a unique contribution to sports literature: it is not an autobiography or even an "as told to" story; West writes (p. XII), "the approach that I have taken, in collaboration with Jonathan Coleman, is one that is built on deep reportage...nothing less than a full-scale attempt to bring forth the truth, to rely not just on my recollection of things, but to do something more ambitious: investigate myself, speak with others, and come to grips with what I find." West adds that his intention is not to "glorify my accomplishments, as many books of this kind do" but instead to "focus on the things that explore and illuminate the mind-set--give, I hope, the reader a deeper understanding--of someone who, many feel, has been aloof and inscrutable and unpredictable." West explains that he is "too rebellious and defiant" to do anything in the conventional way, including offering a straight narrative of his life; West believes that a Joan Didion quote--"We tell ourselves stories in order to live"--summarizes the defense mechanisms he employed for many years but now his goal with West by West is to "unravel the mystery of that person with the deceptively simple name, to explain myself, to share my story and my improbable journey with those who have perhaps had similar thoughts and who have struggled to overcome the many challenges and obstacles that life has put squarely in their paths."

West by West is neither comprehensive nor chronological and it does not contain an index, so after reading the book it can be difficult to go back and find West's take on specific situations--but West's candor and introspection make up for this. His account of his upbringing is matter of fact, blunt and shocking: "I never learned what love was, and am still not entirely sure I know today. What I do know is that I harbored murderous thoughts, and they, along with anger, sadness and a weird sort of emptiness, are, in part, what drove and fueled and carried me a long way, traveling a path to the future that, even with the depth of my crazy imagination, I never had the self-confidence to allow myself to envision, not really" (p. 6). West's childhood--indeed, his whole personality--was shaped by two negative experiences, one chronic and the other acute but both leaving permanent psychic scars. The chronic experience was continual mental and physical abuse by his father. "When you had a father who beat you, as mine did, for reasons I am still trying to fathom, it is hard to think of yourself as very special, as deserving of acclaim," West writes (p. 12). West never forgave his father and did not even want his father to attend his games. The acute experience was the death of his beloved brother David in the Korean War when Jerry was just 13 years old; Jerry, the fifth of six children, adored David, the third West sibling. Although Jerry did not understand it fully at the time, his mother had a breakdown after David's death and she was never the same again. Neither was Jerry; David was a religious person who planned to be a minister after finishing his military service but Jerry was deeply affected by the randomness and cruelty of the loss of his brother and thus describes his "belief in God" as "a complicated matter" (p. 27).

West's traumatic upbringing and his perfectionistic tendencies enabled him to become one of the greatest basketball players ever--he is literally the embodiment of the NBA, the "Logo" symbolizing the league. His personality is a complicated jumble of contradictions that he struggles to understand and painstakingly tries to explain. He says that "defiant" is his favorite way to describe himself, yet notes that in many ways he is also "fragile." West is bemused by the idea that a basketball player--even a player as transcendently great as he was--can leave a historically significant legacy: "Forget legacies. The legacies that true geniuses leave in this world are the things that can be put on canvas, written on a piece of paper, in a song, or in a speech--creations that will stay there for years" (p. 8); yet, West compares assembling a championship roster to an act of creation much like casting a Broadway play. West wistfully notes that he tried to build a family-like atmosphere around his teams to compensate for what was lacking in his upbringing.

It is interesting to consider a perspective on greatness from someone who achieved greatness in his own field. Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis and Jim Brown are West's three athletic heroes and West reveals that he chose the number 44 because Brown wore 44 at Syracuse. West shares Brown's distaste for Jesse Jackson and West was chagrined when Jackson played the race card after Dan Gilbert blasted LeBron James' now-infamous Decision. West calls Michael Jordan "the greatest, most competitive player to ever play the game" (p. 53).

Although West offers much praise to the athletes who inspired him and many of the players he competed with and against, he stays true to his pledge to not "glorify my accomplishments"; he barely describes the first several years of his career, a period when he averaged at least 27.1 ppg for six straight seasons while becoming a fixture on the All-NBA First Team and finishing in the top five in MVP voting five times, including second place in 1966 behind Wilt Chamberlain. All West says about those years is that the L.A. Lakers' six Finals losses to the Boston Celtics "scarred" him, "scars that remain embedded in my psyche to this day" (p. 84). West freely acknowledges that many people may have no sympathy for such complaints coming from someone who has accomplished so much and who has lived such a successful life but West concludes, "I am saying all this because it is true and it haunts me still." The last of those six losses happened in 1969 as Bill Russell concluded his career by leading the Celtics to their 11th title in 13 seasons. West had 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists in the game seven loss and he received the first annual NBA Finals MVP award; he is still the only player from the losing squad to win that honor but West bitterly says that at the time he felt like sticking a piece of dynamite in the Dodge Charger he won and then just walking away from the game for good. West became obsessed with the idea that he would always be remembered as a loser and he confesses that he became "out of control" in his personal life: "I would lose myself in women, a lot of women, and I was married. I was bad--I did things I consider derelict and predatory, things I am not particularly proud of. If (Joseph) Campbell is right, that the hero at some point sees the dark side of his true, hidden self, the side he's always denied for most of his life, then this was that juncture for me" (p. 86). West is ashamed at how he disrespected his first wife, Jane, and their three sons, David, Michael and Mark; West began seeing Karen Bua--the woman who would become his second wife--while he was still married to Jane and while Bua was a Pepperdine University cheerleader.

West does not like to brag or boast but he admits, "It would be disingenuous of me to say anything other than that my jump shot was sweet and it was quick and it was effective" (p. 65). West developed that unique, deadly weapon from hours of practicing alone on an uneven, rocky outdoor court. He stacked up many honors, awards and accomplishments but says that the Olympic Gold Medal he won in 1960 is his "most cherished possession" (p. 22). West also mentions the biggest "individual" disappointment of his NBA career (as opposed to the collective disappointment from all of those NBA Finals losses): he finished a close second to Willis Reed in the 1970 regular season MVP voting despite leading the league in scoring and ranking fourth in assists. West bluntly declares that he not only thought that he should have won the 1970 MVP but that Walt Frazier--who finished a distant fourth in the voting--was the New York Knicks' best player that year, not Reed. West finished second in regular season MVP balloting four times, never winning the award; Oscar Robertson, West's rival for backcourt supremacy during the 1960s and early 1970s, is the only non-center to win an NBA regular season MVP between 1957 (when Bob Cousy captured the honor) and 1981 (when Julius Erving earned his lone NBA MVP after capturing three ABA MVPs).

Robertson and West will forever be linked together: 1960 Olympic teammates, the first two picks in the 1960 NBA draft and the consensus choices as the NBA's all-time backcourt at least until the emergence of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan in the 1980s. West says that the 6-5, broad-shouldered Robertson was bigger and much more "advanced," though West claims that he is slightly taller than 6-4 (as opposed to the 6-3 or even 6-2 that most sources give as West's official height). West believes that Robertson was far superior to West early in their careers but suggests that at some point he drew even with Robertson and--he tentatively asserts, while admitting that ultimately it is up to others to judge--perhaps even surpassed him eventually. Noting that Tex Winter identified six "alpha males" in NBA history--Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Kobe Bryant--West says that he does not like that phrase and thinks that those six players are not the only ones who have "something innate...that propels you onward and keeps you fighting, no matter what, until the bitter end" but he agrees that he and Winter's other five choices definitely share that rare quality.

The greatest irony of West's career is that after more than a decade of playing at the highest level individually but failing to win a championship he finally obtained the elusive championship ring at a point when his skills had diminished. West was still a potent player in 1971-72--finishing second in MVP balloting--but, much like Kobe Bryant is still an All-NBA First Team performer but no longer quite as dominant as he was circa 2006-2008, the 1972 version of West did not match up with the mid-1960s versions of West, when West says he felt like he was at his peak. Winning the 1972 championship was a relief for West but also disturbing both because of his reduced skills and because injuries had forced his longtime superstar partner Elgin Baylor to retire just nine games into the season; West feels a deep, if often unexpressed, bond with Baylor and he is sorry that he never told Baylor how much he enjoyed playing with him.

Wilt Chamberlain won the 1972 Finals MVP, producing 24 points, 29 rebounds and four assists in the decisive fifth game despite a hairline fracture in his right hand and a sprained left hand. Chamberlain's death in 1999 deeply shook West, who could not believe that such a great athlete died so relatively young (63 at that time and just two years older than West). West says that Chamberlain was even more sensitive than he was, calls Chamberlain one of the loneliest people he ever knew and seriously doubts Chamberlain's infamous claim about 20,000 liaisons.

West writes with great candor about his three year tour as the Lakers' coach, apologizes for being so hard on his players (he mentions Brad Davis and Norm Nixon by name) and admits that, despite his own prowess offensively, he did not know how to coach players at that end of the court or even how to diagram plays; West focused on defense and he leaned heavily on the sound advice of two veteran assistant coaches (Stan Albeck helped West with offense, while Jack McCloskey helped with defense). West's defiance surfaces even amidst his apology, though, and he says that he resents criticism of his coaching based on the belief that West was expecting his players to be like him; West insists that he did not hold his players to an impossibly high standard but that he was merely trying to bring the best out of each one of them so that the team could win as many games as possible.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won the MVP and led the Lakers to the best record in the NBA (53-29) during West's rookie season as head coach (1976-77) but while he was coaching West criticized Abdul-Jabbar for not playing hard enough, something that West regrets now; West says that he just did not understand how easily the game came to Abdul-Jabbar, that he did not fully appreciate how the Lakers' roster did not complement Abdul-Jabbar's skills and that Abdul-Jabbar is not just a student of the game but "a Rhodes scholar." Basketball intelligence is the quality West values most in a player and he says that Abdul-Jabbar has that in abundance.

The 1977 season could have been even better for the Lakers if owner Jack Kent Cooke had followed West's advice to acquire Julius Erving, the three-time ABA MVP who the New York Nets had to sell in order to fulfill their financial obligations in the wake of the NBA-ABA merger. "With Dr. J complementing Kareem, maybe we could have won a championship. Or even more," West laments (p. 159). Abdul-Jabbar and Erving faced each other in the NBA Finals three times in the next six seasons, so to say that they could have formed a powerful duo is an understatement.

The Lakers qualified for the playoffs in each of the next two seasons but both times they lost in the first round of the playoffs and West became increasingly frustrated with the requirements of being a head coach. As he admits, he did not have a good rapport with several of the players and the team's roster was not well balanced to fully maximize Abdul-Jabbar's talents.

After winning just one NBA championship in 14 seasons as a player followed by three seasons as a head coach, West moved to the front office and helped to build two of the signature sports dynasties of the past 30 years: the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s and the Shaq-Kobe Lakers of the early 2000s, teams that combined to win eight championships and make 13 trips to the NBA Finals. West was not the General Manager during all of those seasons (he did not officially receive that title until 1984 and he resigned in 2000 after the first championship of the Shaq-Kobe era) but he played a major role in acquiring much of the talent that won those titles, including Bob McAdoo, James Worthy, Byron Scott, A.C. Green, Mychal Thompson and, of course, both Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.

Few people are more qualified to discuss the inner workings of competition than West and he offers priceless insights about what it is like to thrive at the highest level of the sport; noting that it is simply not possible to always play your best no matter what kind of condition you are in, West writes, "I don't think fans understand that. They expect you to perform at your norm, and if you are really prideful, you want to do it against the best competition. And if you don't, that's when you feel the most disappointed, when you feel you have let everyone down. Every player sets a standard for himself, seeks his own level of play. If Kobe Bryant hits nine of twenty-seven shots, he's criticized for having a terrible night, but the reality is that there may not be another player on the team who is good enough to take twenty-seven shots, or courageous enough to take them even though he is having a bad shooting night" (p. 82). That "supreme confidence," West concludes, is what separates Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson from other players. Of course, West--despite his inner turmoil--had that kind of confidence as well and he proudly notes that his career playoff scoring average was two points higher than his career regular season scoring average, a rare accomplishment among elite scorers.

West made the decision to draft Bryant straight out of high school, a no-brainer in retrospect but hardly an obvious or conventional choice back in 1996 when the track record for players making the preps to pros jump was short and spotty (Moses Malone became an all-time great, Darryl Dawkins became a celebrated dunker but an underachieving player, Bill Willoughby had eight undistinguished NBA seasons and Kevin Garnett was coming off of a rookie season in which he averaged 10.4 ppg and 6.3 rpg). West watched Bryant go one on one against Michael Cooper, a former NBA Defensive Player of the Year who had retired but was still in good shape, and was very impressed: "Never in my life have I seen a workout like that. When I said I had seen enough, I meant it. I knew who he was, and just from looking at his eyes, I knew what he wanted. Even though he was only seventeen years old, Kobe was a once-in-a-lifetime player who could cast his shadow on the franchise for years to come" (p. 172). Many people may not remember that West actually acquired Bryant even before he traded for Shaquille O'Neal; West dealt Vlade Divac, a quality starting center who later became an All-Star, for the rights to the 13th pick in the draft and the opportunity to pick a high school player who West felt may already be better than anyone on the Lakers' roster at the time.

The process of finalizing the O'Neal deal was a nerve-wracking, arduous process for West and things did not get easier once O'Neal joined the team; Bryant was serious-minded but raw, while O'Neal was playful and, at that time, a more polished player. O'Neal and Bryant had good times together--eventually teaming up to lead the Lakers to three straight championships in 2000-02--but they never really meshed personally, much to West's chagrin. West clearly feels affection for both players, saying that he viewed Bryant like a son and would have enjoyed being teammates with the gregarious O'Neal; West was puzzled and disappointed that Bryant declined to be interviewed for West by West.

The Lakers failed to reach the NBA Finals in each of the first three years that O'Neal and Bryant played together and they were swept out of the playoffs in both 1998 and 1999. Neither Del Harris nor Kurt Rambis--two coaches who West greatly respects--had been able to maximize the Lakers' talents, so West sought out the recently retired Phil Jackson. West remembers that Jerry Krause, the Chicago General Manager who famously clashed with Jackson, explicitly told West that Jackson was trouble and that the Lakers should not hire him but West felt like he could deal with Jackson's ego and his penchant for mind games. West tried to make the Lakers like a family--perhaps to replace the family life he never had as a child--but he and Jackson never clicked. West resented that Jackson never stopped by West's office to talk with West and he bluntly says that Jackson "had absolutely no respect for me--of that, I have no doubt" (p. 180). Jackson infamously kicked West out of the locker room after a game, something that Jackson lamely tried to justify by saying that he did not realize it was West he had screamed at (Jackson kept the locker room closed for a short time after each game so that he could speak with the players alone). West says that Jackson yelled at him by name and that Tex Winter, Mitch Kupchak and Bill Bertka each corroborate West's recollection. West claims that he never set foot in the locker room again. Jackson coached the Lakers to the 2000 championship and West left the organization after that season. West says that there was not one single factor precipitating his departure but that he left because he no longer enjoyed the job and was worried about his mental and physical health. West also had a falling out with owner Jerry Buss because West resented that Buss felt that West took too much credit for building the Lakers; the idea that West would try to diminish the roles played by Bill Sharman (his former coach--his favorite coach--and his predecessor as GM), Pat Riley or anyone else deeply offended the sensitive West. Neither Buss nor West appeared at the press conference announcing West's resignation.

West does not take sides in the infamous O'Neal-Bryant feud and West is one of the few people--if not the only person--who is on good terms with both of them, so his remarks about both players must be taken very seriously due to West's objectivity combined with West's personal access to both men during that time period. Both West and his successor Mitch Kupchak acknowledge that West, an all-time great player, could relate to O'Neal and Bryant in a way that Kupchak, a solid role player on two championship teams during a nine year NBA career, could not. West believes that if he had stayed with the Lakers he would have been able to counsel O'Neal against publicly antagonizing Buss regarding a contract extension; O'Neal's brazen public comments toward Buss--combined with O'Neal's less than stellar work ethic (best exemplified by O'Neal's recovery "on company time" from a surgical procedure that should have taken place in the offseason)--resulted in Buss trading O'Neal to the Miami Heat. As for Bryant's Colorado entanglement, West says simply, "I am not naive about things like this, but to this day I feel he was set up" (p. 198), a logical conclusion considering that many legal experts outside of the state wondered why charges were even brought against Bryant in light of how flimsy the prosecution's case was.

West says that his advice to both players when they were sniping at each other in the press would have been, "Hey, this does not make either of you look good" and that they should both focus on how this controversy could affect their futures. West comments, "Players of that magnitude have to be praised, and they cannot be pitted against each other. They have to be financially rewarded. That has to be in place. The owner, the coach, and the GM all have to be in full agreement about how the press is going to be dealt with. As much as possible, this kind of thing has to be handled behind closed doors" (p. 198). West notes that Jackson would talk publicly about the Lakers being O'Neal's team but then join Bryant in criticizing O'Neal for being out of shape. "Phil likes to needle people...but with two strong personalities like Kobe and Shaquille, I am not sure that was the best approach" (p. 199). West concludes that Bryant is a lot more forgiving than he would be regarding Jackson and that West would never play for a coach who blasted him the way that Jackson blasted Bryant in The Last Season (Jackson later said that this book was a diary of the season and that his remarks reflected his frustration at particular moments but not his overall feelings about Bryant, an explanation that Bryant apparently accepted since they went on to win two more titles together).

Chapter 12, "Dream Game," is a lyrical description of the ultimate basketball game featuring the greatest players of all-time in their prime. West sets the stage and makes the rules, including "an assist will be credited only as a result of a pass that leads directly to a basket," a change that I have consistently advocated. You'll have to buy the book to learn the outcome but West's "Dream Game" scenario is quite detailed and wide-ranging, with Monet and Picasso stationed courtside making sketches of the action, which West describes as "Basketball as a perfectly choreographed ballet," an analogy that I employed in a short story many years ago.

Near the end of West by West, a four page chapter titled "What My Body Says" chronicles the staggering number of injuries that West endured from 1964 (his fourth NBA season) until he retired from the NBA in 1974; West does not have complete medical records from prior to 1964 and he states that his major injuries before that time consisted of a severe hamstring pull during the 1962-63 season and "many, many sprained ankles." West broke his nose twice during his collegiate career and seven more times as an NBA player. West believes that improvements in playing surfaces and training methods have made hamstring pulls much less common than they were during his era. West's catalog of woe consists of 64 separate entries, starting with "1/27/64 Fracture of right thumb, splinted." and concluding with "11/13/73 Left groin strain (rectus abdominis muscle), treated with several injections, different anti-inflammatory medications. Missed about 6 wks. of playing during this period." and "2/6/74 Left groin aggravation again."

The darkest and most disturbing parts of the book relate to the inner demons and torments that West has struggled with his whole life. West fights against depression, against feeling "hopeless" and "lost," knowing all the while that "the real enemy is myself." West mentions Ernest Hemingway's suicide and comments, "People say it's the coward's way out. I say just the opposite" (p. 210). Deep down, West feels that in some way he hates himself and that no amount of success has been able to cure this self-loathing. West tried therapy but he concluded that the therapists did not understand him and "in some respects they were sicker than I was." West recalls that once he even met with UCLA's legendary Coach John Wooden to see if Wooden could give him any advice to get over or get past the losses to the Celtics that still haunt West; Wooden told West that West did not take all of the credit for the Lakers' wins and thus he also should not feel obligated to accept all of the blame for their losses. West knows that Wooden is right but at some level he cannot fully accept or be comforted by what Wooden told him.

West says that his frequent descents into darkness are "an intriguing battle." William Styron's Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness made a deep impression on West; he read it while writing West by West and he quotes from it several times, including this poignant passage: "The pain [of depression] is unrelenting, and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come--not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute. If there is mild relief, one knows that it is only temporary; more pain will follow."

Basketball took a mental and physical toll on West but, as he is the first to admit, it also saved him and provided a great life for him, a life that would have been almost unimaginable to a skinny boy growing up in a small West Virginia town in the 1940s and 1950s. West by West provides a gripping look inside the mind and soul of one of the greatest and most compelling athletes in American history.


Further Reading About Jerry West

The Pantheon: An Examination of Basketball Greatness, Part III (profiles of Jerry West, Julius Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar)

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

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

Gary Smith on Jerry West and Prometheus

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:20 PM



At Thursday, November 03, 2011 11:53:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Aye, I haven't read the entire book, but one thing struck me odd:

In the part where Jerry West talks about having a feel for the game and how a play will develop before it does. He mentioned other players who had the same sense of feel, unsurprisingly: Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell.....

And Wilt Chamberlain. Surprise, surprise.

You never heard of this from anyone else anywhere else. I thought he was some mutant Lebron James or something?

At Friday, November 04, 2011 12:49:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Chamberlain was the main cog on two of the most successful single season teams in NBA history ('67 76ers, '72 Lakers) and he is the only center to ever lead the league in assists so it should not be surprising that West says that Chamberlain had a good feel for the game.

At Friday, November 04, 2011 3:19:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

Wilt's the most dominant player of all time. Why would it be a surprise that he had a feel for the game? It's unfortunate that many elevate russell over wilt. Wilt absolutely destroyed russell head to head. Even the late Wooden mentioned how obvious it would be that Wilt would've won at least as many titles as Russell if Wilt played on all those stacked boston teams and with auerbach his entire career. And Auerbach tried very hard to draft Wilt as well.

At Friday, November 04, 2011 10:10:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

I don't have it with me right now but on hoopshype.com Charley Rosen attacks Jerry West's claims about Phil Jackson in the book. Have u read that and if so what do u make of it?

Is Rosen just Phil Jackson's sockpuppet or something?

At Saturday, November 05, 2011 4:13:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Chamberlain is underrated in some quarters because Russell won so many rings and in other quarters because the "stat gurus" have "adjusted" Chamberlain's numbers based on "pace," thereby suggesting that Chamberlain's 50 ppg season is really equivalent to something less than that.

I have talked to a lot of players who say that if you switched the supporting casts then Chamberlain would have had the 11 rings instead of Russell, though some people make the argument that Russell had something to do with augmenting the productivity of his teammates. Russell says that he took a burden off of his teammates by telling them to do what they did well and let him take care of the rebounding/shotblocking.

At Saturday, November 05, 2011 4:16:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I would not call Rosen a "sockpuppet" but, by his own admission, he is a close friend of Jackson's. Rosen can be a very good analyst but on certain subjects he displays a blatant bias and I think that Jackson versus West is one of those subjects. I'm sure that there are two legitimate sides to whatever happened between them in L.A. but I find West's version more credible than Rosen's attempt to ghostwrite Jackson's version of events.


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