Reviewed by Rene A. Henry
Not so with basketball superstar Jerry West. In “West by West – My Charmed, Tormented Life” ( Little, Brown and Company, 352 pages, $27.99) he tells it all – the good, the bad and the ugly. As I was reading the book, I thought of myself as a therapist listening to him talk and taking notes.
West tells the reader how troubled he was as a young child and how he was abused physically and mentally by his father. He writes that he was never respected for his accomplishments or whatever he did growing up. When he was only 13 years old, his older brother David was killed in action in Korea and his death has always depressed him. West grew up in Chelyan, West Virginia, a “holler” away from Cabin Creek, and 14 miles from the state’s capital of Charleston. He describes this post-depression era as a “hardscrabble world.”
He writes about his anger, emotions, anxiety, lack of patience and his intense drive for perfection. He says his worst personal trait is expecting everyone to care as much as he does about everything. To me, this is a positive and could well be attributed to his success as a player, coach, executive and human being. West is typical of so many with deep roots in West Virginia and is the epitome of ethics, integrity and trust.
“West by West” is a must read and will be motivational and inspirational for any athlete. It also a must read for any coach or executive or sports administrator who should copy West’s management style as a model for success. In victory, he has always given the credit to his teammates and colleagues. Following a loss, he blames himself and takes individual responsibility.
While West does not say so, the reader will quickly learn that he has made a significant difference wherever he has played, coached and been an executive. Tony Barone, director of player personnel for the Memphis Grizzlies, worked with West for six years. “His whole approach to the game was being involved in everything that happened every day, but he never meddled with either the players or coaches,” Barone says. “He was a tireless worker and his management style made everyone in the Grizzlies’ organization feel they were a part of all decisions. He was intense and had little patience for people who did not to their best.
“When he hired Hubie Brown as coach he changed the culture of the Grizzlies,” Barone adds. “His critics took him to task for hiring Brown, a Hall of Fame coach, but he was just what the organization needed to build a winning program.”
“Jerry’s drive and passion for basketball is second to none,” says Bill Bertka, who was a Lakers assistant coach when West was a player and returned in 1981 when he was general manager. “One of his greatest gifts is his incredible instinct to recognize talent. He can just look at the way a player moves, walks and carries himself, bounces the ball and shoots whether or not he can play. We are too statistically oriented today in the way we evaluate players.”
Bertka says West was the architect of the greatest fast break team to ever play basketball. “Every player on the Lakers was perfect for his position. From 1981 through 1990, Pat Riley was the coach and the Lakers were Western Conference Champions for seven straight years and won four NBA championships. The highlight was in 1985 when we beat the Celtics in six games and celebrated the win at Boston Gardens. It broke a string of nine straight Boston wins over the Lakers in the championship finals.”
Hot Rod Hundley, who preceded West as an All-American at West Virginia University, knows first hand about the Celtics’ nightmares. He and West were Lakers teammates for three years and also when Boston won the seventh games for the championships in both 1962 and 1963. Hundley says West really knew how to run the fast break. “He was the very best at making it a three-point play by driving for the layup, getting fouled and adding the third point. Jerry also knew when the fast break was stopped and when to go into a set half court offense. Too many players today force the drive and the team ends up not scoring. He was one of the greatest players in the game the minute he walked on the court and is one of the most respected men in sports.”
Another former WVU teammate, Joedy Gardner, played two seasons with Hundley and one with West. “Jerry was quiet, a very private person and almost an introvert,” recalls Gardner, who was co-captain and point guard on the 1957-1958 team that had a final season ranking of #1 in the U.S. “Rod would talk about the personal troubles he experienced growing up but Jerry never talked about any of his problems. They all lived together in the same boarding house owned by Ann Dinardi, a Morgantownpharmacist and surrogate mother to many WVU athletes.
“Jerry’s actions on the court spoke much louder than any words,” Gardner adds. “Two of our greatest wins in school history were in the Kentucky Invitational in December 1957. Just before halftime against Kentucky, he broke his nose. He came back in the second half and almost single handedly beat Kentucky. We won 77-70 and the next night beat North Carolina 75-64 for the championship. Most people consider that the greatest team in Mountaineer history.”
“This is not the gee-whiz autobiography you would expect from a sports superstar,” says Edgar O. “Eddie” Barrett, who was the sports information director during West’s four years at WVU. “From the very beginning, I could see he was a perfectionist at whatever he did. As great a scorer and offensive player as he was, Coach Fred Schaus rated him even better on defense,” adds Barrett, who later was director of athletics from 1967-70 at Marshall University.
“Jerry quickly made his national presence known as a sophomore in January 1958 when we beat Villanova76-75 at The Palestra in front of the nation’s leading sportswriters who were covering the annual conference in Philadelphia of the college football coaches, who also were at the game,” said Barrett. A month later after we beat St. John’s 87-78 in Madison Square Garden, Milt Gross of The New York Post told me ‘West’s as good a basketball player I’ve ever seen.’ He was soon to be everybody’s All-American.”
Basketball fans will want to read the book if for nothing other than his fantasy dream description of what he believes would be the perfect basketball game. He not only lists his dream team and the coaches, but singles out the celebrities and VIPs attending, and details his vision of the pre-game excitement and all of the important action throughout the game. With seconds left and the score tied, he takes a shot which is in the air as the buzzer sounds. He leaves it to the reader to decide whether or not he scores.
The legendary Chick Hearn, who broadcast 3,338 consecutive Lakers games, gave West the nickname of “Mr. Clutch.” West is the logo for the National Basketball Association. Time and again he played with all types of injuries including nine broken noses, severe hamstring pulls and sprained ankles. He is the third all-time scorer in NBA history and would have even more records if basketball had a three-point shot when he played.
He is a voracious reader and often draws quotes other authors to explain his philosophy and life. He and his co-author, Jonathan Coleman, repeat some paragraphs several times throughout the book and it must have been to emphasize and re-emphasize these points. Several times he mentions is his love of the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. Of all the honors bestowed on him, he says he cherishes most the gold medal and uniform from the Games.
I first met Jerry in 1956 when I was responsible for media relations for the 1956 West Virginia state high school basketball tournament. He averaged 42 points a game to lead East Bank to the championship. I saw every home game during the Lakers 33-game win streak in 1971-72. I saw him make the 63 foot shot against the New York Knicks in the third game of the 1969 NBA finals. Our sons played on a championship Biddy Basketball team at the Santa Monica Y. I hired him to be a spokesman for a client. He was the star of “how to” basketball films that I produced on the jump shot and individual defensive skills that also featured Hot Rod Hundley and Pat Riley. Having left West Virginia University in 1956, I regret I was not his sports information director, but I am pleased to have been part of the team that recruited him to be a Mountaineer, and most of all for our longtime friendship.
Some of Jerry’s close friends say they have no intention of reading the book because they don’t want to read anything negative about him. The book brought back some wonderful memories for me and I’m quickly forgetting and putting aside all of the negatives and enjoying only the very best about him. He is a champion among champions.
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