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West's book pulls no punches

On Sports
by: Jerry West

'West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life,' is not so much an autobiography as a confessional.

Jerry West bares his soul in the book recently released (Little, Brown and Co.). And if I tell you it's a good read, I'm not doing it justice.

At 73, the Hall of Fame basketball legend reveals the inner demons that have left him feeling both cursed and blessed in his time on the planet.

As he looks back at a wildly successful life, West describes himself as a 'tormented, defiant figure who carries an angry, emotional chip on his shoulder and has a hole in his heart that nothing can ultimately fill.'

That's pretty heavy stuff, but West pulls no punches.

'It's a very honest book,' the man whose silhouette serves as the NBA's logo told me in an interview last weekend.

Boy, is it.

It's a stream-of-consciousness piece of work, bouncing from time to time and subject to subject, including his rather unhappy childhood as the fifth of six children of Howard and Cecile West in backwoods Chelyan, W.Va.

He offers a glimpse of those early years, when he enjoyed solo hikes in the Alleghenies with his Daisy Red Ryder BB gun, and later a Remington shotgun, in tow. Of shooting baskets on a makeshift hoop in a neighbor's dirt yard. Of leading the East Bank High Pioneers to the state championship in 1956.

The dark times, though, tell the overriding story. Howard - for 27 years a machine operator for an oil company - was and continues to be the bane of Jerry's existence, long after the father's death.

The senior West was physically abusive to all in the household, particularly Jerry. It left him scarred for life.

'I'd go into my room after being beaten - not hit, but beaten - and I remember just sitting there, filled with every disgusting thought, hating the mere sight of him,' West writes.

Finally, after one beating, West pulled out a gun and challenged his father: 'If you ever do this again, something ugly is going to happen.'

'I had a fear of going home,' West writes, 'and when you're little, it's a helpless feeling.'

The bitter relationship with his father left West less than affectionate with his own five sons, which sadly remains the case today.

'There's a barrier there,' he writes, 'that I seem unable to remove.'

(Though I should say, I'll wager his kids love him dearly, and he them.)

The other childhood tragedy that left an indelible mark was the death of his older brother, David, in the Korean War at age 21. Jerry idolized David - who had plans to become a Methodist minister - and often wondered why he wasn't the one to die far too young. The impact on the family was enormous.

'My mother was never the same after David's death,' West writes.

West's solace as a boy, as you might guess, was spending hour upon hour shooting baskets or playing the game. He describes his affinity for basketball as 'an addiction,' with an unhealthy win-at-all-costs mentality that brought him to some of the greatest heights in the sport's history, yet left him feeling unfulfilled.

West led West Virginia to the 1959 NCAA finals, losing by a point to California (he was the tournament's most valuable player). He won one NBA championship as a player with the Lakers but lost six times to Boston in the finals, including 1969, when he won the finals MVP award - the only member of a losing team ever to be so honored. The prize was a Dodge Charger, and 'I felt like putting a stick of dynamite in it and blowing it up.'

'Not only do I not think of myself as a hero,' he writes, 'I actually think of myself as someone who had come in second more times than he cared to remember, who was a prince far more often than a king.'

I don't want to give the impression that the book focuses entirely on West's depression. Though there is little play-by-play or self-gloating about his enormous accomplishments, he modestly covers his ascension from small-town star to professional superstar to big-time executive with just the right touch of accuracy and sentimentality.

I've interviewed West a few times over the years and found him accommodating, revealing and eminently likable. Though I'm doubtful he recognized the name when I left a voice message, he returned my call within a day - not because an interview would help him sell the book, I'm sure, but because he is a decent sort who felt it was the right thing to do.

When I asked him what convinced him to sit down with Jonathan Coleman and write the book - a project that took three years to complete - the answer was basically to set the record straight.

'People want to praise athletes for a lot of different things,' he said. 'I have had some wonderful things said about me, and some personal, ugly things said about me that are less than who I am.

'I always felt there was a balance. I never once believed I was as good as people thought I was, or that I was something other than what I was.'

Since the book was published, West told me, 'I've received letters and notes and telephone calls from people thanking me for writing a book like this. They said it will help me cope with their own situations. I hoped it would be a book that would (emphasize) that you can live a productive life, even though you have crazy stuff inside that never seems to go away.'

While West is a learned man, a voracious reader and a bit of a Renaissance man, basketball is at the core of his being. It has caused him, at once, great joy and great pain.

'So much of my angst was caused by basketball,' he said. 'And that's the only thing in my life I have had some success at.

'I didn't want this book to be pointing fingers or be critical. Reliving these things hasn't been very pleasurable at some times. But maybe it will help people live through some awkward times and, at the same time, understand this was my life.'

West walked away from the Lakers front office after the team won the 2000 NBA championship. At the time, there was simply no more to give. He didn't attend Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference finals game between the Lakers and Blazers, because he couldn't bear to watch.

'It was ridiculous what I was doing,' he told me. 'I was getting no joy out of it. My relationship with (Laker owner) Jerry Buss, for instance, was incredible. He was so encouraging to me, somebody really special in my life. But it got to the point where it wasn't right for (the Lakers) and it was terrible for me.

'It's just who I am. The only thing I care about is winning. When you put so much of yourself into it, sooner or later you're going to burn out. It was unhealthy for me, and unhealthy for the Lakers. I became so obsessed with trying to be perfect, to have perfect teams, to have players everyone would respect. It was a sickness to some degree.'

West later spent five years as president/general manager of the Memphis Grizzlies - a move endorsed by his second wife, Karen, as a better place to raise their two children. He left that franchise in a much better situation than when he arrived, but seems to reflect more on the failures than the successes.

I asked West if writing the book has been cathartic for him.

'Sometimes it has been,' he said, 'and sometimes not. In the last week or so, I started thinking again about my relationship with my father. Thinking about the things I'd have wanted to ask him. 'Why me? What did I do wrong?'

'It's a part of an insecurity that I'm not very proud of. And really, I'm not a victim. I learned so much growing up about how to be responsible, and to have a big imagination.'

After last season ended, West accepted a position as advisor and member of the executive board with the Golden State Warriors. He will continue to live in Los Angeles, but will offer his wealth of knowledge and experience as a talent evaluator - 'I don't want to step on anyone's toes,' he said - as well as provide guidance for the club's business model.

'They need to build a better corporate base to allow them more financial freedom,' he said. 'These are very bright people. I've already learned a lot by being around them.

'It's going to be fun. Hopefully I can help make a little difference.'

West makes this observation:

'I'd rather have had the career I did than have the peace of mind. I couldn't have had both. I'll take the trade. At times I felt special.'

In the years he has left, here's hoping he'll dwell more on the charm than the torment.