BY MARC VELASQUEZ
Author: Jerry West
2011, Little, Brown and Co.
Filed Under: Memoir, Nonfiction
As a player, Jerry West won an Olympic gold medal and an NBA championship.He scored more points than any Laker not named Kobe Bryant ever has, and is in the Basketball Hall of Fame. As an executive, he put together the “Showtime” Lakers of the 80s, traded for Shaq and Kobe in the 90s, and turned the lowly Memphis Grizzlies into a playoff team in the 00s. He has been immortalized as a bronze statue in both Morgantown, WV (where he played in college) and Los Angeles. His silhouette became the NBA logo.
Despite this long, illustrious, and successful career, West is so emotionally crippled by loss that his autobiography, West by West, reads as if Glass Joe wrote it.
Truthfully, that’s a good thing. I can’t think of a sports autobiography more candid, more soul searching, or better written.
Autobiographies by former athletes usually contain some type of big (or maybe not so big) reveal. Jose Canseco admitted to using steroids, Pete Rose to betting on baseball, Andre Agassi to smoking meth, and Wilt Chamberlain to sleeping with 20,000 women. As such, West by West follows suit. Jerry West suffers from severe depression.
However most athlete revelations come across as hollow confessions. These confessions may be emotionally charged, but often they’re dealt with swiftly and tucked neatly between pages and pages of chest-thumping braggadocio. And this is where West’s book differs from other athlete authors: he doesn’t try to hide his admission among his career stats. Instead, West allows his depression to consume his book, much as it has consumed him since his childhood.
Take, for instance this conversation West recalls having with the widow of his friend and legendary Lakers announcer Chick Hearn:
“Chick never stopped talking about the time you hit that sixty-three-foot shot against the Knicks I the 1970 Finals.”
“Yeah, nobody does,” I said, “and that’s the problem. What they don’t talk about is that the shot only tied the score and that we lost in overtime, and we lost the series. There was no three-point line back then.”
Enough time has passed from the 1970 finals that most aficionados remember West’s buzzer beater for what it was—a no-doubt, 63-foot dagger that everyone knew would drop. Some even recognize it as the single best shot in the game’s history. Yet West hates talking about it; one gets the impression that he is ashamed it is part of his past. Should you corner him on the street and ask him about, not only will he remind you that the Lakers lost the game and the series, but he will probably remind you that he lost 8 of the 9 NBA championships in which he played, including 6 to the Boston Celtics in the 60s.
I was impressed by the amount West was willing to delve into the emotional root of his trouble instead of simply narrating his turbulent past. As such, West by West has a much deeper, much more philosophical core, which in turn results in a much more rewarding experience for the reader. I can’t think of another sports memoir like it.
That’s not to say that West doesn’t gloss over some of his faults. He mentions his marital infidelity and the deterioration of his first marriage almost matter-of-factly. His temper—which routinely pushes him to threaten to resign—is swept under the rug of, “that’s just the way I am.” And in a less candid memoir, those omissions would be alarming, but here, they are a non-issue.
In another deft choice, West allowed his co-writer, Jonathan Coleman, to separately interview key figures in West’s life. And while I assume West had final say in which parts of these interview to incorporate, the interviews help to cement the image West portrays of himself.
Some believe that the NBA chose Jerry West’s silhouette to be the symbol of the league because they wanted future basketball players to play the way West did. While I’m not sure about them emulating his playing style, I do know that if they decide to write a memoir, they would be wise to follow West’s example.
Similar Reads: A Sense of Where You Are by John McPhee is the greatest book about a man who happens to be a basketball player ever written. For a good, typical sports memoir try Ronnie Lott’s Total Impact or Mickey Mantel’s The Mick.
[A review copy was provided.]