Jerry West: The Life and Legend of a Basketball Icon
Reviewing Roland Lazenby’s latest work.
by Todd Spehr
Often, the most fascinating thing about a genius isn’t in their accomplishments, or in their greatness. Instead, it comes from their “quirkiness,” their uncommon behavior or distinct personality traits, ones that separate them, make them unusual, and usually serve as the source of inspiration for the heights they scale.
Jerry West, as painted by Roland Lazenby in the recently released Jerry West: The Life and Legend of a Basketball Icon, was a classic case. Driven by a zany, inherited perfectionism – we’re talking, like, The Logo never met satisfaction in anything – and an anger that bore from his brother’s tragic death in the Korean War, West was as much tortured by himself, by fate, as he was happy from being awfully gifted, first as a player and then as a general manager.
Lazenby, the longtime basketball documenter, pieced together the extensive and long-awaited West story; it’s the first such biography on the legend in more than 40 years (how did that happen?), written with the understanding that in order to comprehend West, you must first comprehend West Virginia. A decent portion of Lazenby’s book is devoted to not only West’s home state but his family background. It was a family that was not unlike most others, one with division and dissent, that endured poverty and tragedy.
The book, while written with more than a touch of admiration, certainly doesn’t tip-toe around the man’s true personality. Judging from a sample of the chapter titles – “The Heartbreak”… “The Horror”… “Misery” – you could’ve sworn West was the feature player in major crime or tragic love story. Disappointment and nonfulfillment became so ingrained that he once called a painful loss “The Lord’s will.”
West was a self-described “solitary person,” someone who gravitated, especially as a youth, to activities where he could be alone. Basketball, a game that can be mastered by ones lonesome, provided something deeper. It was a way to simultaneously release a build-up of anger, bring the serenity and peace of being alone, and provide the ideal outlet for an unusual amount of nervous energy. West had his insecurities; just bring up Oscar Robertson and West will give you a detailed list of how and why Robertson was a better player. Such is his way. And yes, as has been well documented, he was a perfectionist. Finding flaws in a 40-point night was too easy for West, as he would just find something wrong with the rest of his game. Good enough was never enough. Immortal wasn’t even enough.
The nature of the disappointments, ones that left him feeling mocked by circumstance, were of a sickening nature: West had, as Lazenby notes in the book via the legendary Frank Deford, fallen a total of 10 points shy from owning one NCAA title and four NBA titles. You would think Jerry West – Jerry West – could’ve found 10 points somewhere, anywhere. And thus, he was a tortured soul.
Rarely has a man of his esteem felt so bad about himself. And for as weird as that sounds, and even weirder for mere mortals like us to grasp, Lazenby does an excellent job of finding the essence of West. This was someone who was not just crushed by defeat, but eaten by it; there are parts of career that he has literally forgotten. West may have hated the Celtics, and hated the green, and hated what they (repeatedly) did to him, but he also longed for their chemistry, for their sense of team and winning — a sense that was built on many contributors, not just two as the Lakers were, in West and Elgin Baylor.
Like other easily provoked legends of this sport, West found inspiration and motivation in unlikely places. Come off the bench as a rookie? Resent your coach and become great. Hear/imagine a trade rumor? Become the best guard of your era. Have an owner who doesn’t want to renegotiate an already awful contract? Play your ass off in a meaningless preseason game, prove your point, and quit the next day. Jerry West may have been driven by some form of insanity, but gosh darn it, it took him to exceedingly high places. And despite losing more than the most maligned of them all, Wilt Chamberlain, West was endeared, loved by everyone for who he was like so few others have been before or since. Opposing players openly told him they loved him, that they wished he could find happiness, and there was a deep admiration for him that existed. When West finally found that coveted title in 1972, the world exhaled.
Lazenby managed to make sense of this complex man, chronicling his descent from the game, a dabble in golf, his brief foray into coaching, and then his tenure as a general manager, where West eventually found what he most craved: Not happiness, but consistent team success. The lonely man was finally the loneliest number, 1. West’s career and life deserved a book like this. It’s highly recommended.