Q+A: Jerry West


by Irv Soonachan

Due to his advanced age, Jerry West likes to describe himself as being in “God’s waiting room.” But he doesn’t act like it. West glides around the hallways of Oracle Arena with the easy grace of someone not far removed from being one of the greatest basketball players ever. He remembers people’s names—from security personnel to office staff—stops to chat, and visibly enjoys the camaraderie.

West has stayed busy, too. In October 2011 he published his autobiography, West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, which details his history as an abused child and the effect it had on his life, career and seemingly inexhaustible competitive drive. A month later, despite his incredible success as a player and executive for the archrival Lakers, he joined the Golden State Warriors as a member of the team’s executive board, taking an active role in helping the perennial bottom-dweller change its culture. Though not involved in day-to-day management, he has been visible at practices, helps evaluate talent for the Draft, and team sources say his voice is heard behind closed doors regarding major personnel moves.

West, who turns 76 in May, dislikes feeling confined, so he met with SLAM in the Warriors’ spacious press conference room while the team prepared for Monday night’s game against Minnesota. Even while sitting in a distractingly empty space, the ever-intense West never broke eye contact.

SLAM: As you watch NBA games today, how do you feel about the product on the court? It has changed a lot since you started.

Jerry West: It has changed a lot and I think that expansion has changed the game because there are not as many players who can play at this level. I think sometimes we have so many young kids in the League that it takes a while for them to get going. I don’t think the quality of play is where the League would like it. I know the teams that are losing don’t like it. I would say there’s not quite enough experienced talent around.

The other thing is, I think coaches have changed the game. People value the three-point line so much. You see shots taken, particularly when there’s a lot of time left on the shot clock, that I don’t think should be taken. I don’t think they’re good shots because it jeopardizes your defense when you take a quick shot from the corner and teams run out against you. But it’s fun and creates fan interest. I know here in Golden State we have two guys in the backcourt who can really give our fans fun evenings with their shooting ability. But at the end of the day this is all about winning.

I worked in Los Angeles with an owner who wanted the team to win, but he thought basketball was entertainment. I’m talking about Jerry Buss. He did a lot of things to create a different kind of atmosphere that are very much in prominence in the NBA today. Making it not just a sporting event, but also an entertainment event. We see that a lot in arenas today.

SLAM: As somebody who built championship teams, how do you feel about where the Warriors are in their development?

JW: We have a very good team. We’ve had some crazy injuries that have detracted from us getting to where we want to be. You don’t want to limp into the Playoffs. It’s been a good year but I think all of us would have liked it to be better. We have a respectable team, a team that can get better, and a team that needs to take another quantum step in terms of playing at a higher level every night. We’ve seen that our effort is usually fantastic against the good teams. Against teams you would think we have a reasonably good chance to beat, sometimes you shake your head and say, “We didn’t come to play tonight.” Frankly, that’s on the players. This is a profession. You get paid an awful lot of money to do it, and coaches can’t deliver some kind of speech every night. It’s on the players.

SLAM: How did you get through that regular-season grind for 14 years as a player?

JW: Playing the game was the easy part for me. I loved the competition, I didn’t like to lose, don’t like to lose today, don’t want to be associated with losing to be honest with you, and it was just something that was easy for me. I was extremely competitive.

SLAM: Steph Curry plays the game differently than anybody I can think of. Is there a template for a player like that?

JW: He’s unique in a lot of ways, and he kind of reminds me a little bit of a smaller Kevin Durant. He’s so much fun to watch. There are three or four players in the League I’d pay to see play, and he is one of them. The other thing I don’t think people realize is what a great competitor he is. He was also raised really well by his parents; he’s very grounded. He’s a pleasure to be around.

SLAM: Your competitive drive and the effect it’s had on your health are well documented, such as your hospital stay after the Lakers signed Shaq. How are you balancing your competitive edge after joining the Warriors in your 70s?

JW: If I were handling the day-to-day thing here, with the way this year is going and some of the games we’ve lost, I’d probably be in the hospital again, to be honest with you. I don’t like to lose. Before the season starts you look at your team and say, “How many games can we win?” To me that is kind of a checks and balances system for executives and you’re basing that estimate on reasonably good health. I thought we’d win a few more games this year. Our team missed a lot of games, particularly our starters.

If we have a bad loss, I still don’t sleep. It drives me crazy to this day because you see one or two little plays that are made in the course of a game that you wish could be undone. It’s a fast game, but in the heart of the game, great players make plays that win games for you. More importantly, they make the right plays, and at times we don’t do that.

SLAM: It’s been over two years since your book came out. When you look back, how did it change your life?

JW: It didn’t really change my life. That book is about who I was, not some figment of someone’s imagination. I’ve always been very candid about myself, my frailties and my battles with depression. I’ve always been very candid about that, and those things will probably never go away.

SLAM: Do people react differently to you now that you’ve shared so much of your life through your book?

JW: I got an awful lot of letters from people who saw life like I saw it. I don’t try to hide things about myself, but I’m much more reclusive than I used to be. That being said I do love people, particularly people that are grounded and polite, and I don’t like narcissistic people very much.

SLAM: If you could go back and have a conversation with the 16-year-old Jerry West, what would you tell him?

JW: Not knowing where my life was headed, I’d probably say this: Find something you love to do and do that, and take your mind off of things that don’t make you feel very good. Concentrate on things that do make you feel good. To some extent, because I was a loner as a kid I was able to do that. Being outdoors, fishing by myself, playing basketball and using my imagination were a tremendous plus for me when I was growing up.

SLAM: What would you still like to accomplish in your life?

JW: You know, I really don’t know. The thing I enjoy most is trying to help younger people fulfill their dreams. I also like charitable things, helping the less fortunate. Things that are much more related to giving back.

SLAM: I asked a bunch of people about you and one of the things everybody said was that you have a ribald sense of humor. Is that true?

JW: I can be funny, yeah. You’d never know unless we’re in the proper environment. I enjoy people; a lot of times you have fun by kidding people, but you want them to do the same with you. Sometimes people are…I wouldn’t say intimidated, but sometimes they think things are going to offend me. They’re not going to offend me. I feel more relaxed when people get on my fanny and I’m able to retaliate. I enjoy having fun with the people I like. It’s almost like being in the locker room, you know? You sit in the locker room, and in practices, and guys are kidding each other and having a good time. Those are things I still remember.