West By West

Jerry West wrote West by West with author Jonathan Coleman and the book was published in 2011. The subtitle of the book is “My Charmed, Tormented Life”. And this one is well chosen. West is one of the most successful people of all time when it comes to basketball. He was successful in high school and college, winning an Olympic gold medal before moving to the NBA, and NBA titles as a player and general manager. He helped to build several title teams. And yet, there is another side, as indicated by the “Tormented” in the subtitle.

Jerry West - West by West

This biography is one of the most honest and personal I’ve read. West describes his difficult childhood in West Virginia. His father was violent towards him and West kept a loaded shotgun in his room even as a child so he could use it to protect himself against his own father in extreme cases. His role model and ally was his older brother David. David West was killed in the Korean War when Jerry was 13 years old. The loss of his brother and the difficult and violent relationship with his father were the beginning of a decades-long depression that continues to recur and is his constant companion to this day (or at least until the time of this book’s publication).

What gave Jerry West strength as a child and teenager was basketball. He practiced and shot hoops for hours. In the process, he imagined game situations and opponents, playing against his own imagination so to speak. His talent was evident early on. He led his high school to a state championship and then stayed in his home state to attend college. Here he and his team reached the NCAA finals, where they narrowly lost to California by one point. Before moving to the NBA, he went to the Olympics in Rome with the U.S. team and won the gold medal there alongside his future NBA rival Oscar Robertson. That success probably means the most to him to this day, if I interpret his book correctly. The gold medal and his jersey from back then survived a fire and seem to be more or less the only memories of his basketball days that are really important to him.

In his private life, Jerry West’s relationship with his father and the early death of his brother have never left him. In basketball, it’s the losses to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. West, Elgin Baylor and the Lakers met Bill Russell and the Celtics six times in the Finals and lost all six games, sometimes in dramatic fashion. Legendary to this day are the 1969 Finals, Bill Russell’s final season. The Lakers lost in Game 7 by a two-point difference despite West’s triple double. West remains to this day the only player to be named Finals MVP as the player of the game who was defeated. An award that means nothing to him. He also describes in West by West how he won a car after the Finals series as the Finals MVP winner. The car was Celtics green. That probably did little to ease the trauma. He never got over the losses to the Cetlics and to this day wonders if he could have done more.

His time as general manager was marked by a great deal of success. He was in that position during the Showtime Lakers era with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Pat Riley, and then later built the three-time championship team around Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. He also had success in Memphis, and the beginning of his time as a consultant to the Golden State Warriors marked the beginning of their triumphant run. West was considered successful at all levels of basketball, making him one of the sport’s greatest legends, and rightly so. He also talks a lot about his personal life in this book. How his marriage to his first wife failed and how his relationship with his family was not always easy (regardless of his father). When West’s statue was unveiled in front of the Lakers arena, his eldest son jokingly (but probably with some truth) thanked Bill Russell, who was present, for destroying his childhood.

For me personally (born in 1987), Jerry West is probably my favorite player of all time among the players I never saw play in person. I only know him from video clips and from reading, such as this book. And despite the losses in the NBA Finals as a player, I never thought of him as a loser, but quite the opposite, a big winner. I would wish for him to find inner peace and overcome his past traumas. But he addresses this point mainly at the end of the book. Inner peace is something he will probably never find, and perhaps this part of his personality is what has contributed to his success.

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