bookmark_borderWest 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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bookmark_borderThe Book of Basketball

I had already briefly mentioned The Book of Basketball in the last (and first) blog post about The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam. Bill Simmons should be a household to most basketball fans around the world, be it because of this book or because of his podcast.

The book – at least the edition I own – is more than 700 pages long and probably contains at least as many footnotes. If you’ve listened to Bill Simmons’ podcast before, you’ll find his typical storytelling and humor here as well.

In the beginning Simmons tries to answer the question of whether Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain was the better player. Simmons is a self-confessed Celtics fan and has never made a secret of it. So it’s fair to ask whether he can even answer that question objectively. His Celtics fandom comes through here and there, and it’s not surprising that his verdict is clearly in favor of Russell. For all his commitment to Russell and the Celtics, however, he is able to justify this argumentatively. Wilt doesn’t come off too well in many places here. However, this does not only apply to him in The Book of Basketball.

After Russell and Wilt, there is a little NBA history lesson. Bill Simmons spans from the beginnings of the NBA to the league as it is today – although this is no longer current, as this edition of the book was published in 2010. This fact is interesting at some points throughout the book, for example when Simmons describes Dirk Nowitzki, who was still considered a loser at the time. A year after the book was published, he led his Dallas Mavericks to the first title in franchise history.

In another chapter, Simmons has a list of records that he considered more or less eternal. Two of them have since been broken. The Golden State Warriors won 73 games in the 2015-16 season, though Simmons didn’t imagine in 2010 that the then valid Chicago Bulls record (72 games in the 1995-96 season) would ever be broken. He also thought George McGinnis’ record of 422 turnovers in a season – then still in the ABA – was reasonably safe at the time, but James Harden, who had 464 turnovers in the 2016/17 season, had other plans. Russell Westbrook also had more than McGinnis in the same season with 438 turnovers.

Simmons then plays his popular “What-If Game.” Here he asks the question of whether and how the history of the NBA would have been different if a certain event had not occurred (or if it had occurred). He lists these what-ifs in order of importance. There are some classics here – for example, the now-famous 1984 NBA draft is addressed, in which the Portland Trail Blazers could have selected a certain Michael Jordan with the second pick, but chose center Sam Bowie instead.

After a shorter chapter on MVP trophies, which Simmons says were dubious to ridiculous, comes the main part of the book, which begins with the chapter “The Hall of Fame Pyramid.” Here Bill Simmons first addresses what changes he would like to make to the Hall of Fame. He then ranks – in descending order – what he considers to be the best NBA players of all time. He goes into such detail about each player that as a reader you can learn quite a bit about the history of the NBA and its greatest stars. This ranking list alone takes up pages 287 to 626, which shows how much effort and research Simmons put into this. Again, it should be noted that the book came out in 2010 and a lot has changed since then. LeBron James, who had not won a title at that time, finds himself ranked 20th here. Today, he is considered by most experts to be one of the top two or three NBA players of all time.

Simmons then wraps up this long book by ranking the best teams of all time and putting together a team he would pick to take on a team of aliens and save the world in the process.

The Book of Basketball is also sometimes referred to as the Bible of NBA books. Not without reason, in my opinion. So much information and so much background knowledge about the history of the NBA would otherwise have to be gathered in days of work in the depths of the Internet. I also found the humor (especially in the countless footnotes) very appealing.

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