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.

Get West by West at Amazon

bookmark_borderShowboat: The Life of Kobe Bryant

Veteran sportswriter and book author Roland Lazenby wrote this Kobe Bryant biography in 2016. This was after Kobe’s NBA career ended and before he died. In my edition however, there is also a small obituary by the author in the back. It was added a few weeks after Kobe’s death.

Showboat: The Life of Kobe Bryant

“Showboat: The Life of Kobe Bryant” is the first book on this blog that I have read in German, which is my native language. And in doing so, I realized why I otherwise prefer to read books about the NBA in the original language. As a basketball fan, you notice at one point or another that the translator has little or no idea about basketball and uses terms that sometimes make you wonder. But that is not so important here. Even though they may have translated some words incorrectly, the content is the same. “Showboat” is a nickname Shaquille O’Neal gave Kobe during their time together with the Lakers. A nickname Kobe didn’t like at all.

Focus on Kobe’s childhood

Showboat is more or less a typical biography, but there are some quite interesting differences. In many other biographies, the life before the career (childhood, beginnings in sports, …) is treated rather briefly. The focus is clearly on the professional career. Here it is almost the other way around. The book even starts before Kobe’s birth – with the story of his father.

Joe Bryant – nicknamed Jellybean – also played in the NBA for a number of years in the 1970s and 1980s. Most notable was his time with the 76ers in his hometown of Philadelphia. I found this part of the book interesting to read. I was aware that Joe Bryant was also an NBA pro. However I didn’t know much more about him beforehand. The author describes him here almost as a mythical figure of sorts. As a player who was way ahead of his time. Although he had the size of a center, he played more like a guard, bringing the ball up  and shooting from outside. What is no longer a big surprise in today’s NBA was probably too much of a good thing for some people back then.

Later, Joe Bryant played professionally for several years in Italy, where Kobe and his sisters grew up. Here the focus of the book shifts more and more to Kobe. He is described as a very strong-willed, ambitious and self-confident (some would say arrogant) player even as a child. He would spend hours with his father studying videotapes of NBA players such as Magic Johnson. And would also practice against his father 1-on-1. After the Bryants returned to the U.S., Kobe was considered a bit of an outsider due to his childhood in Europe, and somewhat of a stranger in his own country. He was not to really shed his outsider status during his professional career.

A sometimes troubling but successful time with the Lakers

As far as Kobe’s professional career is concerned, the focus is on his first years with the Lakers. The problems with Shaq and Phil Jackson, who nevertheless managed to win three titles together, and the messy stories from his private life (rape allegations and the long trial, a problematic relationship  with his own family). Even for someone who followed the NBA back then, it was surprising to read how bad the relationship was between Kobe and the rest of the team and especially with coach Phil Jackson. In retrospect, it’s hard to understand how Kobe and Jackson were able to get back together and win more titles after the coach returned to the Lakers.

Lazenby describes the second part of Kobe’s career rather quickly. I had the feeling that the publisher set Lazenby a limit to the number of pages. So he had to make it rather short. The two titles together with Pau Gasol, the end of an era against the Mavs in 2011, the Achilles tendon rupture, the difficult last years and the 60 points in the last game of his career read well in one go.

However, I thought the focus on Kobe’s childhood and youth, his beginnings in basketball, and his early NBA years was right on for a Kobe Bryant biography. With a person like Kobe Bryant, there’s not much left to read about regarding his active playing career that you haven’t already read somewhere. And if the focus had been on that, it might have been more of a dry stringing together of facts. I find the question “How did Kobe become Kobe?” much more interesting.

Get Showboat on Amazon