The Jerry West book tour/media blitz is exactly what the NBA needs right now. It’s a dose of humanity for a league that has lost its way.
It’s become too easy to vilify the owners and players, thanks largely to their own behavior in retreating to their corners and refusing to find common ground in a $4 billion industry. (I even took pleasure in federal mediator George Cohen keeping both sides holed up in negotiations for 16 hours Tuesday, if for no other reason than they could get a sense for how the rest feel: trapped by this mind-numbing lockout with no end in sight.) But then I went to see Jerry West speak at an Q & A event led by Warriors co-owner Peter Guber in Santa Monica, Calif., to promote West’s autobiography “West By West.”
West is one of the best to ever play the game and then became such a great general manager that a rival once suggested they just name the executive of the year award after him (as if being The Logo weren’t enough). And yet he is a fragile man, consumed by his shortcomings, constantly seeking approval after a lifetime of success.
“I’ve always called myself a stray dog, hoping someone would pat you on the head,” West said.
He got choked up while describing the loveless household he grew up in, a home in which was subjected to beatings from his father. You could hear the origins of his steely resolve when he recalled how his older brother wouldn’t let little Jerry play basketball with him, and how Jerry vowed that he would show him the error of his ways, literally telling him, “I’m going to be one of the greatest basketball players ever.” Then the sadness washed over him again as he lamented that his brother, who was killed in the Korean War, never got to see him play in the NBA. The microphone captured all of West’s sniffles and they echoed through the room.
It served as a reminder that there’s a story behind everyone involved in these contentious collective bargaining negotiations. There is a person with hopes and fears, a history of accomplishments and failures. I wish the owners and players would keep that in mind when they look across the negotiating table. And maybe we should adopt that perspective when we think about the lockout. That doesn’t mean you should pour out sympathy for an owner because he’s not getting the return he wanted on a $350 million investment or a player who wants to retain a system in which his contract far outweighs his production. But it also doesn’t mean we should automatically dismiss someone because he wants more money.
You know who also wanted more money? Jerry West.
In his latter years as the Lakers president he once called a press conference before a game at the Forum, talked about how tired of his job he was but that he would miss it, then left without making any formal announcing as a room full of bewildered reporters asked each other if Jerry West had just resigned. It turned out to be a very public negotiating tactic. West wasn’t making the kind of money thrown at young hotshots like Rick Pitino, or receiving an ownership equity package like the one bestowed on Pat Riley in Miami. Eventually Jerry Buss gave West a raise, and a crisis was temporarily averted. Then West didn’t get the type of money the Lakers gave to Phil Jackson, and West left the Lakers – his only employer for his adult lifetime to that point – after he and Jackson spent one, non-communicative season together.
West says the Lakers at times provided the family he wished he’d had. Who knows how many of the ups and downs of his tenure in the front office were a result of that dynamic. Even a desire for a raise could be seen as a manifestation of the lack of approval he got from his dad.
We’re just learning the extent of West’s psychoses, including his longtime battle with depression. Perhaps West himself, in the process of writing and discussing this book, is coming to grips with the impact of his upbringing
He said his childhood experiences “made me less of a father, because I’m not sure what love is. I don’t know how to say that word.”
West’s son Ryan attended the event and I wondered what he thought when he heard his father say that his own biggest shortcoming was as being a parent to him and his siblings.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better father,” Ryan West said. “ He’s not the type that would tell you 'I love you' or anything like that, but he did the best he could do. Reading the book, you get a deeper sense of why he wasn’t able to say some of the things he wished he could say. But I wouldn’t change anything at all.”
People aren't as bad as they might seem, not even to their own worst critics. And no one has had a success-to-self-criticism ratio as skewed as Jerry West's. Watching West sniffle and suppress sobs on the stage reminded me of the multiple dimensions of every story. It’s human nature to seek love, just as it’s human nature to seek money. But sometimes, what a person could use most of all is simply a box of tissues.