Jerry West, the iconic basketball player, gave a preview of his upcoming book at a Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce luncheon this week. The book West by West: My Charmed Tormented Life is due out next month.
Of course I knew of Jerry West, I grew up in LA after all. I just knew he was a great basketball player, was a coach -- but that was really about it. I was too young and not really into to basketball while he was a player. A few months ago I was standing below the escalators in a parking garage waiting for a friend to return after parking the car. We were going to a steakhouse upstairs in the shopping complex. While I was waiting there, Jerry West came around the corner and stopped to ask me where the steakhouse was. I was a bit tongue-tied at first, he is a legend after all, but managed to direct him as to where to go. When my friend arrived and we went up to the restaurant, Jerry was waiting for a table. Having realized I had blown it by not asking for an autograph for my son who is a diehard Lakers fan, I wasn't going to miss this chance. So I approached him and asked for an autograph on the only scrap of paper I had which was the back of my business card. He was very gracious about it and at the time, even though it was very brief, he seemed like a down to earth, very approachable guy. So when I saw that the LA Chamber was going to have him as the featured speaker at a lunch, I wanted to make a point to go.
The lunch drew a large group of Chamber members expecting to hear about the legend's days as a player and as a coach. What we heard was a much more poignant and courageous story about who he is and the experiences good and bad that shaped him as a person.
His life was not the fairytale that one might think. He grew up in West Virginia in a large family that was extremely poor. His father worked in the coal mines. Although he didn't go into detail in the talk, I am sure more will be in the book, his father was very abusive to him. He made a point to stress the fact that it seemed to be singled out to him primarily. He didn't understand why. As a result, Jerry spent as much time as he could outside playing and ultimately shooting baskets. These were not fancy courts, but dirt courts that belonged to neighbors. A turning point came in his life when his older brother was killed in Korea when Jerry was only 13. This devastated Jerry and he realized at that point he was going to stand up for himself against his father's abuse. He told his father that he would not be beaten by him again, he would kill him if he did.
There are some things he is very proud of in his life, the Olympic gold medal for one. There are many things he is not proud of as well. I got the sense that it is much easier for him to review his weaknesses and faults then it is to revel in the good things and his strengths.
We were all riveted to this man's opening up, letting the pain out. This is not someone who needs to talk about his pain in order to get some attention. In fact you saw that it was difficult for him to talk about it. You also saw that this was something he had to do for himself. This was a cathartic healing that needed to occur in order for him to make sense of his life and figure out who he is at his core.
His talk has run through my head all week. Having grown up in LA you run across a lot of celebrities (and people who think they are). You see folks that have a sense of entitlement because they achieved some notoriety of some kind. Many times this is not deserved, really because you are a chef or have a reality show of some kind does this entitle you to treat folks as if you are above them? So I am used to hearing the insincerity when these folks try to be humble. Jerry West made a point of saying that he really does not feel special and your really believe he feels this way. He treats everyone the same, from security guard to multi million dollar player. He believes in being respectful to people regardless of their status in life. What really struck me in this was that this man did not need to do the difficult work in healing himself that he has done in this book. He is an icon, an athlete that rose to heights of skill that few people have. It would be very easy to just ride on that -- playing golf tournaments, traveling, doing the odd charity event. But instead in his 70's when many men are trying to forget the past, he is diving into it to try, as I perceive it, to make him a better person for himself and those around him. This is nothing short of amazing courage.
I spoke with him briefly after the talk and told him how impressed I was and thanked him for his candidness. I told him how courageous it was to share his story. I asked him -- " So you really don't realize how special you are to do this do you?" "No, I really don't."
I will buy the book and learn much more about this man who until this week was just a great basketball player in my mind. I realized that he is a very unusual combination of great physical ability and a great human being as well. I hope that he will find happiness in his life, something he said has been difficult for him to do. Perhaps this book has lanced at least some of the wounds and will put him on the road to healing and hopefully happiness. I know he has touched my life in just the hour I spent hearing his story. I wish you happiness Jerry -- as so many of us do.