Most of you know him as the logo – a designation that the majority of today’s athletes would likely describe as the crowning achievement of their career(s).
Some of you know him as GM of the Lakers – a position that added six NBA championship rings to his collection and cemented the mold for a bronze likeness of himself that towers outside of Staples Center today.
A few of you may even know him as a Laker – a 14-time NBA all-star whose automatic jumper and sheer obsession with winning was only overshadowed by his penchant for losing, something he did to the rival Boston Celtics six consecutive times in the 1960’s.
No matter how you know Jerry West… the truth is that you don’t really know Jerry West.
While I soaked up the pages of his fascinating autobiography, West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, I was struck by how his entire life was most revealed in a sentence found tucked away towards the end of the book.
“I have a hole in my heart, a hole that can never be filled.”
It was that self-described hole that seemed to govern his life.
For more than three decades, Jerry was surrounded by the glamorous lights of Hollywood and the success of the Lakers organization…only the accompanying joy you might expect very rarely ever came, if it came at all.
“I was just so caught up in winning that I didn’t even enjoy the winning.”
Even when the Lakers – after a decade of coming up short – won the Championship in 2000, any semblance of happiness seemed elusive:
“On the morning after the Lakers won the 2000 Championship against the Indiana Pacers… I was in my office early, staring blankly, the only light coming from a small Tiffany lamp, and wanting to be anywhere but there.”
That moment led to another one– Jerry’s surprising departure from the Lakers following that title run. He cited a number of reasons – an icy meeting with Glen Rice and his agent , a broken relationship with Jerry Buss and a non-existent relationship with Phil Jackson – but the truth was very simple.
“I left the job because it was not only providing me with zero joy, but also affecting – ruining, really – every aspect of my life.”
Throughout the 300+ pages of Jerry’s journey, I unraveled the many complicated (and surprising) layers of his personality, and was able to discover a central theme that stayed consistent throughout his life: Unlike most of today’s superstar athletes, Jerry West was a relationship-minded person.
He wasn’t satisfied by winning (even though he claims to have been consumed by it), nor was he content with making a lot of money and earning the accolades that accompany his many accomplishments.
It explains why he bitterly remembers a heartfelt letter his wife wrote to Dr. Buss that went ignored… and why he’ll never forget Phil Jackson angrily tossing him out of the locker room… and why he spent countless hours casually chatting it up with the Lakers office staff.
And most captivating to many of us, it’s why he wrote an entire chapter about his treasured relationship with both Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
He described Kobe the same way that many of us would.
“Kobe was a once-in-a-lifetime player who could cast his shadow on the franchise for years to come. His fierce competitive drive was innate. You need to possess more than a little nastiness to play basketball at the highest level, and Kobe had that in abundance.”
He had preliminary concerns about Kobe and Shaq’s ability to co-exist, but said that it was Shaq, of all people, who was initially protective and supportive of Kobe.
“After Kobe had fired consecutive air balls in the playoffs against Utah in his first season, Shaquille was the one who told him to shake it off and not let it get him down, even complimented him on his course to even take those shots as a rookie.”
After all, contrary to popular opinion, Shaq greatly cared about winning too, perfectly illustrated by this story Jerry recalls:
“I came into the locker room after a bitter playoff loss at the Forum and found him literally dismantling the place – ripping out the sinks and urinals – and told him that he needed to calm his ass down.”
During the Shaq vs. Kobe days of the early 2k’s, most of us took a side and found as many legitimate reasons as we could to support our position. For Jerry, it just wasn’t that easy. He described himself as a father-figure to Kobe, and warmly recalls Shaq mouthing the words I love you to him as his statue was being unveiled at Staples Center in 2011.
And once again, right there in the text, Jerry inadvertently unmasks himself, as he does quite often throughout the course of his mesmerizing story. While he desperately tries to stay within the context of basketball, he ultimately reverts back to who he really is – a supremely brilliant individual who seemed to value people and personal relationships more than he did possessions.
The unfortunate truth about Jerry West is that his genius was best showcased in a business – and a city – that couldn’t have possibly been more conflicting. As much as Jerry’s autobiography is about basketball, it really isn’t about basketball at all. He goes as far to admit as much:
“I envisioned a book that would be about far more than my life in basketball.”
As he did so often in his career, he turned that vision into a tangible reality – just another achievement added to a life, career and legend overflowing with them.