West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life by Jerry West and Jonathan Coleman

Book Summary

Jerry West is one of the greatest figures in NBA history. As a player and executive, he’s had a major role on 10 championship teams. But underneath all his success is a tormented soul. In his memoir, West offers a glimpse of a man who allows his biggest failures to define his existence.

Notes and Quotes

Jerry West’s Image of Himself

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West calls himself a “pessimistic optimist”.

“I am a creature of fastidious routine, of habit – an every day guy who relishes nothing more than creating things and solving problems.”

Complacency is not in my vocabulary; neither is serenity.”

“I am not a conventional person or thinker, not someone who walks a straight-forward line. I am too rebellious and defiant for that, always have been. I am, if I may say so, an enigma (even to myself, especially to myself ) and an obsessive, someone whose mind ranges far and wide and returns to the things that, for better or worse, hold me in their thrall.”

“Jack Nicholson thinks of me as ‘fierce, frank, but very fragile,’ and he is right…”

West notes that he had plenty of life-changing events during his formative years:

  • “I know that it is wrong to constantly blame others for things that happen in your life. But I think most people would agree on this: there are certain events that are important in your life and can do damage to it.”
  • “But they, perhaps more than anything else, formed much of the crucible of who I am, and almost certainly made me into the determined person and sick competitor that I became. A tormented, defiant figure who carries an angry, emotional chip on his shoulder and had a hole in his heart that nothing can ultimately fill.”

“Not only do I not think of myself as a hero, I actually think of myself as someone who had come in second more times than he cared to remember, someone who was a prince far more often than a king.”

“One thing I have never told anybody before is that when I am invited somewhere and surrounded by people who have more money than God, even people who have become friends, I always say to myself, What are you doing here, Jerry? You don’t belong here. Even after all these years of success and accomplishment, I still have some deeply rooted insecurities as to where I fit in, of feeling and being the odd man out.”

“I never really thought about anything other than winning. And I was just so caught up in winning that I didn’t even enjoy the winning. Because as soon as you win, you immediately start worrying about next year.”

“I now know it is one of the reasons I threatened to walk away so many times – that I, unfairly, not only expected other people to care as much as I did, but I also cared about their approval too damn much. It’s also possible that even if it had happened, even if I had gotten the verbal acknowledgement I am talking about, it wouldn’t have been enough, given my earlier comment and sad realization that I would have a hole in my heart, a hole that can never be filled.”

He’s always felt depressed and a sense of doom his whole life.

  • “This whole mix of self-hatred, failure, and low self-esteem plagued me even when I was playing at a high level and getting pleasure from it. It’s something I coped with, and something I still cope with.”

“We all react differently to things that are stressful or unpleasant. Some people lash out; some don’t. Others are able to laugh things off. But deep down there is anger or sadness.”

“In any case, I was angry yet again about something else: that you don’t tell people clearly enough how I feel about them before it’s too late.”

Jerry West’s Family Life

West has five siblings, but has a distant relationship with all of them. This seems due to their rough upbringing in Cheylan, West Virginia.

  • West was the subject of physical abuse at the hands of his father. 
    • He never had a good relationship with his dad. While writing this book, he discovered that his father was unfaithful to his mother. West’s resentment for him came from the belief that his father didn’t put the family and its needs first.
  • One of his older siblings, David, died while serving in the Korean War. David was West’s hero. West considered David, who was nine years older, to be the glue of the family.
    • West was 13 years old when his brother died. He became withdrawn and quiet after David’s passing.
    • His brother’s death “truly resulted in the basketball court becoming my sanctuary and my refuge, the place where I felt most alive, where I was in most control.”
  • His younger sister Cookie has a strained relationship with him. He says she thinks he’s an elitist.

“When I talked earlier about the world I grew up in, I should have added this: I was surrounded by diminished expectations. It was like a thick cloud layer that perpetually hung above me.”

Suffering and anger are two words that West would use to describe his experience growing up.

  • “I was always trying to figure out what might trigger an outburst from my father, always walking on eggshells hoping that I wouldn’t be confronted with a ugly situation – one of the reasons, no doubt, that I hate confrontation to this day.”
  • “I can be, and often am, maddening, a master of indirection.”

“Looking back, the worst thing, though, is that I didn’t feel as if I knew either of my parents. Or what I knew, I wanted to forget.”

West says he would’ve killed his father. He was also angry that his dad tried to have a role in his life only when he became successful at basketball. 

  • West compensates his lack of affection for others by being generous with gifts. He gives people things – flowers, Christmas and birthday gifts, thank-you notes, a phone call, presents from traveling, money. They’re easier to give than affection.

West met his second and current wife Karen at the end of his NBA career. They met at a banquet at Pepperdine University, where she was a student and cheerleader at the time. 

  • “When she recalls our meeting, what she remembers most of all is that I struck her as the saddest man she had ever met. I poured my heart out to her about everything, and, probably because she felt sorry for me, she eventually agreed to go out with me.”

Jerry West’s Values

Despite his gripes with his parents, he gives them credit for teaching him and his siblings about humility.

  • “The truth is that we were brought up by both our parents to believe in the importance of fair play, of being a good citizen, of being honest and hard working and always humble, of having little or no ego, of never bragging on yourself or holding too high an opinion of yourself.”

He wishes that he ran for political office in West Virginia at an earlier point in his life. He believed he could have made a difference.

  • He voiced his displeasure with the coal industry and special interest groups who have had control over West Virginia. He said that they don’t make education their first priority. As a result, he believes that people have misguided values.
    • “What I don’t understand is that some of these coal miners make sixty to a hundred thousands dollars a year and yet their first impulse is to often get a new car.
      • “I am loath to tell other people how to live, but I feel strongly that if their first instinct would be to embrace the enduring importance of education, their children would be better off.”

West on race.

  • West played the prime of his career during the 1960s, a tumultuous time in America’s history. He believes in racial equality, but didn’t feel confident enough to speak about it during his career. 
  • Lakers coach Fred Schaus made every player room with a player of the opposite race. West learned valuable lessons about how racist certain places were in America.
    • One evening, he invited his teammate and friend Ray Felix to have dinner at a certain restaurant in St. Louis. But Ray told West he couldn’t go because the restaurant disallowed African Americans like him. West, at the time, had never been to St. Louis and didn’t know how deeply segregated it was. 
  • Elgin Baylor would sometimes invite West to eat with him and Bill Russell. But, West was too shy and reserved to say much in their conversations.
    • “And when I look back on it now, I realize how much that acceptance by black players meant to me, especially during those turbulent, segregated times, how I always felt more comfortable around them than I did my white teammates.”

West on hero worship.

  • Why does it exist?
    • People “need to have something or someone to look up to and be proud of, to live through vicariously and perhaps fill a void they feel in themselves…”
  • The downside
    • “The whole glorifying of athletes is, in the end, not healthy, not healthy at all, and dangerous, often leading to terrible disillusionment.”
  • West’s advice to anyone dealing with fame
    • “Know who your friends truly are and be very careful both whom you associate with and with your money; your good character and reputation are everything. Be mindful of how you deal with the press and how important those interactions can be.”
    • West notes that that the media was much more forgiving of an “athlete’s indiscretions” during his day versus today.
    • Also shares that Michael Jordan was uncomfortable with being anyone’s role model. West says that Jordan would be the first to tell anyone that he’s a flawed human, just like all of us.

West’s keys to success.

  • Have a vision.
  • Practice good work ethic.
  • Set goals.
  • Take work, but never yourself, seriously.
  • Treat others how you want to be treated. Never place yourself above others. You can do this by:
    • Saying hello to everyone.
    • Saying thank you.
    • Trying to help others if they need assistance.
    • Do all of this with a smile “because a smile is more disarming than most people ever realize.”
  • Learn that fairness and trustworthiness are not always a given. Trust must be earned.

Jerry West considered himself a curious person.

  • He loves to read. In particular, he’s huge history buff.

Jerry West on Basketball

Anticipation and instinct helped him become great as both a player and executive.

  • “It was this same combination of anticipation and instinct that helped me enormously in running the Lakers. Anticipating what the team needed before it was readily apparent. Knowing that even if a particular player was having a terrific year, he was probably unlikely to do as well the following one. Knowing who could possibly help us, be that missing piece of the jigsaw. Anticipating criticism and a shaking of heads but sticking with my conviction.”

The basketball court was a place of respite for West. He saw each game as a different puzzle to solve.

  • “What other people might have perceived as unbearable pressure and expectation, I viewed differently. It was something I embraced. For someone as anxious as I am in many ways, it is interesting how calm I would get near the end of a game. Everything would become quieter and slower and I was able to concentrate and bear down even harder. I never drew attention to myself other than through my play.”

“Much as I loved to compete, I found that the more mediocre the team or the player who was guarding me, the worse I played. It’s called playing down to the competition, and I was guilty of it.”

Career What Ifs

  • West could’ve became a Boston Celtic. In exchange for West’s draft rights, Celtics president and coach Red Auerbach would have released guard Bill Sharman. Then-Lakers owner Bob Short wanted Sharman as his coach. 
  • While running the Lakers during the Showtime era, West blocked a trade that would have sent James Worthy to the Dallas Mavericks. In exchange, the Lakers would have received Roy Tarpley and Mark Aguirre. Lakers owner Jerry Buss brokered the deal with Dallas owner Donald Carter. If the deal went through, West would have resigned.
  • West tried to convince Laker owner Jack Kent Cooke to sign Julius Erving when the ABA folded. Cooke, though, didn’t listen and wasn’t interested. He thought anyone who played in the ABA was inferior to players in the NBA.

West on losing to the Celtics six times in the Finals in the 1960s.

  • “Those losses scarred me, scars that remain embedded in my psyche to this day. You would have to be able to see the tissue under those scars to really know and fully understand what I am talking about. The thing about scar tissue is that it keeps building, and pretty soon it’s awfully sizable. I realize that I sound like a permanent victim when I say this, and I realize that I have had many more victories in my life than losses, and that many people will have little sympathy for me, given the life I have led, but I am saying this because it is true and it haunts me still.”
  • The 1969 Finals, he took the hardest. That was the year he won Finals MVP despite being on the losing team.
  • When he lost, his behavior went off the rails. Infidelity was an issue for him and he cheated on his first wife, Jane, often. 
    • “I would go to bed some nights and say to myself, Why in the world are you doing this? Why? Why? And my stock response to myself would always be Well, because you never really dated, you never knew anything about life. It’s like a new adventure for you, a new form of being competitive. But it was completely the wrong deduction. Completely. The sad thing is that I wanted people to like me. I wanted to be loved for me. That period of time has haunted me ever since.”

West on being the inspiration for the NBA logo.

  • The picture used shows him dribbling left-handed, which ironically was a weakness.
    • NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy told him quietly that he was the logo. Alan Siegel, a graphic designer, worked on it.

West on retiring at 36 in 1974.

  • “When you lose a passion to do something, you shouldn’t do it. At least that’s how I looked at it… I simply felt that I could not play up to the exacting standards I had long ago set for myself – a standard of perfection that everyone thought was crazy and unreasonable and that constantly tormented me. I did not want to cheat anybody – the fans, the Lakers, the owner or myself. The last thing I was going to do was just hang on and collect a paycheck.”

West had a secret desire to play for the New York Knicks. A part of him wishes that they had drafted him.

When West embarked on his next career as a front office executive, he found comfort and refuge in scouting.

  • “[Anytime] I felt overwhelmed in the office and pulled in fifty different directions, felt the need to get away from the constant barrage of phone calls that came with the job, I went off on scouting trips, doing the thing I loved most: Discovering and sizing up talent.”

West’s relationship with former Laker owners Jack Kent Cooke and Jerry Buss.

  • As a player under Cooke, West says he always felt like a “hired hand”. 
  • With Buss, West felt like an equal since they both came from impoverished backgrounds.

West on the pressure of managing a team.

  • Injuries and luck plays a role. “But if an individual player is healthy, his performance has less to do with luck than with ability.”
  • “Pulling the rip cord”  – the responsibility of making decisions that impact the franchise.
    • West sees this as similar to “wanting the pressure and expectations that come with trying to make the last shot”.
    • “If you pull the rip cord and it works out, you’re really smart. If it doesn’t, you’re a dumb-ass.”
  • Says the culture of basketball is filled with “more criticism, more innuendo, and more fabricated stories than imaginable.”
    • There’s a lot of second-guessing and backstabbing as well.
    • If you’re a confident person and can do these things, then it doesn’t seem like pressure and you feel empowered.”
  • Says he was calmer as a player than as an executive “where, every day, you deal with the stress of making a decision that can affect an entire organization, determine the fate of a franchise.”
  • “The job totally consumed me and I cared way too much about every little thing. It wreaked havoc on every aspect of my life, and it was what I imagine being addicted to drugs would be like.”
  • There’s a lot of luck involved in success. Doesn’t believe there’s a formula or secret sauce to winning.
  • Doesn’t like the phrase model franchise. “Call a franchise well run, but get rid of the word model.”
  • Doesn’t like to look down or criticize how other teams because no one really knows the inner workings.
    • “In many cases owners have such incredible input that the people who work for them are nothing but caretakers.”

West on his enjoyment of scouting.

  • “I liked to get out and best the bushes if necessary to see someone play, and I would tolerate any sort of weather, or bad food, or inconvenience to do so. I just loved to evaluate talent and find out everything I could about a potential prospect, and form some sense about his character – what he liked to do when he wasn’t playing, how much sleep he got each night, what he ate, who his parents were, who his friends were, what he hoped to do beyond basketball.”

West on communicating improvement as a GM.

  • He would sometimes come down to the floor during practice and would try to do this whenever a rookie or new player joined the Lakers. He would usually watch from a distance (like “Portal 27”, his spot where he’d watch games at the Forum).
    • He never wanted to make Pat Riley, his coach during the Showtime era, feel like he was hovering. “But if I saw something I didn’t like or something I thought could be improved, I would occasionally come onto the court and demonstrate what was bothering me, though I would do it an appropriate time.”
      • Sometimes he had an intermediary send his message, like former trainer Gary Vitti.
  • The way he would talk to young players was influenced by Pete Newell, Hall of Fame coach from Cal. Newell and West were both very encouraging of young players to come and speak with them.

West always stressed to players to plan for their lives after basketball.

  • “The hardest thing for these players to learn was that if they were making three million dollars a year, they were really only getting half that.”

According to West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had a strained relationship by the end of his career with Riley.

  •  “When Kareem retired in 1989, they were barely speaking. Kareem felt Pat’s demands on the players were unreasonable, that he had pushed them over the brink.”

Bringing Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal to the Lakers in 1996.

  •  “The stress of acquiring Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in the summer of 1996 sent me spiraling downward and into the hospital for exhaustion for a few days”
  • Besides the birth of his sons, signing Shaq was the happiest day of his life. He thought about quitting when the commissioner’s office investigated that the Lakers had tampered to sign Shaq.
  • The deal for Kobe from the Charlotte Hornets almost fell through when Vlade Divac, the player the Lakers offered in exchange, threatened to retire. 
    • “Vlade did not want to leave the Lakers, and eventually, Vlade’s wife talked him out of retiring; when he later played for the Sacramento Kings, he made our lives miserable.”

The Kobe/Shaq Feud.

  • “Players of that magnitude have to be praised, and they cannot be pitted against each other. They have to be financially rewarded. That had to be in place. The owner, the coach, and the GM all have to be in full agreement about how the press is going to be dealt with. As much as possible, this kind of thing has to be handled behind closed doors.”

West on Kobe.

  • He knew that Kobe would rub people the wrong way.
    • “In the 1997 All-Star Game, in only his second year, he basically told the veteran Karl Malone to move his pick-and-roll ass off to the side so that he could go one-on-one with Michael Jordan.”
  • “He had a showboat style and a bottomless reservoir of drive that fueled him; he wasn’t content just to beat people, he had to embarrass them, even players on his own team.”

West on his relationship with Phil Jackson.

  • He and assistant GM Mitch Kupchak often waited outside the locker room after a game, waiting for the coach to finish talking.
  • One occasion, he thought Phil was done speaking, so he walked inside.
    • “As soon as I did, Phil barked, ‘Jerry, get the fuck out. I’m not finished here yet,’ and I immediately backed away, red-face. I have never intruded on a coach’s territory in that way, never, and I vowed that I would never go in there again, and I didn’t.”
      • West says he didn’t want to get into a pissing match with Phil.
      • Phil remembers the story different but assistants Bill Bertka, Tex Winter, and Kupchak remember the events the way Jerry described.
  • Mitch Kupchak: “When Phil Jackson came to the Lakers, it was not a good mix between him and Jerry. He had just come from an environment where there was an incredible amount of distrust with the GM and great separation, where he had bonded with players against the world.”

What others say about West

  • James Worthy: “When there was talk of trading me in 1986, Jerry was the first one to step up and say he was quitting. That is a strong statement, and I didn’t know how to handle that, to be honest. I mean, I know that getting traded is part of the game, but for a GM to step up and say no, that is pretty powerful. I guess that is when I knew, really knew, how much Jerry cared about me. He cared about all his players and we are all special to him. But I believe he really had a special place for me.” 
  • Magic Johnson: “I am glad Jerry is doing this book. He needs therapy, and I have to believe that doing this is good therapy, that it could really help him.”
  • Byron Scott: “The thing I ended up finding out with Jerry is that he had people all over Los Angeles who knew about everything. He knew when I went out at night and where. Not just me, everybody. He had eyes all over L.A. It’s not so much that he was trying to find out things. It’s just that people would see us out and report back to him. It’s as if he were not only the GM of the Lakers, but the head of a spy organization.”
  • Mitch Kupchak: “From day one, he never tried to protect his turf. He kept on giving me projects and encouraging me to take on more and more responsibility.”

West on Wilt Chamberlain

  • “I thought I was sensitive and touchy, but Wilt took sensitivity to another level, constantly feeling unappreciated.”
  • “As for all Wilt’s claims of having slept with twenty thousand women? That is such a joke, because he was with me a lot of the time.”
  • Wilt’s death in 1999 made him worry about his own mortality.

West on leaving the Lakers.

  • Being with the Lakers felt less like home after the team moved into STAPLES Center.
  • His relationship with Jerry Buss also started to deteriorate. West started to feel his personal demons from his childhood creep up, which made him insecure.
    • “The Lakers had been home to me, but unlike the home I had grown up in and felt apart from. But now that home was feeling less and less hospitable…that I had stayed too long at the fair and it was time for me to go.”

West talked to John Wooden about why he has such a hard time getting over his defeats. This is what their conversation looked like.

  • “Jerry,” he began slowly, his Midwestern accent still evident after nearly a century of life, his eyes peering out from behind his professor’s glasses like a wise old owl’s. “When your team won,” he wanted to know, “did you take all the credit?” “No, Coach, of course not,” I immediately said. “Well, then, Jerry, when your team lost, there is no reason for you to take all the blame.”
    • West went on to counter that Coach Wooden won a lot throughout his career.
      • “What Coach Wooden said certainly made sense. He was a sensible, logical guy. But whether I, who didn’t really fit that category, could ever comes to terms with, and accept, his straightforward point of view was another matter.”

Chick Hearn, according to West, created the terms air ball, garbage time, brick, finger roll, and triple-double.

Most underrated players in NBA history according to West? John Stockton and Rick Barry.

  • He went as far to suggest that Rick Barry might have been as great as Larry Bird.
    • “And that as much as I admired Larry Bird as both a player and competitor, I wasn’t sure that Rick Barry hadn’t been just as great. Because Rick seemed to be so disliked personally, I don’t think he got the acclaim he deserved professionally.”
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