Sat November 5, 2011
Basketball Legend Shares A 'Charmed, Tormented Life'
SCOTT SIMON, host: Jerry West is the symbol of the National Basketball Association - truly so. The NBA's logo silhouette of a player dribbling the ball down court in perfect form is drawn from a 1969 photo of Jerry West when he played for the Los Angeles Lakers, which he did for 14 years and was an All Star 14 times.
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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lakers trying to press - pressure the inbounds pass, and it comes in to Walt Frazier with ten seconds now showing on the clock. Eight seconds left to go on the clock, seven, six, five, DeBusschere shoots. Hit, with three seconds to go. Two seconds, one second. West throws it up - he makes it. West threw it up and makes it. Overhand point.
SIMON: Jerry West went on to become the Lakers head coach and eventually general manager and guided the team to seven championships. Then became general manager of the Memphis Grizzlies and steered them to their first playoff berth and is now a consultant and part owner of the Golden State Warriors. But in a new memoir of his life, Jerry West reveals that his true adversaries were tougher than anything he confronted on a basketball court. His memoir, written with Jonathon Coleman, is "West By West: My Charmed, Tormented Life." Jerry West joins us from the studio's of NPR West.
Thanks so much for being with us, sir.
JERRY WEST: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: So, how'd you get this nickname Zeke from Cabin Creek?
WEST: I grew up in this little town called Chelyan, West Virginia and we got our mail at Cabin Creek. And so, when I came to Los Angeles, it sounded pretty good: Zeke from Cabin Creek. And, frankly, it was something I loathed then because I'm very proud of being from the state of West Virginia.
One thing, I loved to go in the woods hunting - just looking for anything. I loved to spend in the hills of West Virginia, which I still do today.
SIMON: At the heart of your story is the tough childhood that you that you had. Help us appreciate what it was like to grow up there.
WEST: Well, I think growing up in any place where people are hardworking people - and certainly at that point in time, people were much more labor-orientated - and my father eventually went to work for a coal mine as an electrician, and at times a real struggle for us to even be able to have food on our plate. But it was not the greatest way to grow up.
I grew up in a very abusive household. My father was very abusive. It's not comfortable talking about because he's not here to defend himself.
SIMON: You know, Mr. West, I don't want to be obscure about this. Your father beat you.
WEST: Oh, yes. You know, I know what corporal punishment is. This was a lot more than that. And I think that I got to the point in my life where I'd had enough. And I told him one day after an incident with my sister where he had hit her and I just - I said to him, I said if you ever do that again, I am going to kill you. And I slept with a loaded shotgun under my bed.
That was the worst of times for me. But I found a way through it. And it also probably made me much more determined to do something with my life that didn't seem possible.
SIMON: So it drove you deeper into basketball?
WEST: Basketball - I picked it up there and, you know, I could do it by myself. And I could imagine myself doing things that no one would ever dreamed possible, I didn't even dream possible.
SIMON: Did you ever close the circle with your father?
WEST: Not really, not really at all. I just felt that may be I'm not capable of forgetting those times. And when it got later in my life and I started to have some success in my life as an athlete, my father wanted to be a part of my life. And I told my mother: never, ever let him come to a game and see me play. I did not want him to do that.
SIMON: Let me talk a little basketball with you now. It's clear reading this book that string of championships you lost to the Boston Celtics, when you were with the Lakers, hurt you at the time and even hurt you now.
WEST: Well, you know, I've never quite been able to come to grips with it - and we got close to the top of the a lot. Those players, I'm not so sure people realize how badly it hurts. It's hard for me to forget and I don't forget.
SIMON: Mr. West, has anybody ever said to you, it's just a game?
WEST: Yes, but it was more than a game to me. Life is not easy and I think there's one passage in the book where John Wooden, who I've known for years...
SIMON: This was the great UCLA coach.
WEST: Yes, and he was being interviewed for this book. And I was talking about how I used to replay these games. I blamed myself for every loss. And he said something really poignant. He said to me, Well, when you won did you take all the credit? Obviously the answer was no. And he said, Well, why should you take all the blame?
SIMON: Mr. West, for all of your honors, all of your trophies, do you ever really recover from a childhood like yours?
WEST: I've been fortunate but I can't forget where I came from. I can't forget the things that I saw in my life. I will never forget those days.
SIMON: Jerry West, his new autobiography, "West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life," written with Jonathan Coleman, speaking from NPR West.
Mr. West, thanks so much.
WEST: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.
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SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.