The Basketball Hall of Famer and author of West by West discusses the current NBA work stoppage, as well as his personal journey and the death of his brother.
NBA legend Jerry West
Tavis: So pleased – honored, in fact – to welcome Jerry West to this program. Following, of course, a stand-out career for his home state West Virginia Mountaineers, he went on to win an Olympic gold medal back in 1960, followed, of course, by his Hall of Fame career with the Lakers.
To a younger generation of players and fans he’s simply known as the Logo, that iconic NBA logo you see all the time. The new memoir is called “West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life.” Jerry West, sir, an honor to have you on this program.
Jerry West: Tavis, nice to see you again. Thank you.
Tavis: Let me start by – I want to read. I’m going to go right at this, because I know that there are things you can say and things you can’t say about the work stoppage, if we can call it that, in the NBA, but I want to go back to your book, back to your life and your career, to kind of draw a parallel between what you endured and what’s happening with the NBA now and get your take on it.
So these are your words on page 101. “I look back and remember the 1964 all-star game in Boston, the first one ever televised. It had been snowing heavily all day and it wasn’t certain if everybody who was scheduled to play would be able to make it by game time.
“There was another problem, too. The players, led by Tom Heinsohn of the Celtics, head of the NBA Players Association, had decided they would boycott the game unless all the teams’ owners came up with an acceptable pension plan.
“The players also wanted their own trainers to travel with the teams. They wanted the league to agree that no team should have to play a Sunday afternoon game if they’d played the night before. I had never been more nervous or scared in my life.
“This was my livelihood, and Bob Short, our absentee owner – he’d stayed in Minneapolis when the team move to Los Angeles – somehow got around a security guard and into the trainer’s room and was shouting through the wall that if Elgin and I didn’t play -” Elgin Baylor, of course – “that if Elgin and I didn’t play he would personally make sure we never played again. It was my fourth season and I was coming into my own, and I didn’t know what to do.”
Before we talk about the NBA today, take me back to that day and why that was the scariest day of your life.
West: Well, I think when you’re young and the thing that you most aspire to be is to do something special in your life and to live my childhood dream as a professional athlete, those were days when I was just getting started, when I was starting to learn.
When an owner comes into your locker room and wants to talk to Elgin Baylor and myself, I thought it was pretty ironic how – because I was never sure what I would say if someone would ever say, “Well, you’re not going to play anymore.” But I do recall it very vividly, and the game was delayed for a long time.
It was the first national televised NBA all-star game that this action was going to occur, and I do remember looking at Mr. Short in the eye and gulping when I said it, “Then I’ll never play again.”
But it took a bunch of guys, and particularly Tom Heinsohn and Larry Fleisher, the late Larry Fleisher, who was the head of the union then, to start the ball rolling to see what this league has become today, and particularly with all the rights the players have.
So that was a watershed day for a lot of us. We did stand up to the owners. They did play the game, they did agree to it, and that really was the first step in making this league what it is today, particularly for the players.
Tavis: I was fascinated to read that part, Jerry, because it reminds us, to your point now, that the players association and the owners have always had these issues from time to time about a variety of things. I know again there’s not a whole lot you can say at this point, but what are your thoughts about the situation that fans have to endure right now?
West: Well, I’m just hopeful that both sides can find something acceptable to both of them. The players have really prospered. They have really prospered, and the league has had some losses. But this is something that people that are a lot smarter than me, that know the intimate details, and more importantly for the basketball fans I’m sure there will be a season.
But I just think it’s something that both parties have to feel comfortable with the agreement that they make, because it will be in effect for a long time.
Tavis: Beyond the work stoppage – we’re past that now in terms of this conversation – talk to me about how you think the fans are impacted when they are denied what they love so much.
In certain parts of the country, I literally, Jerry, was just reading a story about this this morning, that in certain cities around the country they’re bracing for crime to go up because people don’t have basketball to watch. Their time isn’t occupied with all these games. Talk to me about the impact it has on the fans.
West: Well, I think all fans, they’ll want to take sides of either players or owners, but that’s part of it. It’s always been part of it. But I would hate to think that a game that has been so great to all of us who played in the game and for so many years and been part of the game for so long would have a problem with not having the game around for a while.
I would hate to think that someone would do something that was beyond reasonable in terms of committing crimes because the NBA wasn’t around. That doesn’t sound like it’s healthy to me.
Tavis: I want to certainly talk to you about your own basketball career in just a second here, since we’ve got the whole show tonight to kind of unpack this, but I was originally struck by the fact that this really isn’t a basketball book. Never mind it’s about Jerry West, never mind the picture on the cover of you coming down the court with a basketball in your hand.
The book really isn’t about basketball, as the title suggests, “West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life.” Why write a book about your life, revealing all the stuff you reveal, when you could have taken the other route, which is to write a book about basketball?
West: Well, Tavis, I think the one thing that sometimes is maybe difficult for people to do is to really talk about some of the hardships they faced in life. Look, I’m not the only one that’s done this. I didn’t write this book for people to feel sorry for me. I didn’t do that.
I’m just hopeful to help other young kids who’ve faced the same problems and see the same problems today. Maybe to find a way to overcome things that just are not acceptable. I’d say it’s a very reflective period in my life. I’m just not a conventional person in many ways.
I love people, I love what I did, competition was everything. I loved the fans, when people come up and say hello to you or even come up and say what a great player you were, how nice you were, I think that’s a compliment, and I’ve written this book really to talk about some of the demons I faced in my life, and I faced a lot of them and I still do today.
They’re not always comfortable to deal with, they’re not always pleasant to talk about, but I just thought it was an accurate – it’s not a lie. There are no lies in this book. Where some people write books that glorify their athletic accomplishments, I’m way past that in my life.
There was a time when I played I loved to compete, but I’m in the years of my life when I think it helps to talk about problems and maybe how to get through them, and just how important it is for one or two people to pay attention to you when you’re maybe crying for attention when you’re small, and the battles I fought – fight even today.
Self-esteem, obviously depression. Those are two things that have been a major factor in my life all through my life, and even including my professional basketball career.
Tavis: I promise to come back to self-esteem and depression in just a second, but you’ve raised the word now three times by my count – “competition.” When I first moved out here to L.A., I lived with one of your heroes, Jim Brown. Jim Brown put me up for about a year, the greatest player, to my mind, to ever play football.
So Jim Brown put me up for a year before I got on my own feet here in L.A. and got started, so Jim Brown is, I thought, was, I thought, the most competitive person I have ever met. In college I spent some time with Michael Jordan, and you think Michael’s competitive on the basketball court, watch him play golf or, as I did, holding his money for him, watch him play pool and see how competitive this guy is.
But then I read your book, and you’re competing with Bill Russell on a plane to see who can go to sleep the fastest (laughter) on an international flight. Everything you do is competitive. Tell me about this competitive spirit of yours.
West: I really don’t know where it comes from. I think again things that you see when you’re small, stories you tell yourself when you’re growing up, those were the things that I did to myself because I didn’t want to go home. I was afraid to go home.
So I spent a lot of time by myself. None of the kids growing up in a small, little community like I grew up in really liked the things I loved. I loved the forest, I loved climbing – West Virginia is the Switzerland of America, it’s beautiful. Loved going up there every day, trying to find something that I could just see and look at.
Those were fun things. Going fishing, fishing all day – literally all day, from daylight till dark. Then I picked up this basketball, which changed my life forever. But I think the imaginary games I played in my mind, and I have a very vivid imagination, in some ways I was setting goals for myself and I think for all of us as we were growing up.
Goals are probably the primary reason we get to where we want to get. I wanted to be something different than what I was seeing every day. I wanted to be someone who’s always going to try to help give, and more importantly, to be nice to people. I didn’t grow up in a house like that at all.
Tavis: Help me understand, then, Jerry, how a guy who has that kind of imagination, who possesses such a competitive spirit can end up wrestling with self-awareness and battling depression.
West: Well, depression can happen to anyone. It happens to the best families, the most nurtured families. It’s not something that’s fun to deal with – it’s really not. But I think when I grew up I was kind of an isolated child because of what I saw in my house, and it’s really about – for me, most things are about self-esteem.
If you feel good about yourself you’re going to be able to accomplish a lot more than you ever dreamed possible, and when I was out there playing all these mind games by myself, and you talk about the competitive part of it, I would never not let myself make the last shot to win a basketball game.
I would find ways to put a second on the clock or two seconds. I could shoot the thing 10 times. (Laughter) I was the coach, I was the official, I was a broadcaster. If people would have seen me out there, my lips going, talking about all of these things that were going through my head, and all of them were feel-good things.
I just think that that to some degree, and when I played, it really – that’s when I wouldn’t get depressed. But when I would have an opportunity to sit around and think about things, little things, it would probably set me off more than big things.
Tavis: When you talk about your tormented life, it’s hard to talk about that without addressing, as you do so forthrightly in the book, how you navigated the loss of your brother, the death of your brother.
West: Tavis, it was probably one of the worst periods of our life. He was like the beacon of our family. He was just such a wonderful person. I would always have hoped that I can be like him, because everyone loved him.
He was deeply religious and growing up in a house like that, you can see the respect that parents have for certain kids. They don’t mean, I don’t think they mean to play favorites, but there’s always one that seems to stand out, and he stood out
I remember the day he went into the Army and I also remember the day that we found out he was dead. It was probably the most horrific day of my life. Here’s someone who was 21 years old. In my mind he will be 21 forever. To get letters a month after we knew he was dead and read those letters where he was talking about going to church and getting involved in church, and also his always mentioning, “Tell Jerry to keep working in school, tell him to keep working with his basketball.”
I think to this day I would have just hoped he would have had an opportunity to see me play when I was at my very best. Never happened, but those were like haunting, tormenting times, and on a cold day in December or January, when we buried him, one of the most horrible sounds I ever heard in my life was “Taps.”
Of all the people to get killed in war and parents that have to endure that, people always talk about closure – there’s never any closure when you lose someone that young, there’s never.
I was reading the newspaper this morning, I saw these two young kids from the California area who had gotten killed in Afghanistan, and for those families it’s just devastating, it’s just absolutely devastating. In our family, that house changed forever.
Tavis: I don’t mean to make you political, but I do want to ask this because you opened the door to this, in part because in the book you talk about the fact that you could have at some point – still could, if you wanted to, I suspect, run for governor of West Virginia.
But when you lose your brother, to your point, Jerry, forever 21 in your mind, and I asked the question and you started to answer, and I could see the emotion come over you even all these years later, I see how that still impacts you, talking about it, even though you write about it in the book, did losing your brother at that age change in any way or just alter your view of war?
I raise that now because you and I both know sitting here this country is still now engaged in the longest war in the history of this country. How has that impacted you politically around the issue of war?
West: A lot of people have – there are two times in my life, to answer this thing about West Virginia, people came to me and said, “Would you be interested in running for governor.” It’s just not something, even though I have strong convictions about the state, I love the state, I love the people, it’s a big part of who I am.
It was awash in natural resources, and a lot of multinational companies came in there, and I thought in some of these small, little communities, if they would have just left infrastructure for children, places where they could go, people to help them with their studies, to pay attention to them, and yet they didn’t, they paid the people and they left, and I always kind of looked at them as robber barons, to be honest with you.
But I think politically I vote for who I think is the best candidate. People talk about raising tax dollars. I would be all for raising tax dollars if they would go to paying the deficit off. That, to me, is very, very important.
But I think wars are hell. They are hell. One of the great books I’ve ever read, and it was on the Korean War, David Halberstam wrote it and it was one of his last books, “The Coldest Winter.”
I will forever not like him after reading that book. He was, I guess, a great soldier, but for his arrogance, to get thousands and thousands of young American men killed because he wanted to go to the Yalu River instead of the 38th Parallel, when I read that I lost all respect for him.
But I enjoy – one of the things last year, I went to the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, and I was invited by a man by the name of Roy Rue (sp) who was from South Korea. I went over there not knowing what to expect or not knowing what my emotions were going to be, but I went to the place where my brother got killed, which was deeply moving.
I went to the DMZ zone to see what separates North Korea and South Korea. It’s pretty stark. But yet when I went to Seoul, where I stayed, I was amazed at that city – the love that they have for the Americans there, what democracy has done for that country is amazing.
It’s the cleanest city, the infrastructure is beautiful. You can’t see a graffiti mark, you can’t see a piece of paper on the ground anywhere over there. If you look at the people in North Korea, they’re getting smaller; in South Korea, they’re getting bigger, and there’s a reason why – because of nutrition.
It’s a remarkable success story, an absolutely remarkable success story to see what has happened over there at the cost of millions of lives, by the way – I think 2.5 million South Korean citizens got killed, 48,000 Americans were killed.
I went into this war museum up there and very prominently displayed are all the people from the other countries that fought there, the people were killed, and I looked over here and here was an American side, and here before me, from each state, here was the state of West Virginia, my brother’s name was prominently mentioned on that.
When I looked through this museum, the thing that was so interesting to me was how many people that were killed there. But more than soldiers, citizens, innocent people who got killed.
Was it worth it? I would say they all would think it worth it today, but a lot of people sacrificed their lives for what they think is the betterment of the country, and I see Afghanistan and Iraq, I see all the unrest in the Middle East. It’s scary, because we don’t fight wars conventionally anymore. We’re sitting in Las Vegas killing people in other countries –
Tavis: Predator drones.
West: – and it almost looks like a video thing.
Tavis: It is, yeah.
West: It is still the loss of life for American families and other countries, too. These people are fighting for something they believe in very strongly, but for the American families who lose loved ones, I know what it feels like.
Tavis: The flip side of the pain brought on by the loss of your brother, to your point, you never close on this pain like you close on a house or a deal on a car. But the flip side of that is the one guy, by your own admission, I was anxious to read about Willie.
Willie is the one guy who you said in your whole life you have felt unconditional love in the bond, the relationship between you and this guy Willie. Tell me about Willie.
West: Well, he and I, we were competitors in high school. There was one particular time when I was a high school junior that I had an incredible year, and I think just because of my personality I was so quiet and so shy and never would do anything to call attention to myself, and I had led this conference, which was probably the best basketball conference in the state.
I’d led in everything, and I was the only unanimous pick for the all-conference team. I said, “Oh, my gosh, I wish I could make the all-state team or the second team or something.” These were my private thoughts.
When that all-state team came out and I saw two guys from this conference who made the all-state team and I made honorable mention, it was probably one of the lowest days of my life because basketball gave me some self-esteem, and all of a sudden it’s taken away because people didn’t think I was good enough.
So that summer – I was a very good student in high school and I had an opportunity to go to (sounds like) Boise State, but all these high school basketball players went there, and all the ones who were on the all-state team there, and I’ll never forget obviously a basketball conveniently appeared everywhere I went at that point in my life.
We were out there playing, and in the process of playing I was like the last one selected to play on the first day we played. After that, I was the first one selected. (Laughter) So I walked away from there saying to myself, my gosh, I’m better than these people, even though I wouldn’t admit it to anyone, and I couldn’t wait until my senior season started.
The senior season started and I did a lot of things that were extraordinary for a young kid in high school, and we won the state championship and this little community where the high school was, called the East Bank High School, that was my first brush with fame.
They changed it to West Bank for a day every year while I was there. (Laughter) So that was pretty special, it really was, and little did I know that my life would change because of this sport. Getting a chance to go to almost any college I wanted to go to, being recruited on the West Coast, which was unheard of, some of the recruitment stories when people were offering large inducements, and I was only going to West Virginia. I wasn’t going to go to school to be paid.
It was the best decision I ever made, and it was the best decision I ever made in my life. As I say, West Virginia means a lot to me, and it’s the charity of my choice and always will be.
Tavis: How do you contextualize your career? A lot’s been said about you by others. How do you contextualize your career in the NBA?
West: I did something I loved to do, Tavis, and there’s a passage in there about Chick Hearn, the late beloved announcer of the Lakers here, and he made us all bigger than life. I’m not so sure any of us were worthy of what he said, but as I say, the way the city of Los Angeles has treated me has been truly remarkable.
I’m flattered that people feel so good about you, and I see a lot of players walking around today with bodyguards and stuff, and I’m saying to myself, my gosh, no one would even know you if you walked the street. Why would you have a bodyguard? (Laughter)
It’s flattering when people come to you. It’s a feel-good thing, and I think particularly as you get older you really appreciate the fact that people respect you, and that’s what life ultimately is about, if they respect you.
I’m certainly not a perfect person. I’m very flawed and I know I’m very flawed, but the one thing I always will do until I die is I always will have time for people.
Tavis: The new book by Jerry West is called “West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life.” As I said at the top of this conversation, courageous of him to put so much of his personal narrative – not the professional narrative that we know so well, but so much of his personal narrative on the pages of this new book. I think you’ll enjoy the read. Jerry, good to have you on the program.
West: Great, thanks (unintelligible).
Tavis: Thanks for the book. I appreciate it.
West: Thank you.
“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.
“Announcer:” Nationwide Insurance supports Tavis Smiley. With every question and every answer, Nationwide Insurance is proud to join Tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. Nationwide is on your side.
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.