author of A Writer's Life
West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Lifeby Jerry West, Jonathan Coleman
He is one of basketball's towering figures: "Mr. Clutch," who mesmerized his opponents and fans. The coach who began the Lakers' resurgence in the 1970s. The general manager who helped bring "Showtime" to Los Angeles, creating a championship-winning force that continues to this day.
Now, for the first time, the legendary Jerry West tells his story-from his… See more details below
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He is one of basketball's towering figures: "Mr. Clutch," who mesmerized his opponents and fans. The coach who began the Lakers' resurgence in the 1970s. The general manager who helped bring "Showtime" to Los Angeles, creating a championship-winning force that continues to this day.
Now, for the first time, the legendary Jerry West tells his story-from his tough childhood in West Virginia, to his unbelievable college success at West Virginia University, his 40-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, and his relationships with NBA legends like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal, and Kobe Bryant. Unsparing in its self-assessment and honesty, WEST BY WEST is far more than a sports memoir: it is a profound confession and a magnificent inspiration.
author of A Writer's Life
author of Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend
The San Jose Mercury News
His silhouette image has long been the NBA's logo-a fitting symbol for a revered, enigmatic, and deeply private sports icon. But in this book, with unflinching candor and in remarkable detail, Jerry West emerges proudly and boldly from the shadows of his own life."James S. Hirsch, author of Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend"
...Fascinating-it's like West taking Tony Soprano's chair in Dr. Melfi's office, and explaining every detail of the most famous career in NBA player-exec history (but with a moral barometer)...If you are Warriors fan, a general NBA fan, or any kind of sports fan, I'd tell you to read this book when it comes out to fully appreciate the totality of the legend and reality and to know that the reality at times exceeds the legend."Tim Kawakami, The San Jose Mercury News"
Hardcore fans will relish West's reflections on the game that has obsessed him, stories about teammates and opposing players and his selections for an all-time Dream Game...In a genre notorious for merely waving pompoms, West offers an unusually candid account of his personal and professional life."Kirkus Reviews
Los Angeles Times
New York Times
The Charleston Gazette
Jerry West run.
Jerry West run."
From the player so iconic his silhouette forms the NBA logo, a memoir intended to explain himself to fans and to...himself.
Jerry West is on everyone's list of the greatest basketball players ever. As the general manager of the Lakers, he assembled six championship teams. He's so beloved and admired, there's a statue of him outside Los Angeles's Staples Center. Who wouldn't want to be Jerry West? Well, maybe Jerry West, for one. He played basketball, he writes, "to try and feel good about myself when everything else in my life was confusing and frustratingly unexplainable." An abusive father, an emotionally remote mother and the Korean War death of a favorite older brother accounted for this withdrawn, overly sensitive youth who turned to basketball to feel alive and in control. The game became a sanctuary, but did nothing to repair a tormented soul and perhaps even exacerbated some "weird" tendencies that have complicated his life. Notwithstanding all his on-court success, his reputation as "Mr. Clutch," this tortured perfectionist remains "scarred" by his failures: a one-point loss in the 1959 NCAA championship game, six NBA Finals losses to the '60s Celtics, not winning the MVP award for his outstanding 1969-70 season. Hardcore fans will relish West's reflections on the game that has obsessed him, stories about teammates and opposing players and his selections for an all-time Dream Game. They'll likely be surprised by his erudition—he peppers the narrative with allusions to writers as disparate as Malamud, Merton, Didion, Gladwelland Joseph Campbell—and the numerous, unflattering personal revelations. West makes scalding comments about people as diverse as Douglas MacArthur, Jesse Jackson and Phil Jackson, but he reserves his harshest commentary for himself as a brother, father and husband. Hegrapples with the role of a sports hero, a mantle he's loath to embrace, and appears to have made a sincere, if not always successful, attempt at self-awareness.
In a genre notorious for merely waving pompoms, West offers an unusually candid account of his personal and professional life.
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West by WestMy Charmed, Tormented Life
By Jerry West
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2011 Jerry West
All right reserved.
Los Angeles, May of 1994
Early morning in the City of Angels and I began my day as I always do: poring over the Los Angeles Times and USA Today, eating a banana and a bowl of cereal, working out. Heading south on the 405 at a little past eight and listening to the Eagles sing about a peaceful, easy feeling, I couldn’t help thinking the opposite—of how much Los Angeles had been roiled and affected by different incidents during the early 1990s. The beating of Rodney King in March of 1991; the announcement in November of that year that Earvin “Magic” Johnson, a beloved Southern California treasure, was HIV positive; the riots that ensued the following spring in response to the not-guilty verdict by an all-white jury in the trial of the officers accused of beating King; and then, not long after that, the Northridge earthquake, which—along with autumnal Santa Ana winds and encompassing fire—Californians always expect, but never quite get used to. But in the wake of such things—the trial of O. J. Simpson was still in the distance—there was always the prospect of rebuilding, of renewal, not just in Los Angeles as a whole but in the specific domain that I, ever the pessimistic optimist, was an integral part of—the dramatic, often operatic, world of the Los Angeles Lakers.
I am a creature of fastidious routine, of habit—an everyday guy who relishes nothing more than creating things and solving problems. Complacency is not in my vocabulary; neither is serenity. They make me nervous. I don’t trust them. Trust is something I place and have in people, not in soft notions and vague concepts. As I arrived at my office at the Forum in Inglewood—a white-columned building where I had been coming to work since 1967 and where I had been robbed at gunpoint two years earlier—traveling a superstitious route to Manchester Boulevard that caused great amusement to others but made perfect sense to me, I saw someone waiting outside my door; someone whom I had known and admired for more years than I could even remember. It was Bill Bertka, a longtime assistant coach and basketball aficionado, and he didn’t look happy.
“Every day, Jerry, every single fucking day when I wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, I know what I see,” he said, his legendary cologne wafting through the air. “What the hell do you see?” he demanded to know.
Good question. Even though he was asking about himself, about why we weren’t likely to make him the next head coach of the Lakers, what follows will be an unflinchingly honest, painful, soul-searching attempt to answer that question about a very flawed individual—me. To reveal who I am.
While this book is my autobiography—a book that I have been urged to write by some and vehemently discouraged to do by others, including members of my family—the approach that I have taken, in close collaboration with Jonathan Coleman, is one that is built on deep reportage. It represents nothing less than a full-scale attempt to bring forth the truth, to rely not just on my recollection of things, but to do something more ambitious: investigate myself, speak with others, and come to grips with what I find. Nothing you read here will be gratuitous or a cheap shot or an attempt to elevate myself at the expense of anyone else. This book is not meant to be comprehensive in the way that a biography might be, and it is not meant to glorify my athletic accomplishments, as many books of this kind do. It is a memoir and it is selective, choosing to focus on the things that explore and illuminate the mind-set—give, I hope, the reader deeper understanding—of someone who, many feel, has been aloof and inscrutable and unpredictable. What is here is here because it advances the complex, tangled narrative of my life—certain strands of which I have learned for the first time, odd as that may seem—that I am so determined to convey. I am not a conventional person or thinker, not someone who walks a straightforward 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. The way I have chosen to unfold my story at this most reflective time of my life is consistent with that.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live. That line, from Joan Didion’s essay “The White Album,” perhaps comes closest to what I feel I have done, in my own peculiar way, over these many years in order to protect myself. Until now.
I have been the silhouetted figure of the NBA logo since 1969. This book is my effort to unravel the mystery of that person with the deceptively simple name, to explain myself, to share my story and my improbable journey with those who have perhaps had similar thoughts and who have struggled to overcome the many challenges and obstacles that life has put squarely in their paths. More than anything else, I am someone who takes enormous pleasure in seeing others succeed. My hope is that this book will be both a help and an inspiration to those who read it as they strive to realize their dreams.
Climbing Up from the Abyss
Come with me, come to the flinty, hardscrabble world of West Virginia where I grew up: a world of Methodist church bingo, Red Ryder BB guns, and coal tipples; of mean dogs (one in particular—Bear—used to chase my ass) and sneaky cats and heated political discussion among edgy union men; of one big river—the mighty Kanawha—and many black, coal-darkened creeks. The place where I engaged in the most intricate of jigsaw puzzles, mainly of paintings; the harder they were to complete (because of the dark floral colors) the more I liked them (though when I worked on these puzzles with my siblings, I employed some methods that Karen, my wife, disapproves of). I cherished my solitude—did I ever—because I lived in a home where I did not want to be for much of the time, and there were reasons for that. As a result, winter was always the season I dreaded most. I never liked being cooped up. Still don’t. I like to be free, free to roam, free to be alone with my fertile and wide-ranging imagination, my closest friend and soul mate as a child. I quickly came to know where the nearest exit was and, long ago, became a Houdini of sorts.
I have the easy-to-remember name of Jerry West, the boy next door. I was born on May 28, 1938, in Chelyan, West Virginia, right next to Cabin Creek—two hollows (burgs, I call them) nestled in the Upper Kanawha Valley, fourteen miles from Charleston, well-defended fortresses against the world. And with the exception of a brief, disastrous period spent in Mineral Wells, near Parkersburg, where we were forced to move because of some union activities my father was engaged in that caused him to lose his job, that was where you could find me, if you cared to look, until the summer of 1956.
My parents were Howard and Cecile West (though she gave it the manly pronunciation of “Cecil”), and I am the fifth of six children, raised in a home, a series of them actually, that was spotless but where I never learned what love was, and am still not entirely sure I know today. What I do know is that I harbored murderous thoughts, and they, along with anger, sadness, and a weird sort of emptiness, are, in part, what drove and fueled and carried me a long way, traveling a path to the future that, even with the depth of my crazy imagination, I never had the self-confidence to allow myself to fully envision, not really.
When I left the state of West Virginia in 1960—a year of transformation in which my name was used without my permission by the campaign of John F. Kennedy (whom, as it turned out, I was in favor of) to lure voters during our Democratic primary; a year in which I married and became a father far too young; went to Rome and wore the uniform of my country in the Olympics and brought back a Gold Medal and then headed west to play professional basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers—I thought I was leaving home for good. But it didn’t take long to realize that that would never be the case, at least not for me.
West Virginia, you see, is far more than the place where I was born. And this whole notion of “home,” I have come to discover, is not an easy thing to define or explain, but bear with me.
In late August of 2008, Jonathan and I drove from White Sulphur Springs, where I live for three or so months out of the year, to Chelyan, still just a dot on the map. It had been a while since I had visited and on this particular day I was going to see two of my sisters, Patricia and Hannah, who still lived in the area. I am not very good, not very good at all, in reaching out to my siblings, in simply picking up the phone and asking how they are. I don’t entirely know why this is, but I do know it has caused tension and disappointment and, at times, considerable resentment toward me. I can’t think of much I wouldn’t do—or haven’t done—for any one of them if they asked me, but the mere act of initiating contact appears to be beyond me. This is not something I am proud of.
I can be an extremely willful person—defiant might very well be my favorite word; it has such a perfect, competitive ring to it—but I have not always been this way, far from it. Jack Nicholson thinks of me as “fierce, frank, but very fragile,” and he is right, but it is the last word—fragile—that best characterized me as a child, along with painfully shy and almost backward.
On the way to Chelyan that morning, the sky was a clear, West Virginia blue. I love driving, hitting the open road, losing myself in thought. Much as I enjoy people, I never mind being alone. Not at all. As we rolled west on Interstate 64 in a white Lincoln SUV, Jonathan asked what I saw in my mind’s eye. Well, on this particular day, I saw mountains and landscapes and various configurations of clouds and sky that I have always wished I had the talent to paint. In my imagination, I am a French Impressionist, a Monet, who can, with a masterly stroke of my brush, create a dreamlike state of shimmering color, a world of such natural richness and nuance that richness and nuance might actually be inadequate for what I am trying to express. I know it when I see it, and yet I have always wondered, What are the things, what are the elements, what are the revealing clues that set a Monet, or even a Picasso, apart? I think you can almost read the personalities of these people. I am no art connoisseur, but if you look at paintings that were painted at different periods of their lives, I find myself wanting to know what happened to their lives in between great works to make them change like this?
As a young kid growing up there were distinct changes in my life, points at which if I could have put that change on canvas, it might have been startling for someone else to see the difference. And yet the truth is, most people can’t see that because they don’t know what is going on inside you.
I constantly hear people talk about me in terms of legacies. Forget legacies. The legacies that true geniuses leave in this world are the things that can be put on canvas, written on a piece of paper, in a song, or in a speech—creations that will stay there for years. I saw Stevie Wonder in concert a month or so before this trip. An absolutely incredible genius. Somebody who is blind and does what he does? That’s just amazing to me. What if he hadn’t used that gift? We would never have had Stevie Wonder. I think about someone like Albert Einstein. Could I, could anybody, carry on a conversation with him? Because he was so far beyond our intellect, the way his mind was wired, my best guess is no, you couldn’t (though I would have loved to try, especially about his belief that “imagination is more important than knowledge”). Einstein and these other figures are the true geniuses, not basketball players.
And yet I feel pretty sure that a Monet or a Picasso (or even a writer whom I admire, like Malcolm Gladwell) has felt things very similar to what I have felt. Basketball is, and always has been, a huge, huge part of me, the canvas I tried to paint each time I stepped on the court and never stopped trying to perfect. It’s been my life. It’s been my love. I’ve hated it. Been frustrated with it—and delighted with it—beyond tears. There’s always been the allure of that damn basketball (though I am convinced it chose me, not the other way around). And there has always been a constant battle for me to try to find the satisfaction that I should have got by now (should being one of the trickiest, most dangerous words imaginable). It was really hard to find, and even harder to hold on to. It was almost like I was tormented.
When I think even more carefully about it, the art of creating something is not that different from what I did for so many years as the general manager of the Lakers: judge talent, try to determine not only what made a particular player good but whether he might have the potential to be great (or to be a great role player), and have a sense of all the mysterious intangibles that made up the chemistry of a winning team and organization. It was like putting on a Broadway play and hoping you had cast it perfectly; there was hardly any room for error. At season’s end, you knew that only one team was going to be truly happy and everyone else was going to be different degrees of miserable. That’s part of the reason I tried to instill a family atmosphere, to create something in my professional life that I didn’t have growing up. To say that I was mildly obsessed with doing all of this—including pleasing our fans and pleasing the owner—is, frankly, an understatement, a joke, a half-truth. It was far more than that; it consumed me, and often made me ill. Trusting my instinct has always served me well. I haven’t always been right, far from it, but I seem to have been right far more than I have been wrong. When Gladwell’s Blink was published, a book that underscored the importance of not doubting your first impulse and going with your gut, I read it with great interest. He was able to explain and articulate in writing what I had always hoped was true.
When I would wake early in the mornings and didn’t have to trudge off to school, where I was an indifferent student, I couldn’t wait to climb the steep Alleghenies (part of the Appalachian range) and hike around the woods like an explorer, some sort of modern-day Daniel Boone (who spent a lot of time in West Virginia) or Davy Crockett. With my Daisy Red Ryder BB gun in hand, then later a Remington .410 single-shot shotgun, I loved the fact that I had no idea what the heck I was going to see (though secretly I was both excited and terrified by the idea of running into a bear). I wanted to go places where no one else would be, or even think to venture. To me, the woods held the possibility of finding a magic elixir, a perfect-world Magic Kingdom where every animal I ever wanted to see—or have an opportunity to shoot—would be; they’d be there but hiding, watching me, as I would be on the lookout for them: squirrels, rabbits, and, if I was lucky, ruffed grouse. It became a competition, one of the first of many in my life, and in retrospect, I viewed it as one way to climb up from the abyss.
I had a sense of wonderment, a tingling feeling that would wash over me when I found spots high up where I could get a vast overview of what lay below (a feeling that has endured all these years, be it on a golf course at the top of a ridge or in an upper-level suite at an arena or from the window of an airplane). If I could have afforded binoculars or a telescope at the time, it would have been even better. The way I see it, we all have a different idea of what’s beautiful, what’s attractive to look at, what captures the eye. I am, more than anything else, a visual person. I love vibrant colors (if you ever saw my collection of patterned Missoni sweaters, which I take a lot of kidding about, you would see why). And I love to observe people practice their crafts.
Every August I could hardly wait to go to the State Fair, near Lewisburg, or the Kanawha County Fair, in Charleston. But instead of marveling at the largest cucumber or the largest tomato (though I have put in and tended a number of gardens in my life and can talk about the finer points of heirloom tomatoes with anyone), I most enjoyed watching the amateur sketch artists, trying to figure out how they could draw a person so quickly and make him or her so lifelike. That fascinated me, in part because I couldn’t. And yet I wanted to know more. That’s how I have always been. If I don’t know something, I will strive to find out about it, and I will often drive everyone around me—including myself—crazy in the process. In this case, I wanted to know, to figure out, which of these people might go on to become professional artists and make a real living and perhaps paint masterpieces and which would not, maybe in part because they were merely content and comfortable to do what they were doing. What I came to realize, to sense even then, is that it is one thing to have a vague vision and quite another to be able to bring that vision into sharp focus and have the drive and will to go beyond it. So much depends on finding out what’s inside a person that, eventually, will enable him to achieve on a larger scale.
Take someone like Abraham Lincoln, for instance. Last time I checked, there had been nearly five thousand books written about him. Five thousand. I am a voracious reader, particularly of history, and I have always found it interesting that Lincoln was viewed as a failure at this, that, or the other, and yet he became one of our greatest presidents. I don’t know for sure if Lincoln was considered a great intellect, but even if he wasn’t, it didn’t prevent him from achieving greatness. He was able to find that one little niche in himself that allowed his greatness to surface.
This is what happens when I drive back into my past. All sorts of things come crashing down, some of which I would just as soon forget.
As we get near the exit for Chelyan and Cedar Grove, there is a sign that reads:
I have always, all my life, experienced an odd sensation whenever I am singled out. I am embarrassed by the attention, uncomfortable with it. When I was younger, my face would get red and I would look away and down and want to be somewhere else, anywhere but there. You might think I am kidding, but trust me, I am not. When you had a father who beat you, as mine did, for reasons I am still trying to fathom, it is hard to think of yourself as very special, as deserving of acclaim.
The sign on the highway I expected to see. What I didn’t expect (and was distressed to see) once we got into the burg of Chelyan was a sign written in Magic Marker on a bedsheet attached to a chain-link fence at the Appalachian Power Plant (where I worked one summer) and billowing in the wind. It informed everyone when the Class of 1960 from my alma mater, East Bank High School, was holding its reunion, but it also told me that things had gotten worse, not better, since I had last been there, a few years before. The lawns were not as well kept, and there were more trailers. The old, gray wood-frame home I’d lived in, on Little Lane, had burned down in 1962, two years after I left for Los Angeles. But the smaller brick home across the way, in which my mother, father, and youngest sister, Barbara, lived after the fire, is still there. Brown’s Theater has gone, and so has Wade’s Pool Hall, where one window or another was always broken, often because someone had gotten thrown through it, someone who had almost certainly been drinking moonshine well into a Friday night, the day the miners got paid. It didn’t take much for people to get crossways around these parts.
It might have been 2008, but for me it was like being transported in a time machine back to the years between World War II and the Korean War, which was the war that forever altered the life of the West family.
We came into the world in this order: Patricia, Charlie, David, Hannah, me, and Barbara. Patricia is fourteen years older than me, and Barbara (whose name within the family was Cookie) is nine years younger. Owing to the wide age range, and for other reasons that I will get into, it sometimes seemed as if there were two separate households. David was our glue. He was nine years older than me and he epitomized goodness. Our shining light. I always felt he was looking out for me, even though he threw a basketball at me once and told me that I was too small to join in the game he was playing with his friends and that I should scram. “You’re going to be sorry that you didn’t let me play,” I yelled, “because one day I am going to be a great player, you wait and find out.” I am not exactly sure where the confidence to say that came from, but the incident only made me more determined. I was small—my growth spurt didn’t occur until high school, when I grew six inches in one summer—and I was skinny, so much so that I couldn’t play football in school, which was a great disappointment to me. Football and baseball, you see, were king in my part of West Virginia when I was growing up, not basketball. On Friday nights, people would come from far and wide to see the East Bank Pioneers play. (And kids would come from a radius of twenty-two miles to go to school there.)
I wish I could say with absolute certainty when I started to shoot baskets, or why. I do know that there was a makeshift basket in a neighbor’s dirt yard (two poles, a hoop, and a wooden backboard) and that at first I summoned all my strength to get the ball up there, underhand. And I do know that I attached a wire basket with no net to the side of a bridge, and if the ball didn’t go in, it would roll down an embankment and I would have to chase it a long way, and because of that, I learned the practical importance of following my shot and following through. And as much as I hated winter, I would be out there in all seasons and in all weather, because I did not want to be at home. I can hear my mother’s voice still, bellowing that it was time for dinner and promising me a whipping if I didn’t come on the double (a whipping I often got).
I had neighbors I liked—especially the Kirks, whose family was so large (thirteen or fourteen kids) I could never figure out how everyone got fed; and a man named Francis Hoyt, the safety director at the power plant, who sort of adopted me as his son, taking me fishing and doing things with me that my own father apparently had no interest in doing.
But there were other neighbors—one couple in particular—I will never forget. It was summer, and as I was walking by this couple’s house on my way to shoot baskets, they were outside on their porch, fanning themselves, and one of them said, in a voice loud enough for me to hear: “There goes that West kid again, goin’ nowhere in a hurry. He’s not goin’ to amount to nothin’.” Strangely enough, I have always been grateful to them for their resolute belief in me.
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. But instead of letting this weigh me down, it only stoked my anger and determination, something I kept in my back pocket the way another kid might carry a rabbit’s foot, something that always stayed lit, like the eternal flame at Arlington. If, as I already noted, the words serenity and complacency are not to be found in my personal dictionary, neither is no.
For my particular psyche, no is the best—and the worst—word there is.
My sense of competition revealed itself in all sorts of ways. As Jonathan and I continued to drive around that morning, one look at the railroad tracks of the Chesapeake and Ohio—the C & O—reminded me of some of the rare occasions when I did things with others. My friends and I would sit on the tracks and count the number of Fords and Chevrolets we saw pass by; each one you saw was good for one point. If you spotted the rare Cadillac, which I had the good fortune to do (out of the corner of my eye, far off in the distance) more than once, you got extra points and were sure to win. I have often wondered if my ability to see the whole basketball court when I played—even, it seemed, what was going on behind my head—to see and anticipate things before they actually happened, was honed way back then, one Cadillac at a time.
I can also remember walking along those tracks with a broom handle, throwing rocks up in the air and hitting them with all my might, imagining that one day I could play center field for the New York Yankees. And the times I would head out to go fishing, pole and plastic bait box in hand, and challenge myself by walking on a pipeline moist with morning dew. If I slipped, I would fall into the grass or dirt.
My great fear of water has a lot to do with the fact that I almost drowned once. Later, when I took a required swimming class in college, I panicked when I had to go to the bottom of the pool and come back up. Even though I modeled a lot of swimsuits in the 1960s for Jantzen, I never told anyone I could barely swim (and still have no desire to), and yet I am deeply fascinated by water all the same. I love being near it, and I love looking out onto it and fishing from it, and I love all the different sounds it makes. I just don’t want to be paddling around in it.
Speaking of fishing, if someone told me the fish weren’t biting, that he and his buddies hadn’t caught anything all day, I was never deterred—I was intent on catching the biggest damn fish in the river, and I would never give up. Never. After all, I had gone to a lot of trouble to prepare, carefully making some dough balls and sprinkling them with cinnamon—my own scented concoction—and I wasn’t about to go home empty-handed.
Someone has to be the last one standing, the last lone figure at day’s end.
On the few occasions my sons have visited my hometown with me, they shake their heads, trying to figure out what I could possibly have done to occupy my time, telling me how bored they would be, how they couldn’t have stood it. “How could you grow up here?” they’d ask. “There’s nothing to do.” Instead of being irritated, though, I would be amused and come right back at them. “What? You’ve got to be kidding me. I had plenty to do.” How different their lives might have been, I often think to myself, if they could have appreciated having their minds as their best friends instead of some damn cell phone or video game.
Patricia was so happy I was coming to visit she had baked an apple pie, a gene she had inherited from our mother, who could bake anything. My nephew Billy, who was Patricia’s son and possibly loves West Virginia University more than life itself, who practically bleeds Mountaineer Blue and Gold, was there to greet us as well. Patricia had had a terribly unhappy marriage to Jack Noel, who fought in World War II, but as a boy I didn’t really know that. I just knew that they would take me places from time to time, even as far as Morgantown for a WVU basketball game once. Back in those days, the trip could take nearly five hours, over pretty rough road. Anytime I went somewhere away from Chelyan and Cabin Creek was an adventure, and I often imagined I was an astronaut, traveling to another planet. Even a bus trip to Charleston, the state capital, was a big deal, and I was sometimes afraid I would get lost or miss the last bus home. But as I got a bit older, it was in Charleston, as a matter of fact, where I learned about women, when I worked there for a few summers during college and played ball in the Charleston Summer League.
Patricia had been the postmistress at Cabin Creek for a number of years, as had Aunt Katherine, my mother’s sister, and that was the reason our family’s mail went there instead of to Chelyan and why to this day people think I am from there, which gained me the nickname I have never liked—“Zeke from Cabin Creek.” I know it might seem like a distinction without a difference, but it mattered to me. In any case, it was my job to go and fetch the mail, and I would always run up there to do so. The truth is, I ran everywhere, not just to collect mail or escape mean dogs. If I were an actor, I could have played the lead role in The Fugitive. I have a reservoir of restless energy that accelerates and intensifies everything I do. If you come out to eat with me, I might be done before you have your second bite; one of my closest friends, Gary Colson, who has had a thousand meals with me, maybe more, advises others to order their food to go, and he is not kidding. If you play golf with me, I can be so impatient it’s a joke. You can ask Michael Jordan or, better yet, the irritated foursomes who have played in front of me over all the years. I do everything fast. Shaquille O’Neal says that whatever I had to say to him, whether I was praising him or bawling his ass out, I could say it in less than a minute. That’s who I am, and I am unlikely to change. But I do want to say this, and it is true: I am good company and know how to crack wise and cut up as well as anyone. For some strange, inexplicable reason, I will sometimes be the first one to playfully put on a wig or a mask or some other form of disguise. A sense of mystery has always appealed to me.
On the matter of eating quickly, I would like to explain further. Aside from Sunday dinners, which were a noonday, after-church meal, we tended to eat buffet style in the West house, and there was no sitting around the table for long discussions. In that respect, it was more like families in America today, where nearly everyone is rushing around, coming and going, separate entities almost. And when I see all the fast-food restaurants everywhere I look, I think of one thing: they are the main reason most American families don’t sit down together for dinner on a daily basis. We have lost something, something I never really had growing up (though Karen always made sure that we ate dinner together as a family).
Thanksgiving was a big exception, my favorite day of the year. Everyone was together and in a good mood, my mother’s hot rolls and buttermilk pie and cake with apricot filling were in abundance, and the weather was as it should be—cold and crisp. When I moved to California, Thanksgiving lost a certain bit of its appeal to me because of the mild climate. Now some might say that that is a peculiar notion, but there you have it.
I am often painfully awkward or detached when I greet someone, including family, and today was no exception. I am not very demonstrative. I hardly ever hug. I rarely do it with my own children, or with Karen. It doesn’t mean I am not glad to see them; it doesn’t mean I don’t care. It’s the same as not easily picking up the phone to call someone; it’s just how I am. And much of that, I am convinced, has to do with the almost complete lack of nurturing I received as a child. Cookie refers to the home we grew up in as “the ice house,” but that isn’t even the half of it.
Patricia had pulled together a lot of photographs and letters and various newspaper clippings in anticipation of our visit, and one of the first things we looked at were pictures of my father and the farm he had grown up on in Roane County, which is about fifty miles north of Charleston. He had been ten when his mother died, in 1910, and he and his eight siblings were sent to live with second cousins, the Starchers. (I later learned that nearly everyone in Roane County is named Starcher. It’s as if you went to Korea and said you were looking for a Lee; there’s millions of Lees there, and your chances of finding the person you want are pretty slim. West Virginia has lots of enclaves of families like this.) My father’s father, my grandfather Max, had been a ladies’ man and was not a presence in his life or, later, in mine.
I do know that my father was in the navy for a brief period during World War I. He came to Cabin Creek to work for Pure Oil (“Where the oil is pure as gold” went the company slogan) and he met my mother, but he did not stay faithful to her, something I did not learn until recently and that helps me understand why there was such distance between them, why I never saw them be affectionate toward each other in any way.
My father was very bright, very, but he was uneducated in any formal sense, and very unfulfilled. He read the paper every day, as I do now and have always done; he read it “cover to cover,” as he liked to say, and he often fell asleep on the couch with the paper covering his face. He put in twenty-seven years at Pure Oil as a machine operator, but eventually the wells ran dry. He was also involved in union activity—he had a passion for all things political, really—and, rightly or not, it was easy to be branded a troublemaker. When he moved us to Mineral Wells, not long after World War II, it was not just because he wanted to be his own man—there is nothing wrong with that—but because he was having trouble finding work. That was a fact. The other fact was this: he bought a gas station and he didn’t know a damn thing about cars because we didn’t own one.
I am a firm believer in doing things for others; I well know the deep satisfaction that comes with that, with doing something that you can’t put a price on and not caring one bit if anyone knows about it. But I believe, equally strongly, that you have to put your family and its needs first. And my father didn’t do that, and I came to resent the hell out of him for it.
I thought I was a good boy, the sort of kid any father would have been proud to call his son. But my father, it would appear, didn’t see it that way. You couldn’t disagree with him, you couldn’t cross him. I had no idea what my siblings would say on the subject of my father; in fact, I was pretty certain they were in denial about the kind of person he was, and that was one of the reasons they worried what I might write. After all, I couldn’t say for sure what did or didn’t happen to any of them (except for Hannah), just as they, because of our age differences, couldn’t say with any certainty what had happened to me.
And yet here I was at Patricia’s home, and while I was in the kitchen speaking with Billy about the prospects for the Mountaineer football season and his certainty that there is something lurking under the ground in the Amazon rain forest, my sister was telling Jonathan about the way things were in our household, about the corporal punishment our father would mete out if you stepped out of line.
I know that incarcerated is a strong word, but that is how I felt; it is also how I felt in the locker room before a game, like a caged animal that needed to break out; and it is why I still, today, look to escape from places and keep moving, a man on the run. That’s why the Sunday family dinners were such façades, really, cover-ups for the atrocities that occurred far too often.
Not long after we moved back to the Cabin Creek area, in 1947, two things happened: there was a strike in the mines (my father had caught on as an electrical worker for one of the coal companies, Oglebay Norton) and my brother David went off to serve his country in Korea.
During one particularly hard stretch, we ate the same soup out of the same pot for six days until I told my mother I simply couldn’t do it any longer. Well, let me tell you, I took the most god-awful beating that day from my father and it made me into a tough, nasty kid and it turned me even more inward than I already was. I never forgave him for it. Still haven’t. But I promised myself that I would do everything I could to make sure that never happened to me again. I screwed up my courage and told him so, told him that he’d better never lay another hand on me and reminded him that I had a shotgun under my bed and would damn well use it if I had to.
Where, you might ask, was my mother during all this? Did she even try to intervene? No, she did not, at least not that I remember. She was dealing with her own deep unhappiness.
I was ten when David enlisted and went overseas, and it was as if the sun, hardly bright to begin with, stopped shining altogether in our house. I can’t honestly say that David was my protector, but he did look out for me as best he could; he was the one I tried to emulate, that’s for sure, and I missed him terribly when he left. If I could be as perfect and well liked by everybody as he was, then maybe, just maybe, my father would stop picking on me, stop jumping all over my ass.
One of the things I most loved doing at home was listening to the radio in my room, listening to boxing matches and to WVU basketball games. I inherited David’s radio when he left to go to war, and I came to love Ray Robinson and Joe Louis, who incidentally became two of my three favorite sports heroes (the other being Jim Brown, the football player) and whom I later had the chance to meet. I will never forget seeing Sugar Ray on the cover of Life, leaning against his pink 1950 Cadillac in front of two businesses he owned in Harlem with an adoring crowd milling about. My love for boxing has been lifelong and has never waned. Whenever there is a big match, if I can possibly get there, I do, or I will watch it on television. When I went to Rome for the 1960 Olympics, in the midst of the Cold War, I was as excited to watch a young Cassius Clay box as I was to do what I had gone there for—play basketball. Playing in the Olympics was the single greatest thrill of my athletic career. I will never forget the indelible moment when, as the American flag was raised and “The Star-Spangled Banner” reverberated throughout the Palazzetto dello Sport, co-captain Oscar Robertson and I, my knees shaking, stepped up to the top rung of the podium and accepted the Gold Medal. To this day, it is my most cherished possession.
Listening to boxing and to Mountaineer games on the radio was great for another reason: it reassured me that indeed there was a wider world out there. What wasn’t great about the radio was the reception; it would fade in and out and I would fall asleep, and I hardly ever knew the outcome until the next day. That might be one of the main reasons I love suspense novels.
When you are used to seeing someone in your house day after day and then, suddenly, he is not there, it is a strange, unsettling feeling. So when a letter from David arrived, it was a relief and a gift. I didn’t read them at the time, but my mother would occasionally read parts aloud to me. I would watch her reading them and get a pretty good idea of their contents just by seeing how she reacted. I wanted to know, yet I didn’t want to know.
David had left for Korea in January of 1949. Twenty months later, in September of 1950, we received the following piece of information:
Private First Class DAVID L. WEST, RA15288301, Infantry, Heavy Mortar Company, 35th Infantry, United States Army. On 5 August 1950 and 6 August 1950, the 1st Platoon of Heavy Mortar Company was supporting Company F when enemy forces launched an attack in the vicinity of Haman, Korea. Working under artillery, mortar and small arms fire Private First Class West remained in his position receiving instructions from the forward observer, making computations and relaying the firing data to the gun positions. Private First Class West’s courage and skill enabled his company to repulse the enemy attack and are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service. Entered the military service from West Virginia.
BY COMMAND OF MAJOR GENERAL KEAN
Less than two weeks later, on August 17, David pulled a fellow soldier who had been seriously wounded in the leg to safety. We didn’t find out about this from David, nor did we learn from him that in October he was awarded the Bronze Star for meritorious service. In fact, it wasn’t until shortly before Christmas that we found out. The young man whose life he had saved, Corporal Don Woody, from the town of Institute, West Virginia, was interviewed by the Charleston Daily Mail and mentioned how a David West of East Bank had dragged him from a rice paddy after he was hit.
Holding David’s letters in my hands now, all these years later, causes me to tremble, brings emotions to the surface that I can barely contain. In a series of letters in November, David said, over and over again, that we shouldn’t get our hopes up that he would be home for Christmas. He asked our mother not to worry about him because it would only get her upset and said he hoped “Dad will work six days a week” in order to get the family out of debt; he also wanted to make sure she had received the money he’d sent so that he could feel he was helping with Christmas presents in his absence. The main reason he was fighting, he reminded her, was so that “Jerry and Hannah and Barbara can grow up in a free world,” and that with God’s help and grace all good things would occur, hallowed be His name.
He hoped that I would make the basketball team that year and do better than he had, that I would pay attention to my studies, and that, all in all, I would be “a good Joe.” He wrote that the reason they didn’t use the A-bomb was that it would kill too many women and children. In a letter to the Kanawha Citizen just before Christmas, he wrote: “I hope that people are praying for peace all over the world.” And to his pastor, Rev. H. E. Chowder of Chelyan Methodist, he said, “The innocent are really suffering over here. We feel very sorrowful, but what can we do about it? We need more Christians at home and in the army.”
Two weeks later, nine days into the new year, he wrote on American Red Cross stationery:
Don’t worry if you don’t hear too often from me, as the mail is slow and it might not be going out…. How is the New Year treating you, fine I hope…. If I don’t write to everybody regular tell them not to get mad at me and just keep writing as usual…. The days are okay but the nights are not so good. I guess the Chinese are feeling pretty happy. They have kicked us around pretty bad. But someday it will be our turn….
Hope Jerry is doing okay and also Hannah and Cookie. Keep up the morale at home. The article that you sent me about prayer was very good. Mom, hope you attend church regular. Still wish you would join the Church and make God your Saviour and the family guide.
I knew that religion was important to David—everyone expected him to become a minister when he returned—but I never heard him speak so directly about it. (Another thing I didn’t know was that people called him “Deac”—as in Deacon.) Six weeks later, on February 23, 1951, he wrote to say that his unit had
lost two guys but two new guys were coming in… I think we will get hit again hard, but I don’t think they will drive us out…. I wish this war would get over but I don’t have any idea about it….
I got another blood test today…. I will send you this paper on hepatitis, maybe you can get something out of it…. I hope I can go to Church this Sunday as I need to very much. May God Bless you and protect all the family.
I did make the team that year at Chelyan Junior High, where I played for Duke Shaver, who was obsessed with having us do the duck walk as a way to get fit (and not because everyone wanted to imitate Elvis Presley). Besides being small and skinny (I suffered from a vitamin deficiency for a time, mainly because I hardly ate), I had long, gangly arms, and ears that stuck straight out; I could easily have been a stand-in for Ichabod Crane. I wasn’t much to look at, and I was self-conscious, and the fact that I lacked a real support system at home certainly didn’t help matters.
As it turned out, I didn’t play very much in seventh grade; I may have gotten in one or two games. I tried to pay attention to my studies, but I wanted to be away from the house as much as possible.
I wish I could say these letters from my brother surprise me, but they don’t. Every person he could possibly be concerned with, he expresses concern for. The concern is never for himself.
On June 8, 1951, Sergeant David West was killed in action. David, whom I looked up to and who looked out for me. David, the model of goodness, who’d planned to become a Methodist minister, a man of God, the person people would turn to for solace. Now he was gone.
Bad news, it seems, always travels fast. I was on my way home from I can’t even remember where, probably school or the store, running as usual, minding my own business, and somebody yelled out to me that he’d heard my brother had died. What the hell was this guy talking about? Why would somebody feel it was okay to say something like that to me? I had just turned thirteen years old. I shouldn’t have to deal with things like that. It didn’t seem right.
David was supposed to have come home the previous January, but he had been “frozen in service,” whatever the hell that meant. Well, let me tell you, that day is frozen in my memory. It is a day that changed me and has never stopped haunting me. Or any member of my family, except for Barbara, perhaps, because she was only four. You can’t say the name General Douglas MacArthur (who was in charge of the forces in Korea) around me today without getting a reaction. When David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter was published in 2007, I tore through it looking for something, anything, that would explain to me what the Korean War—“the forgotten war”—had been about. I found that Halberstam shared my low opinion of MacArthur, and I finally understood what an egomaniac MacArthur was. I will always love Harry Truman for finally throwing his sorry ass under the bus, which was long overdue. I don’t like people who are deceitful, and MacArthur wasn’t straight with the president about what was happening over there. MacArthur had that line about old soldiers never dying, just fading away. Well, my brother had his whole life ahead of him. When someone dies young, as he did, another kind of freezing takes place: David West was cut down at twenty-one and he will be twenty-one forever. Some things I just see in black and white, see them for what they are.
Excerpted from West by West by Jerry West Copyright © 2011 by Jerry West. Excerpted by permission.
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