The scenery will soon change here, Jerry West explains in his Appalachian drawl. The picturesque green that surrounded us on the hills and mountains in southern West Virginia will soon be a magnificent splash of orange, gold, and brown. We’re standing in West’s home state, where he retreats every summer and transforms from “The Logo” (as we know him) to a West Virginian (as he prefers).
“I’m Jerry here,” West tells me. “In other places, I’m Mr. West. I know I’m getting old, but what the hell? I’d rather just be Jerry.”
The colors have not changed, but West’s perspective has shifted over the years. “I’m in more of a melancholy mood today,” he admits. Always a man of endless contradictions, the 73-year-old West is more aware of them than ever. He yearned for excellence on the basketball court but wishes he could be an average, everyday person away from it. He was obsessively devoted to the sports game and came as close as anyone to mastering it as a player and executive, and yet he abruptly retired as a player and as an executive — twice, no less, with his beloved Los Angeles Lakers and with the Memphis Grizzlies, whose warm-ups insignia he wore as we talked. He feels immense pride that the league recognized him as the silhouetted figure on its logo, but that logo vaulted him onto a pedestal that he continues to dread.1 He loves to read, but can’t sit still. His main joy is a product of a willingness to give his money, time, or resources, and yet there are days when he sincerely believes the world would be better without him.
“From that standpoint, I don’t have everything,” West says from the first floor of his lavish home, standing in a room adjacent to both a movie theater and wine cellar. “Self-esteem is something I still battle. People look at me and say you’ve got fame, you’ve got admiration, you’ve done this, you’ve done that. As far as I’m concerned, I haven’t done anything. I’ve just fulfilled a dream of competing. I could be special in some ways. Even though I felt at times, ‘My goodness, you’re among the upper echelon,’ there is still a huge void there. A huge void. It is about self-esteem. That’s a thing that has always been a real complex part of my life.
“I see people that have success and I see how poised and polished they are and how they handle it. I wonder inside if they feel the same way that I feel.”
I look down at a throw pillow on the couch. The inscription reads: “We interrupt this marriage to bring you basketball season.”
One day earlier, I had arrived in time for dinner2 with West and his wife, Karen, at their restaurant in White Sulphur Springs. Named Prime 44 West, it’s tucked into a corner of a luxury resort called The Greenbrier. The property sits on an underground bunker built as a fallout shelter to protect congressional members during the Cold War. The walls of Prime 44 are decorated with memorabilia from West’s career that Karen rescued from their attic, although it would need more walls to capture all of West’s accolades. He made the All-Star team 14 times, tasted championship champagne as a player, nudged Pat Riley into his first coaching gig, and worked himself endlessly to pair Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal for three more titles. West’s competitiveness is just as legendary as his disdain for losing. Even after everyone thought he was retiring, he couldn’t stay away, joining the Golden State Warriors recently as an adviser and executive board member. West accepted that role only with the stipulation that he would not make final decisions, saying, “It would be absolutely irresponsible for me to go someplace, where someone has a job and they have been there for a while, to come in and try and say I want to make all these decisions.”
You wouldn’t think running a team would wear West out like playing did, and yet that’s what kept happening. After West convinced O’Neal to join the Lakers in 1996, he actually had to be hospitalized for three days. It’s hard to picture someone that devoted to basketball remaining passively in the background. Could he really do that? What if he were overruled on a choice he knew was wrong? And with a toe dipped in, wouldn’t the temptation be there to want to jump in full-fledged?
“That was my big question,” Karen says.
“The more I’m around them, sometimes I wonder,” West responds. “I would very much give my opinion. On the other hand, they’ve made the playoffs once in 17 years and average about 19,000 fans a game.”
Maybe the question needs to be flipped: How could West have said no? After all, few addicts are able to quit cold turkey and never look back.
“It’s probably going to be fun for me,” West admits. “I don’t have to go in the office every day and worry if this guy’s sick or if this guy’s going to be playing. I can really objectively sit and watch.”
When West departed the Grizzlies in 2007, he believed his long affair with the NBA was over. He left the game, but the game never really left him. Even while serving as executive director of the PGA’s Northern Trust Open and spearheading its philanthropic efforts, he devoured every NBA contest he could, gossiped with active executives, and wondered about the atmosphere inside the locker rooms before big games.
“It didn’t take the place of it,” Karen remembers about the PGA gig. “It gave him something to do. It kept him busy. But there was no competitive juices going on. He never lost his love for basketball.”
The Warriors job sits somewhere between the expectation-packed job he held with the Lakers and the daunting rehaul of the Grizzlies. They have talent — including two wonderful scorers in Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis — but desperately need an identity beyond a run-and-gun style that rarely translates to NBA success. They need more size, they need better defenders, they need more glue guys. West believes a basketball team is like a puzzle, saying, “You can have an incredible puzzle look beautiful, but if you’re missing one or two pieces, it’s not complete.” He has enjoyed the beginning of his Warriors relationship, even offering input with their latest draft, but seems unsure of how the arrangement will evolve. His previous jobs ended suddenly, abruptly, always at West’s discretion.
“If somebody does not want me to work for them, I’m going to know by being around them,” West says. “I would never stay under circumstances where I felt I was a figurehead and might look good in your team media guide. I don’t want to be that. I do want to contribute, and if I don’t contribute, I’ll walk away from it. If I don’t feel welcomed, I’ll walk away from it.”
West takes pride in having crafted Lakers dynasties and edged the Grizzlies from laughingstock to respectability. His descriptions for how both relationships ended sound eerily similar. His Lakers job fell apart because “the last year, everything that was going on was Phil Jackson having no relationship with me. If somebody asked me who he is, I could tell them, ‘I don’t know.’ … I didn’t want to have an adversarial relationship with anyone. If I would have stayed around, it could have gotten ugly.”3 With the Grizzlies, “my last year there, it was not fun, OK? It was not fun. … Everything that happened happened for the negative. I think I again just had my fill.”
Even if he sounds content having broken away from the NBA these past four years, when I asked if he had found happiness away from the game, the answer wasn’t clear.
“Not really,” he admits. “I don’t mean that in a negative way. I’ve probably learned to appreciate the people I enjoy being around more. I learned to appreciate how good it makes you feel to give.”
Right before we leave his house for breakfast the next morning, West races back inside to take medicine for his atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat), a malady that has affected him ever since childhood (“before they even knew what it was,” he remembers), when he used to breathe in a paper bag because he was hyperventilating all the time. West plans to work out later in the day, which always makes his heart feel better.
“It’s really hard to explain unless you have it,” he says. “Some people don’t feel it. But it’s like today, I feel nice and calm today. But every once in a while something will set it off, and once it sets off, it’s just racing. You don’t sleep. When you get up in the morning, you feel like you’ve been racing all night, because your heart is beating so fast. It’s something you have to monitor. The medicine doesn’t always work, and you have to get blood tests to make sure your blood levels are right. It’s very dangerous for a stroke. I can’t think of a more debilitating thing for an active person to have than a stroke. I just can’t. But it’s something I’ve lived with for a very long time. The one thing it will do, it will set in motion all of the really bad things that I feel.”
He seems more reflective than usual. We arrive at a small diner, and West delves into the different pressures he felt as a player and executive. “There was more pressure as an executive than as a player,” he says. “As a player, you knew what you could do. You feel like Superman. There’s electricity going through your body. As an executive, all you do is sit there and worry. You have no control. You can’t shoot a free throw for someone. You can’t shoot a jumper for someone. You can’t think for someone. Frankly, I saw a lot more pain as a player than I did as an executive, but a lot more pressure as an executive than I did as a player.”
We finish breakfast and exit the diner, with West deriding the fundamentals of today’s players. Most don’t even know how to pivot properly, he says. He uses the tile of the diner’s floor as an example of an out-of-bounds line and twirls like a ballerina to stay “in bounds.”
“See?” he says.
The man is always thinking about basketball. Always. It’s amazing he stayed away for four years.
Once upon a time, during a decade remembered mostly for the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam War, a fierce rivalry between the Lakers and Celtics always ended the same way. West’s Lakers succumbed to the Celtics in six different Finals matchups in the ’60s, finally prevailing in 1972 … but against the Knicks.4 Which raises an interesting question: Had Jerry won five times against the Celtics and lost once instead, would he celebrate the wins or agonize over the single loss?
“He’s half empty most of the time,” Karen answers for him. “It’s hard to say. But I think he would enjoy them.” A slight pause passed. “I hope.”
West was more unsure. “All I did was learn how to lose,” he says.
“You didn’t learn how to lose,” Karen replies.
“No, I did learn how to lose,” West continues. “Unfortunately, it’s terrible. I learned how to lose. You could be sitting this far apart in a locker room and you could go in the other locker room and that’s all they do is praise the winner. Go in that other locker room and see what it’s like. It’s the worst feeling in the world. You feel like you’re lost. You hate yourself. You can’t stand yourself, and we praise the winners. When I say it’s an art to learn how to lose, it’s an art to learn how to lose with class because some people can’t. That was a humbling part of my life.
“I don’t know how it would change me. I don’t want to be different, but I am different.”
Even playing for the hated Lakers, West left an indelible impression on a young Celtics fan from New Bedford, Mass. The kid — Joe Lacob — eventually moved with his family to California, where he watched West play more often and adopted him as his favorite athlete. Years later, after Lacob had become a successful venture capitalist, he enrolled in Magic Johnson’s adult fantasy camp and played in a game with Johnson coaching one team and West the other.5 Lacob found himself matched against a player who was several inches taller.
“I looked over at Jerry West,” Lacob remembers, “and said, ‘I’m a 6-foot-tall Jewish guy. I can’t guard this guy.’ He said, ‘You have to. We have nobody else. You’ve got to do it. Step up.’”
Lacob sucked it up and dug in. As the opposing team brought the ball down, Johnson called out “Mouse in the house!” Lacob soon realized he was the mouse. “They threw the ball into him and the guy dunked over me, and this happened three consecutive times down the court,” he recalls.
“It was so embarrassing. It was beyond embarrassing.”
West called time-out but refused to switch defensive assignments. Instead, he told Lacob to do whatever it took — push, foul, drag, you name it. And that’s what Lacob did. He fouled the bigger player every time down the court, eventually fouling out of the game. Of course, West doesn’t remember the story — he probably pushed everyone that hard at those fantasy camps. But he does recall their second interaction, after Lacob bought the Warriors with Peter Guber last year, when Lacob asked West to join their executive board.6 West will serve as something of a jack of all trades, assisting with basketball operations, brainstorming with marketing and sponsorship opportunities, and frequently accompanying Guber from Los Angeles up to the Bay.
“He’s got some demons, as he will tell you,” Lacob says. “But we just get along really, really well. We really click. One thing Jerry West is more than anything else in the world, if you had to take one word, it would be passionate.”
Golden State’s masthead is growing rapidly. Beyond West, Guber, and Lacob, there’s general manager Larry Riley7 and assistant GM Bob Myers (the heir apparent). Travis Schlenk serves as assistant GM and director of player personnel. Kirk Lacob, Joe’s 23-year old son, was named director of basketball operations last year (he now serves as the GM of the Warriors’ D-League team). Former Phoenix president Rick Welts recently came aboard as the team’s president and chief operating officer. New coach Mark Jackson will be answering to all of them. Even if the two owners will have final say in all decisions, Lacob called for a dinner with West, Riley, Myers, Schlenk, and Kirk Lacob to ensure their voices would blend as one. He bristles when asked if there are too many chefs in the proverbial kitchen.
“Everyone who says that is completely clueless,” Lacob says. “It’s a stupid thing to bring up. This is a 100-plus-million-dollar business. You have to have management. Most NBA teams are incredibly poorly architected on the basketball side. They have people who are ex-players, and Jerry West is an exception to this — but most of them are ex-players or scouts or whatever. They don’t know how to negotiate against incredibly trained killers like Arn Tellem or other agents. That’s what they do for a living. I’m not a genius. There’s a different way to do things and be successful, clearly. But it’s a very successful, thought-out map.”
But what about West, someone who once had complete autonomy with two different teams? Can he really be expected to thrive in a bullpen-by-committee situation?
“He certainly will feel the itch [to get more involved],” Lacob says. “I’m sure he would love to be running something again and pulling the trigger again. That’s the excitement of it, right? But he also knows, and we’ve had these discussions at great lengths, he’s 73 and he’s in L.A. He can’t do it that way. It’s a young man’s game. There’s a lot of day-to-day scouting, a lot of day-to-day video analysis. He’s not prepared to do that right now and doesn’t want to. He has other interests right now.”
If logic is linear and losing is the absolute worst feeling, then winning would have to be the best, right? Not for Jerry West. Winning normally gave him relief, or the absence of whatever anxiousness and anxiety had swept over him before. The stress of doing it all over again roiled over him when West served as a Lakers executive.
“Sometimes you lose your way,” West explains. “You lose your way when you know what you want to accomplish for an organization. It’s not for you. It’s for an organization and a city. You get to the point where you don’t care about anything about yourself. You don’t care about anything except that. It’s a sickness. It really is a sickness. I didn’t know how to deal with it.”
It doesn’t help when the line between winning and losing often comes down to one play, one bounce, one unlucky ricochet. West’s West Virginia team lost the NCAA championship game to California 71-70, the buzzer sounding with the ball nestled in West’s hands … only he didn’t have enough time to release a shot. It happened 52 years ago. He still thinks about it. That and every other major loss. But especially that one. “To think of having the ball at midcourt and not having the chance to get a last shot,” West says.
His voice trails off. And then …
“I hate to lose. I always hated to lose. I hate it. But the one thing I have learned, I’ve learned more from winning than I have losing. A lot more. I learned a lot more about people. I learned a lot more about myself.”
All right, but why does losing hurt him so much? And flipping it around, why does winning not necessarily alleviate that hurt? Maybe the answer lies here in West Virginia, about 90 minutes away in West’s hometown of Chelyan. West suffered through an especially turbulent childhood there. His father was abusive and negligent. His older brother, David, was killed in the Korean War. David was 22 when he died. West was 10 years younger.
“Sometimes I think that a lot of people would be better off [with] me not being around,” he says. “I truly mean that. I truly mean it. There’s a path for all of us in this world. I feel very strongly there’s a timeline for all of us, and when it’s your time, you’re gone. I’ve seen some tragic things happen to kids. I cringe because they haven’t had the chance to live their lives. My brother, I often wonder what he would have done with his life. He was one of those incredible people who never had a chance to live his life. I look at myself with all of the flaws I have and all the things I struggle with. I would have gladly sacrificed my life for him. Gladly.
“All your life when you’re growing up in a household like I grew up in and having a different type of personality — I’m basically a soft person — you’re always trying to figure out a way to try and please someone, and you can never please anyone, OK? The good things you did, sometimes you were getting punished for it. It was more than punishment. It was worse than punishment. I’ve never been a conventional thinker, even when I was little. I think that might have a lot to do with it. Was I trying to prove something to myself? Was I trying to prove something to others? Winning sometimes didn’t do it because the place you most want to be accepted was in your own household, and when you weren’t accepted there, it made you really wonder is it even worth it? At the end of it, I could immerse myself in something that made me feel good. Just the competition made me really feel good. I liked that, trying to get better at something.”
The score was one-sided at home. At its core, basketball always supplied West with a nondebatable ledger, only it never solved his anguish or his anxiety or his frustration and pain. The game served as an outlet and record-keeper for him. That’s it. There are no ties, no middle ground, no confusion about the outcome. One side always wins — that’s good. One side always loses — that’s bad. Cut-and-dry. That’s what drove West to become the player and executive he once was, that’s what haunted him then and haunts him now, and that’s what pulled him back to the NBA one last time.
Those gorgeous colors in West Virginia will soon change, like they always do. By the time it happens, West will be living in Los Angeles again, playing with another puzzle, consumed with making the pieces fit. It doesn’t matter whether it’s spring, summer, fall, or winter. It doesn’t matter how old he is, either. Close your eyes and you can see Jerry West as a child, pounding the ball into the ground over and over again, making sure he gets the extra height he needs for another perfect jump shot, trying to win the game, but, really, trying to stave off another loss.
Jonathan Abrams is a staff writer for Grantland.
Previously from Jonathan Abrams:
How Do NFL Linemen Drop the Weight?
Meet Your New NBA Owners!
Arvydas Sabonis’ Long, Strange Trip
The Long, Strange Career of Billy Hunter
The National Basketball Association’s European Vacation
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