In Los Angeles last March 19 it was Jerry West Night, and The Forum was packed. The place was bathed in an excess of emotion because a couple of weeks before West had torn the ligaments in his right knee, and he was still on crutches. He stood there with his wife Jane and the three boys.
Bill Russell waited in the wings while others made their speeches. He was not listed on the program. West did not know he was there. Two months before, Jim Brochu, then the Laker P.R. man, had thought to ask Russell if he might attend. "I'll be there," Russell said, and he paid his own way to fly across the country. When he was announced and strode out toward West, the people rose in delight and cheered.
Russell walked up to West and hugged him. Many people were beginning to cry even before he spoke.
Then Russell picked up the microphone, and the place fell silent. He said: "Jerry, I once wrote that success is a journey, and that the greatest honor a man can have is the respect and friendship of his peers. You have that more than any man I know.
February 7, 1972
"Jerry, you are, in every sense of the word, truly a champion." He paused, and The Forum was utterly still. Russell looked at West and said: "If I could have one wish granted, it would be that you would always be happy."
Of all the sports stars of our time, West is the most appealing. In his victories, which come often, he is reliable and accessible and humble. In his defeats, which are not many (except that one of them each year lasts all summer long), he is never tragic, only vulnerable. In his life, he appears as he is, quite human.
West has so far outstripped even the wildest dreams of his boyhood that he is no longer capable of comprehending what he represents to others. For himself, any appreciation of his own status is blurred because he is, pound for pound, a better sports fan than he is a sports star. He marvels so guilelessly at the Jerry West of the basketball record books that he has developed a faculty for referring to himself in the second person except in moments of doubt or self-deprecation. For instance:
"All this really is not supposed to be happening to you. You know, I'm still kind of uncomfortable that someone wants your autograph. When I sign, I look around to see if anybody I know is watching me.... You watch some of these games on television, and you just wonder how in the world some of these players can do the things they do. I'm telling you, I think I look awful on TV. I would love to be more exciting as a player, to be someone like [Joe] Caldwell or [Rick] Barry or [Dick] Barnett, but I've just never been a press agent's dream.... I'm really anxious to see these new kids come in every year, the ones I've read so much about. Of course, it kind of shakes you up when one of them tells you that you've been their idol since they were in 10th grade or something."
As gee whiz as that sort of thing sounds, West is perfectly aware of how good he is and how much he is worth. It is just that he is surprised that it is him. There have been occasions in the heart of a season, when he has been healthy and in top shape, when he has been jumping straight up, with every move in rhythm and every shot sprinkled with touch, that West has confided to friends: "I don't believe I can miss a shot out there now. I think I can score every time I get the ball." He makes these remarks idly, with as much bravado as someone else might employ in reporting that he had mastered the operation of an electric can opener.
Yet all the achievement, all the glory has been strangely, even pathetically, transcended by the few calamities that West has suffered. The distillation of his career is defeat and frustration. If everything he has meant to the Lakers and every wound and pressure that has been visited on him could be telescoped into one game, it would be the one he played the night of May 5,1969, the seventh game of the sixth championship series between Boston and Los Angeles.
Boston had straggled in fourth in its division. Los Angeles had won its easily. The Lakers took the first two games from the Celtics and would have wrapped up the series in five except that Sam Jones made one mad shot at the buzzer. Also, West pulled a hamstring. For the seventh and last game he had to be helped down the stairs beforehand, a man supporting him on either side.
That night, on one leg, he scored 42 points, and had 12 assists, and Boston won by a basket. The Lakers seemed totally defeated when Wilt Chamberlain went to the bench in the fourth quarter with an injury and the team down by nine. West brought them back. His teammates would give him the ball and run the other way. It was his ball and his game on his one leg, and he just missed it by two points. He went off by himself, near tears, and then the Celtics came over to honor him. That time Russell could only clasp West's hand and hold it. Then John Havlicek came to him. He said, "Jerry, I love you."
What makes West so appealing is that his frailties are not his fault. They are imposed on him by an arbitrary, even unfair, world. It is recognized that he is the consummate athlete: not only dedicated and proficient, but at his very best when the stakes are highest. Besides, personally he is attractive: friendly, unassuming, gentle, loyal, popular and so forth and so on.
This is all to say that we are inclined to identify with him. But what especially draws us to him is that he is all these things and still loses and gets hurt at the wrong times. That is the real stuff of identity; he really is you and me. For in our world, although we like to believe that we are veritable saints, deserving of the very best, our dishwasher breaks down, the neighbor's children are better looking, there is water in the cellar and our best friend gets promoted. It is a special comfort to know that Jerry West is just as put upon as we are.
West appears all the more sympathetically when compared to the dominant figures in modern sport. There is Russell, of course, throttling every best offense; and all those strong-arm pitchers, knocking the bats out of the poor hitters' hands; and the bruising behemoths, a lineage from Bingaman to Big Daddy to Bubba, clobbering the pretty-boy quarterbacks. Ultimately, nowadays, the crucial characters are defensive or, from a blunter point of view, negative. It is no time, really, for Frank Merriwells.
All told, he has scored almost 30,000 points. If in five particular games he had scored 10 more points he would have won one NCAA and four NBA championships. As it is, he is 0-8 in the finals, and five of those times it came down to one game, winner take all. In the history of sports, there has never been anything like it, except for Elgin Baylor, who suffered alongside West until his retirement early this season.
"People constantly keep reminding you," West says. "It's getting to be almost a touchy subject with me. You see, they never grant you that you got so far, that you won all the others that counted just to get to the championships. Sometimes I've thought about all the baseball players who never even made a World Series."
He lets the subject die with that, which is further comment in itself, for West loves to talk, to chatter on. Baylor tabbed him "Louella." He also called West "Tweety Bird" for his West Virginia twang, which is never so pronounced as when he gets excited with some hot new gossip. "Rumors are safe with you, Tweety Bird," Baylor told him once. "You pass them on, but nobody can understand you."
By contrast, as a collegian, West was so shy and silent that Fred Schaus, the Laker general manager who coached him at the University of West Virginia, recalls one two-week period in West's sophomore year, when, evidently, he never let one word escape his lips. Jody Gardner, a teammate who roomed with West, says that his presence was never felt—if not sleeping, he was mute and withdrawn, even among his closest friends. West did not have a date his entire freshman year.
The next year he sat next to a girl named Martha Jane Kane in one class. He was to marry her two years later, but it was weeks, she says, "of passing notes back and forth and doodling on each other's paper" before he first asked her out. Then he clammed up the whole time he was with her, although she does say that he had sufficient wits about him to kiss her good night.
All of this is significant because it is fashionable, almost obligatory, to dwell on the little homily about how Jerry West has not changed one whit. No sirree, he's the same boy that left good old Cabin Creek for Morgantown in '56. It is revealing of our treasured illusions how determined people are to be reassured of that verity: Jerry West hasn't really changed, has he? Really?
Just as everyone is drawn to West for his vulnerability, so too do they identify with him for his success. Along with the fame and fortune that come with the Great American Dream is the understanding that the dreamee Remembers Where He Came From. It is not ratified as an all-round Great American Dream if the hero becomes snotty as well as prosperous.
In the case of West, people are concerned with his Dream credentials because he is such a model study. Like so many, he has gone from the country to the suburbs, from flattop to neatly combed brush. Even the name, Jerry West, has about it the ripple of amber waves of grain. Besides, while no glamour puss, he is very definitely what mothers used to call "nice looking." And, at a lean 6'3", he is no goon—even a little fellow on the court.
Finally, West is one of the few white superstars left in a game that millions of white men play as children and watch, enviously, as adults. "Surely, you realize, Jerry," Russell cackled once, stepping back from a jump ball at an All-Star Game and taking note of eight other black 'players, "that you are the great white hope?"
So, in just about every way—ethnically, physically, demographically, racially, financially—West is cut in the American mold. The comforting fact is, too, that West basically has not changed. Really. The incumbent West, the jabberer, is much more in keeping with the rest of the man than was the original quiet version. Since the rest of West never stops moving, there is no reason to expect his mouth to.
"He is a very complicated, woundup spring, a bundle of nerves," Fred Schaus says. "He is so high-strung that in all the time I have known Jerry, I have never once seen him fully relaxed."
"He's one of the more nervous people you've ever seen in your life," says Bob Cousy, the Cincinnati coach. "He can eat faster than anyone I've ever known."
"You go out with Jerry, you hit eight places every five minutes," says Rod Hundley, a former Laker teammate and another West Virginian. "He comes in a place, takes a sip of beer, looks around, and says, 'Come on, let's go someplace else.' "
Says Jane West: "He's so antsy, he's always on the go. If you tried to keep up with him you'd be going all the time, seven days and seven nights a week. When we belonged to a beach club, Jerry couldn't sit long enough to enjoy it. Here we are right near the ocean, and he can't stand it. He plays golf, and I take the boys to the beach. That may sound peculiar, but togetherness in the traditional way just hasn't worked for us. I've reached the point where it doesn't bother me."
Probably West was once so quiet because he just was not used to talking. Naturally shy, he came from a small town, and from a family in which his nearest brother (who was killed in Korea) was almost 10 years his senior. West begins his autobiography with this sentence: "I think I became a basketball player because it is a game a boy can play by himself." He would shoot for hours in his yard, in the cold and the twilight, then listen in bed to the West Virginia Mountaineer radio broadcasts. Matter-of-factly, he dismisses the chance that any of his three sons might ever be much good at basketball, because he sees that none of them cares enough to shoot and dribble, alone, into the night.
That does not bother West. He concedes that had he grown up off Sunset Boulevard, with his own pool and a country club, he would not have shot so many baskets either. "I know he never got many presents as a boy," Jane says. "A gun. One time he was given a gun. I think he got to college with two pairs of pants and one sports jacket. He would rather his boys have too much than too little. He got them a Honda 50 a little while ago just because it was something that he would have liked to have had as a boy."
Yet the Zeke-from-Cabin Creek hillbilly image that has pursued West ever since he came to Los Angeles is wildly distorted. The legend, embellished by time and distance, and by the same kind of smogbound rustic yearning that also gave us Hee Haw, portrays West as dirt poor, a miner's barefoot son who shot baskets by what moonlight could peek around the mountains and over the still and the outhouse.
This has embarrassed West, if only because he thinks it is unfair to his parents, who always had enough food, heat and clothes in the house. "It was a good house," says Fred Schaus, who spent many hours there, sitting on the front-porch swing, trying to convince Jerry and his mother that he should enroll at Morgantown. "It wasn't pretentious, but it was neat and clean and large enough. It was a two-story white frame."
The Wests' house was not even in Cabin Creek. That was a post office down the road. The Wests lived in Cheylan, which doesn't rhyme with anything and is only 14 miles from Charleston. West was probably closer to downtown Charleston than his house is to downtown Los Angeles today. His father was an electrician, not a miner, and young Jerry was not taught the three Rs in a little red schoolhouse. He went to East Bank High, which was a large regional school that played basketball in the toughest conference in the state.
For reasons that are not clear except that he was so skinny, and that the same pattern repeats itself at each new level he ascends to, nobody appreciated how good West was for some time. Then the coaches started coming round, embarrassing him with their backslapping hooey and occasionally shocking him with flat-out offers that exceeded what his father was making in a year.
Jerry's father died several years ago, and the house has burned down too. Mrs. West still lives in West Virginia, though. She came out to visit the Wests in their beautiful new home a little while ago, but she did not stay long. The Wests have a maid. "Mother couldn't clean the house," Jerry says. "She was going out of her mind."
The West house in Brentwood is done in Spanish décor. It is large and spacious with a sunken bathtub and a walk-in closet. Pets are more visible than trophies. In the corner of the living room are pictures of Jerry West Night and of the day last fall that he received an honorary degree from West Virginia Wesleyan. No jump shots. Each of the three boys—aged 11, 10, nine, which is what can happen if a wife is determined to have a daughter—has a room of his own, although they share them with thousands of bubble-gum cards.
"They come to me," West says, "and they show me a card and say, do you know this player. And if I say I do, they get all wild-eyed. But they're not very excited about me. Maybe in another player's house I'm very big. They get a certain excitement at the games, but I really don't know if they go for the game or the popcorn. Ah, they're front-runners. We're raising them just to be regular fans, I suppose."
Jane came from more substantial circumstances than Jerry. Her father ran a hardware store in Weston, W. Va. and was not impressed by athletes. Jane was extroverted and sure of herself. "Everything had always come true, just the way I wanted it to be," she says. She is bright-eyed, auburn-haired, perky pretty, almost a foot shorter than her husband. She is also quick and determined, quite comfortable and adept at being both Jane West and Mrs. Jerry West. She is organized and outgoing and, like her husband, marked by self-perspective. Perhaps, despite all their differences, that was what brought them together.
"Really, I had everything I wanted," she says. "A big happy family. Good grades, cheerleader, May Queen, all that. I was always a very optimistic person. I always thought I was going to marry Prince Charming. I was always sure of that."
Long after the Wests could afford the large home they have now, they stayed in a small, average sort of development house in West L.A. Jane's Lincoln Continental would be parked out on the street next to all the Mustangs and Furys. The reason the Wests did not move was that they liked the people in the neighborhood. When Jerry first came to Los Angeles he stayed almost exclusively in the community he lived in because he was afraid to venture out on the freeways, and, while he certainly knows his way around now, he still lives large chunks of a small-town existence. His favorite hangout is a drugstore near UCLA where he goes to kibitz about sports. He takes Jane over there for lunch sometimes, and they eat sandwiches while sitting on orange crates in the back room. Once a year, for a week or two, he goes fishing with Hollis Johnson, who runs the lunch counter.
Jerry goes to the hockey games, the football games and the baseball games. He can tell all the players without a scorecard and is equally conversant when it comes to a discussion of field position, back-checking or farm-system prospects. West has even done blow-by-blow boxing accounts on TV, and the fights may be his favorite event of all since he can usually attend them without anybody bothering him. The paying customers are Chicanos and don't know Jerry West from Gump Worsley from Birch Bayh.
Jerry West, the fan, will apparently be the only one that will survive in sports. He professes virtually no interest in becoming a coach or an announcer, which is contrary to what is generally assumed. Perhaps playing with such passion for so long has consumed too much of him. Even now, he no longer brings the game home with him, except for that one last time each spring.
Once, after the Lakers had lost the championship game again, he said good-by to Jane and faded off to Palm Springs for a few days. Another year, beaten in the last game once more, he drove her away from The Forum in total silence, like in the old days, when he never said a word. Jane began to talk a lot on the way, trying to divert him. He didn't reply until they got to their driveway. Then he turned and looked at her. "O.K., get out," he said.
Jane opened the door and left. He drove off and was gone for half an hour or so. "Jerry doesn't like to have anyone see him cry," Jane says. "When he came back, we had a big thing about, you know, me sharing the wins, me having to share the losses too, that sort of thing. My God, I tried to tell him, not just: 'O.K., get out.' Not just that. I was killed by that. Just killed."
The last two years, after the loss to the Knicks and after his knee operation, West nearly retired. After this season, win or lose, he almost surely will.
Besides never having won a title, West has never been voted MVP. Centers invariably win the honor, so presumably the players will choose between Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar this year. Nonetheless, there has been a ground swell for West the last few seasons, so that now he is often accepted as the equal, or the superior, of Oscar Robertson as the finest guard of all time. Probably it is a senseless argument, for although they were born six months apart in 1938 and have had parallel careers, they have been asked to perform such different functions for such different teams that no comparison is possible.
In terms of total contribution, West may well be playing better now than he or any guard ever has. "When you really learn to play the game," West says, "you're past your peak." For sheer individual attack force, however, his best may have come in any of several playoff series of a few seasons ago. In all but one year his playoff stats have been better than his regular season's.
Ironically, West has always been more skilled defensively than offensively, even in the early years when his image was that of a gunner. The players, though, were aware of the darting eyes on the skinny little pointy-eared rookie guarding them before they appreciated the classic jump shot. Bill Sharman, West's coach, feels that he is one of the few players who can play both his man and the ball at large. As numerous as his steals are, Sharman marvels more at the shots West blocks. "He must have blocked three times as many as any guard in history," he says. West himself takes a silly pride in shot blocking, rather like the dumb, stacked blonde who yearns to play Ophelia.
Having nothing more to establish as a shooter either, West revels in being a playmaker, a role he has been asked to emphasize in recent seasons. There are long stretches he goes through now when he seems to be imitating Guy Rodgers. Indeed, West has to be encouraged to put himself back into the offense as a scoring threat. Still, how he has scored 25,000 points and made 6,000 assists in the NBA without being able to dribble very stylishly or go to his left hardly at all is a matter you may wish to dwell on late some night.
He has other attributes. Even the year he led the league in scoring, his 10th in the NBA, West would show up early and practice shooting by himself. He is always the first Laker in the locker room. On the day of a game he eats only a light lunch of soup and up to "a sandwich and a half." Then he naps. On the road, he keeps his watch on L.A. time and operates on that schedule. He concentrates so deeply on a game that, hours later, he can replay it in detail, including many moves and options that did not come off. Frank O'Neill, the Laker trainer, says, "Jerry has the perfect basketball body. He is not injury-prone. It's just the law of averages that he gets hurt, the way he plays." He has 38-inch arms, has weighed 188 pounds for the last six years, has had nine broken noses, and his hair is always in place.
West gets up to 6,000 requests for autographs a year, all of which he personally answers. Since he is never rude, people with harebrained schemes often approach him for money. West probably makes $200,000 a year, and very little of it is frittered away. "In poker, he'll call with four kings," Hundley says. West drives a Pantera sports car. For reading, he prefers mysteries, after the sports pages. He takes showers, never baths. He usually wears turtlenecks. He never had his ankles taped before this season. One front tooth is longer than the other. He gets along with Wilt. He gets along with everybody.
Liking is very fundamental to West. He works at it. At least, he works at keeping in touch with his cohorts and lets his personality assume the burden for the rest. This is not a small thing, either, especially for a superstar who might put himself above that sort of everyday thing. On so many teams, where the players are divided into two brigades—white men and black men—such basic communication is lacking.
This problem is complicated further in professional basketball. The NBA is 60% black, with blacks in positions of prestige. The league seems at times like one of those role-playing exercises, where judges become prisoners for a day and parents pretend to be teen-agers. Not surprisingly, it is often difficult for blacks and whites alike to adjust. That black teammates have called West a "half-brother" and a "white soul brother" is a tribute not only to the fact that he is a rare white interloper in what has become a largely black game, but that he is a white man who has accepted this fact without making a big deal of it. "The ones who have left me with the best impressions are the blacks," he says. "They've treated me much nicer than the whites."
His closest off-court friends on the Lakers have invariably been white, but, not unlike Baylor, he can move into any discussion, gossip being an international language. Where Baylor had to dominate any gathering he joined, however, West merely lets himself be assimilated. He can even talk black jargon, and it is rather disconcerting to hear a high-pitched backwoods twang suddenly pipe up from what appears to be an all-black conclave with: "Man, the dude said that?"
Graduate students of West's inflections maintain that a practiced ear can also detect other Westian dialects. Allegedly, he has a special interview voice, a card-game voice and the rat-a-tat-tat, head-wagging team-huddle voice. He also has a whole new act he has fallen into in the last year or so since he decided that he was old. This is a woe-is-old-me bit in which he dwells nostalgically on the great changes he has seen and the places he has been and, with awe and regret, on the fantastic young phenoms he finds about him now. In this posture, Old Man West does everything but purport to forecast the weather with his bone creakings.
Yet the most revealing West of all is the regular one, hanging around with the boys in the locker room and the airports and the buses and the lobbies where the players congregate. The essence of their life is found more in those places than on the court, and it is there that West revels. It is no different, surely, than the scene in a bar or a barbershop back in Charleston, W. Va., where Jerry West, the insurance salesman, say, or the service-station owner, would be holding forth with the other boys if he had never happened to have played basketball well.
When the Lakers enter the locker room, West seems to make it a point to say something to each of them. In rapid succession he converses with Wilt about his Great Danes, makes observations on the pants of Flynn Robinson and John Q. Trapp, chides O'Neill, the trainer, about some obscure old business, whispers new gossip for Gail Goodrich's ear, tells LeRoy Ellis he looks "like a deacon" and teases Pat Riley for becoming "a star."
If no one else arrives, he starts right back again with Wilt on the perennial subject of airplanes. That done, West then attacks the silence with nothing less than a weather report. "I heard it on the way over," he intones to no one in particular. "It's supposed to snow in New England." This bit of intelligence is met with total ennui. The Lakers are presently in Los Angeles and will get no closer to New England than Phoenix for some time to come. "Yeah, I'm telling you, it's supposed to snow in New England. It was 87 in Fort Myers, Florida and 60 in Pittsburgh." Still no response. "And 26 in Montana." Completing his recitation of U.S. temperatures, West at last repairs to the trainer's table.
There is always someone to clown around with, to trade teases or lies with. Fifty-five other people have been Lakers while West was on the team. It is like a long-running musical, in which new actors are constantly taking over the roles. But the presentation remains the same because the lines and the scenes never change. The players worry that Baylor must be suffering severe withdrawal pains—not from missing the basketball, but from missing the life. One of the deceits of sports lore, one promulgated relentlessly by players' associations, is that travel is a burden. On the contrary, it is a Teddy Bear's picnic, with $19 per diem meal money. For West, the games are beginning to appear as interludes in the warm gypsy camaraderie, in the whole Peter Pan existence, the only one he has ever known as a grown-up.
"The toughest part of it," he says, "will be having to leave the life, the trips, the laughs. I've been around so long. The greatest job in the world would just be to go along with the guys. Oh, I'm telling you, it's an unbelievable part of our lives. Unfortunately, it is our lives. It seems like basketball first, then family. When I leave, there'll be a void. It's going to bother me, I know. Elgin must be going out of his mind. He was around so long. It's kind of sad when you think about it, because it's such a carefree life. Everybody always says it's a kid's game, but you see, it's a whole kid's life, too."
Understanding that, it is no wonder, really, that West has not changed, though No. 44 has. The tiger who used to pace and snap before a game, who would throw up in a towel in the locker room, whose hands would drip whole rivers of nervous sweat, whose eyes would glare, that man is gone. "Jerry doesn't have the desire anymore," his wife says. "The only thing that could make him play again would be a big enough monetary incentive. And that's sad." She pushed him to come back the last two years; she won't this time. Jerry gave her golf clubs for Christmas, and the boys are taking the game up, too.
"I'm 33 years old, and I've spent 22 of those 33 years playing organized basketball," West says. "It seems kind of strange when you think about it that way. If I were in anything else, I would be moving into my best years now, but here I am just about where you have to give it all up and start all over. But it doesn't worry me because I guess you can only be competitive for so long. You still play hard, but you've lost the competitive edge. I'm telling you, that's a big problem now. It's so much easier for me to play the game."
He was lying on a hotel bed in some town with some new game that night. He put the mystery he was reading aside and got ready to take his nap. He knew all he needed to know: who he was playing against and when the team bus left. It was the middle of the Lakers' 33-game winning streak, which was all very nice, but it did not seem to involve West with the intensity or joy that other Lakers evidenced. It was more questions for him to answer, more demands, more letters, more ticket requests. It was much better than losing; but, ultimately, so what? How many people will long remember that Boston finished in fourth place the last time it beat Los Angeles for the title? In the end, the Celtics beat the Lakers. Win 50 in a row and lose in the playoffs, and what do you want to remember but the good times with the good guys on the road?
"Jerry never thinks he's fated to lose," Jane West says. "He believes he's going to win. He has so much confidence. It would be easy when he lost if he felt he was fated. But he is sure he's going to win. You see, that's exactly what makes it so hard afterwards."
"Sometimes I do feel sorry for myself, but then I know I don't have any right to," West says. "If I could not have played basketball, I could not have even gone to college. I'm telling you, in some ways it is so ridiculous. When I came into the league, I had three goals for myself. I wanted to stay in the league 10 years, I wanted to make All-League and I wanted to work my way up to $50,000 a year. What has happened has been fantastic. Everything nice has happened to me. It's almost like a storybook, if you could write the ending for it."
He put on a sheepish smile and his storybook voice. "Well, in the final game of my career we win the championship. When at last I get dressed and leave, everyone else has gone, and all the lights are out. Then, in the dark, I walk down the tunnel of The Forum with my wife at my side. All you can hear are our footsteps. And we just walk out into the night. That's the way it should end, I guess."