The Times West Virginian

October 25, 2011

Another side of West

WVU legend confronts dark past in new bio

By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — Jerry West, wearing a designer suit, stood naked at the podium in the lounge named after him in the West Virginia Coliseum Monday night, and there is no contradiction there in the least.

The man, the legend, the logo was there discussing the biography he had authored with Jonathan Coleman, a book that had bared not his body but instead his soul for all to see.

It was not a pretty picture.

Outside in the basketball arena, a couple thousand people waited to hear him speak, many of whom had scooped up the book entitled “West by West: My Charmed, Tortured Life,” which they would have him sign.

If they thought they were getting anything resembling the tired, old sports biography, they were wrong.

Jerry West’s own review of the book — and with it his life — was dark and musky.

“I’d love to say this is a light, cheery book, but it’s not,” he said. “Two times I wanted to stop. It brought up too many bad memories in my life.”

In this world where our athletic heroes are placed on a pedestal, and West had his own outside the Coliseum upon which a statue of him stood, Jerry West’s tale was anything but heroic, unless you were willing to take the lessons from it that it carried.

“It was an extremely difficult book to write but I feel like it should have been written because there are some valuable lessons in it,” he said. “It’s not pleasant to talk about. The last couple of weeks have not been a lot of fun for me because I have hidden a lot of things in my life over the years.”

By now, perhaps, you have read reviews of the book, for certainly they have created something of a national storm. West, you see, is a bigger-than-life hero in the NBA, one of the greatest players, one of the greatest executives, yet he told of abuse by his father in his childhood, of keeping a gun under his bed to fend off that same father.

He wasn’t really the person anyone knew. Anyone!

“One of my sisters, I won’t mention her name ... she sent me a note (after seeing the book) and said I didn’t even know my brother. It’s pretty sad when you are in a house and no one knows who you are.”

But that was the way it was.

“Growing up and being afraid to go home is not a fun thing,” he said.

The situation drove West within himself. He shared nothing with no one, not his dreams, not his fears.

He says he developed a vivid imagination because of it and found that the only time when he really was free was when he was on the basketball court.

“That’s why I say my imagination fueled me and gave me a lot of courage to want to compete and excel at a lot of levels,” he said.

Everyone worshipped Jerry West except Jerry West.

During his talk he twice said he wished he had been a different person.

Imagine that, if you dare. How many people have said they wished they were Jerry West over the years, teammate of Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain, NBA hero, rich, famous ... and he would have traded places with them in a moment.

Ask him who he would be if he could be a different person and the answer is surprising.

“I think one of the greatest people I know is Willie Akers, my roommate, my lifelong friend,” he said.

Willie Akers is a wonderful man, a member of the supporting cast when West was a player, a great high school basketball coach, as common a man as you would ever want to meet.

“He’s happy. He’s jovial. He loves the university like I do. He can find something good in everything. I think the worst thing is not to find anything good in yourself. A lot of times in my life, I didn’t like myself very much.”

Jerry West saw himself more as a stray dog than the American hero he was.

“You ever see a stray dog walking down the street? Somebody goes over and, depending on how it’s been treated, it will either react with a bark or start wagging its fanny. All it wants to be is recognized and patted.

“At times in my life I felt like a stray dog. I did. It’s not the most comfortable way to feel in your life but it was a huge part of my life.”

There is an irony in West’s life. He loves people, but he has always been withdrawn. It was, perhaps, because when he came out of Cabin Creek he just had never known what love was.

“I learned about love from two women, the Dinardi sisters,” he said, referring to the sisters in whose boarding house he stayed. “When I came here I didn’t say a word. I was quiet, shy, backwards, socially inept. These two women loved me. I always said I wish I would have seen that at an earlier age in life because I could have been different. I have always been cautious about people although I love people.”

The idea of love is difficult for him, at least outwardly.

“If someone expects me to be loving and demonstrative, that’s not something I’m real capable of. I can’t. I hear people say, ‘I love you,’ those words sometimes are pretty foreign to me. I might care about someone but my actions will tell you how much I care about you, not my words,” he said.

All of this winds up in the book, just as does the fact that it all led to clinical depression so bad that his daily dose of Prozac doesn’t always erase his suicidal thoughts.

So why write this book? It had to take courage.

“What’s courage?” he asks. “People say it took a lot of courage to write the book. It didn’t. It just took a very complex person to write the book.”

And Jerry West qualifies there.

Email Bob Hertzel at Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.