Jerry West: A Face Behind the Icon

At the bar inside Bergamot Station, a popular art gallery in Santa Monica, Jerry West stood engaged in a conversation with a fan. A few minutes later, the fan left the bar, shaking his head in awe. It turns out he had been impressed by much more than West’s suave silver suit.

You’ve all seen Jerry West. A literal NBA icon, it’s West’s silhouette that defines the logo of the NBA. And last Tuesday night, he descended upon Santa Monica to promote his recent autobiography West by West, an honest, introspective piece that explains the man behind his complicated persona and details his sublime career.

West left an indelible mark on the Los Angeles Lakers over his 14-year career, leading the team to nine NBA Finals and to a championship win in 1972. After a brief coaching stint for the Lakers, West assumed the position of general manager, overseeing the Laker dynasties of the 1980s and, more recently, combining Shaq and Kobe together to create a modern powerhouse. His accomplishments both on the court and in the boardroom have been unmatched, setting the model standard for a basketball superstar.

On this particular evening in Santa Monica, West focused more on his life, revealing his human side that he has long kept private. He discussed his battle against depression and his maddening relationship with his father, a man who constantly lowered West’s self-esteem. His sister called their home “The Icehouse,” and West believes to this day that such a childhood had a huge impact on the type of father he became. He discussed his inability to express love to his own children. His son Ryan, who was present at the talk, once described his father as “weird” to biographer Roland Lazenby.

But West didn’t crumble in the face of such adversity; instead, he channeled his energy toward basketball. Unlike West’s sour relationship with his father, a special connection developed between West and his older brother who introduced him to sports. From early in his life, West had a fiery attitude, once telling his brother that he would become the “greatest basketball player ever.” He was certain that he loved to play, but more than that, West said he was attracted to the solitary nature of a game he could practice by himself for hours. As Jerry West put it, “I was my best friend.”

West’s brother was killed in the Korean War, a devastating turn of events that deeply hurt West. He choked up as he talked about the loss of his brother, a moment that revealed the deepest part of his psychological makeup. The public may have long idolized West as a tough warrior who constantly displays a mechanical work ethic. But West has a fragile nature that he has kept to himself all along, making him a more complicated figure than the public had previously assumed.

West is probably best known as a general manager for recognizing the talent Kobe Bryant had. There are striking similarities between the players. Both Jerry and Kobe are known as gym rats, possessing an incredible set of skills and driven by an intense desire to win. Asked who would win a game of HORSE without dunks between Kobe and himself, West replied, “He’s pretty damn good.”

Jerry West is now a consultant with the Golden State Warriors, an organization he believes is centered on solid leadership.

Throughout his life, West constantly questioned whether the world would be better off without him. But as this reporter left the building after the conversation was over, there was no doubt that a world without Jerry West would be a very different place indeed.

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