Two years ago, Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open, set a new standard for sports memoirs. For too long, jock books were content with being bland recollections of an athlete’s achievements. Designed to cement a legacy, they bored the shorts off of readers. But Agassi’s book was raw, honest, and entertaining.
The new autobiography of NBA legend Jerry West—West By West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, written with Jonathan Coleman—falls in the Agassi tradition, though it stops short of Agassi’s literary achievement; Open, written with Pulitzer Prize winner J.R. Moehringer, sang with a rare lyricism. And West by West doesn’t have the same shock value as Open. Casual West fans have always known of his tortured soul, of the pain he suffered on account of all those NBA finals losses to the Boston Celtics while he was playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. No one expected Agassi to broadcast his loathing for tennis, or dalliances with crystal meth, as he so shockingly did in his book.
Still, West by West will teach you lessons about “The Logo” (the NBA’s logo is a silhouette of West dribbling). And some of them are jarring. “I never learned what love was, and am still not entirely sure I know today,” West writes in the opening pages. “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.” I wanted him to elaborate on the “murderous” bit; that’s not a word you toss out casually. But this strong language sets up the book’s through line. Despite West’s almost unmatched athletic success, he’s never truly been happy. And let’s face it, that’s comforting. Jerry West scored 25,162 points in his NBA career, made First-Team All-NBA 10 times, and earned the nickname “Mr. Clutch.” He won an NBA championship as a player, six more as a scout and then general manager of the Lakers, and is in the sport’s Hall of Fame. If West can’t find happiness, each of us is entitled to some sour thoughts as well.
West, who details his bouts with depression, traces his troubles to an abusive parent. “When you had a father who beat you, as mine did, for reasons I’m still trying to fathom, it is hard to think of yourself as very special, as deserving of acclaim,” he writes. West grew up poor in West Virginia, and the death of his older brother, David, during the Korean War has also “haunted” West. “Whenever I speak of David I choke up and become morose,” he writes.
West by West relies on both the author’s memories as well as interviews with family members and notable NBA figures, like Pat Riley. (Strangely, Kobe Bryant, whom West delivered to the Lakers, declined to participate in the book, a decision that clearly hurt West). Among the book’s more surprising revelations: West takes Prozac to manage his depression, sent Tiger Woods an inspirational book after news of his sex scandal broke (he is unsure if Woods ever received it) and felt slighted by Phil Jackson, whom West hired to coach the Lakers in 1999. “He didn’t want me around,” West writes, “and he had absolutely no respect for me.”
As the Lakers struggled during the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, West was so despondent that his wife, Karen, wrote a harrowing letter to Lakers owner Jerry Buss. “Everything has gone to hell,” she wrote. “He is a man that if he were suicidal he would be gone … He is on such a self-destructive war path and I don’t know where it leads.” According to West, the Lakers owner did not respond to his wife’s cry for help.
At times, the narrative feels disjointed. Like West’s mind, it jumps all over the place. West falls victim to a common autobiographical trap: he sometimes lists the names of friends who have kept him company over the years, on golf courses and fishing boats and at country club card games. While these people have surely been important to West, they’re of minimal interest to the reader.
Plus, the dark cloud that hovers over the book can feel overwhelming and repetitive. But at least you know the pain is authentic. The story concludes with West visiting the spot in Korea where his brother perished. “I am still uncomfortable when people praise me because the one person I wanted praise from—my father—I never got, and I will spend the rest of my life never fully understanding why, and why he felt it was okay to physically abuse me in the way he did.” West wonders what more he could have done to win his father’s love, even though he portrays his father as a cold, violent man wholly incapable of being won over.
Despite all the gloom, West insists at book’s end that he has found “some weird and tenuous semblance of peace.” I hope he has. But after reading the previous 296 pages of West by West, I’m not sure I believe him.