Reading West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life
is like overhearing a celebrity patient talking to his therapist: It's
unsettling and uncomfortable — yet you can't stop listening.
West was a college All-American at West Virginia and an instant
All-Star after he joined the L.A. Lakers in 1960, and every year
thereafter, until his 1974 retirement. As the Lakers general manager, he
built the “Showtime” championship teams in the 1980s and the Shaq/Kobe
three-peat teams more than a decade later. But West now says that
success brought him little happiness.
The book reveals the
restless, quirky, often depressed man behind the flattering nicknames —
Mr. Clutch, Gentleman Jerry. Losing the 1959 NCAA Championship game by
one point, followed by eight losses in the NBA Finals and just one
championship, was a tremendous burden for such a hypercompetitive
But it was two boyhood events that cast a dark shadow over
his life: the death of West's beloved older brother, David, in the
Korean War, and a series of brutal beatings at the hands of his father,
Howard, which only ended after West, at the age of 12, threatened to
kill him. He admits that many people advised him not to write the book —
an instant New York Times best-seller — and a review in the L.A. Times predicted he would regret it.
L.A. WEEKLY: Four months after publication, do you regret writing the book?
Not really. There were times it brought up a lot of old memories that
maybe I wouldn't have cared to share with people, but I've gotten an
enormous amount of great mail.
Any regrets about baring your soul?
really. The people who know me intimately know I am pretty flawed. A
lot of people have façades, and no one sees what goes on inside.
Sometimes you just like to spill all the ugly stuff out, and I did that.
Some days it feels cathartic, and some days I think, “What the hell
have I done?”
How hard was it to reveal that your father beat you?
lot of athletes see that, OK? More and more athletes are coming out.
Behind the façade of a person, there is a person who had to fight a lot
of battles in his life.
Are you ready to forgive him?
not me. I don't think anyone should be treated cruelly. When you go
home, that's your refuge. You shouldn't be afraid to go home. That's not
very good for a kid who had no confidence.
After you demanded that your father stop the beatings and warned him that you had a shotgun, did he ever hit you again?
After your showdown, you told your mother you didn't want him at your games. Did he ever show up again?
How did your brother David's death affect your family?
a parent survives their children, it creates a lot of tension. It has a
profound effect on any household, whether fractured or normal, and for
me it wasn't a normal household. General MacArthur's ego got out of
control and it got thousands of American soldiers killed.
Was it difficult to share that you're on Prozac?
hard at all. You'd be shocked at how many letters you get from people
who battle the same thing, and some of them you wouldn't even know it.
Some mask it and some don't.
You describe yourself as a
tormented, defiant person with a hole in his heart that can never be
filled. Is that all from your dad?
No, no. And I'm
not trying to portray myself as a victim. It's just the circumstances of
how I coped with it. I want to be normal, but I know I'm not normal in a
lot of senses.
Growing up, no one ever said the words “I love you” in your house. Do you say those words now?
Oh yeah, I think so. But it's a learned experience.
say that you had no relationship with Phil Jackson and that you never
again went into the Lakers locker room after he once threw you out. What
was the root of his problem with you?
I have no
clue. We were like two ships passing in the night. I was the one who
recommended we hire him. And he did exactly the job he was supposed to
do for the franchise. He won, he organized the team, and that was more
important to me than my relationship with him.
Many Lakers fans are still mystified as to why you left in 2000 at the end of his first season. Was Phil the primary impetus?
no, not at all. My work was done. They were able to win three straight
championships and really not make any changes on that team — that's one
of the things I'm most proud of. Even before the season was over, I knew
that I would be better served away from the pressure and stress.
How is it possible that even in your highest moments of success you could have this mix of self-hatred and feeling of failure?
awful lot has to do with self-esteem. That's developed early in life,
and if you don't have that, then every night when you go to bed you
don't feel worthwhile, even if you accomplished something special that
day. I was way too self-critical. If we lost, it was my fault, no one
else's. Even today, if something goes wrong, I take the blame.