Of Animal Imagination: A Review of “West By West: My Charmed, Tormented Life”

Jerry West dreamt of living in Africa as a child. He dreamt of co-existing with the animals that he’s had a lifelong fascination with, and “experiencing their incredible will to survive.” Africa would’ve been the perfect locale for a survivor, for a tortured child who would have felt more at peace with animals thousands of miles away than he ever did in his broken home.

West By West: My Charmed, Tormented Life insists itself as a memoir, not an autobiography. There is a prevailing notion that sports autobiographies unabashedly laud career achievements and gloss over the details that truly make a person worth knowing. ‘West By West’ is not that book. Key moments in West’s life – those worthy of celebration and those unbearably grim – are told with the knowledge that his battles with depression, grief, and rage are never too far behind. What emerges is the story of a man broken at childhood by an abusive father and his brother’s untimely death, whose scars would follow him into success, turning triumph into the same crippling sadness that occupied his youth.

It’s impossible to ignore the murderous rage West had bottled up in his adolescence. He takes the time to think of a life in which he had carried out his most abhorrent thoughts. No college. No NBA. No Olympics.  Everything we’d come to know of him, every success he’d come to know himself, wouldn’t have been possible. The contempt he had for his father is palpable. West is a man who exists as a collage of varying contradictions, and it’s scary to think that the same murderous rage that could have derailed his success is the same force that instilled his drive – to win, to be perfect, to attain his father’s love and attention.

This has been incredibly bleak thus far, and yes, the book is absolutely this depressing. Ironically, the way in which the title was printed on the cover (specifically the size of each word) runs inversely to the gravity that each word holds in the book. West’s ‘tormented life’ receives the least emphasis on the cover even though Torment wrestles for control of the memoir, establishing itself as the third writer. West, printed big and bold, undermines how shy, withdrawn, and just how uncomfortable he seems writing solely about himself.

What’s left is Charmed, a fitting word that highlights West’s delightfully odd sense of humor, and anecdotes that were too good to be left out.  Despite the book’s omnipresent gloom, there are still rays of light.

Some odd notables:

  • West was a churchgoer as a kid, but instead of finding peace with God, he found church bingo — another excuse to fire up his competitive spirit, and obsession with doing things (and in this case, shouting things) quickly.
  • West finds himself “wondering who would win in a fight between a coyote and a pit bull,” a silly thought that didn’t come from his childhood, but in sitting down to write his memoir.
  • West and legendary Lakers announcer Chick Hearn were escape artists. They would stage competitions to see who could inconspicuously leave team functions.
  • In an Italian restaurant, West questioned a diner sitting next to him about her choice of beverage. She was drinking beer (instead of red wine) with her pasta, which he found preposterous. So he paid for her meal.

The book meanders (sometimes annoyingly so), and it may take a few pages for West to find the point he was trying to make, but it speaks to the uneasiness that West has in discussing himself for too long. West’s deviations often involve people dear to him, often telling their stories or stories that have far more to do with them than himself. He loves people; far more than he loves himself – something the book makes all too clear early on.

Just as pervasive as the gloom is West’s (more welcomed) imagination. Through his imagination, readers get a glimpse of his humble basketball beginnings, where “clutch” was first constructed. Practicing alone, West would concoct scenarios with imaginary teams and real stakes. Imaginary buzzer beaters would swish or clank. His imaginary team would win or would lose (though he’d make sure he’d win the next one). Mr. Clutch was born in the deep country landscape of West Virginia, where West not only discovered his unconquerable addiction to basketball, but also the beauty of the land in which he was raised.

In his own mind, he found relief from the pressing realities that made him morose. In this life or another, Jerry West is an animal roaming his domain, fully exercising his innate instinct of survival – away from the hurt he endured as a child. He is Santa Claus, blessing others with random acts of generosity – showing his love and appreciation for others, something he admittedly struggles with at times. He’s a mind submerged in wanderlust – furiously going from one place to another both in life and in thought. At once, he can dream of Africa, and in the same instant, construct the perfect game between the best basketball players in history (including himself, of course).

He is one of the greatest basketball players in history. He is the Logo (the image they use is something he scoffs at; he is dribbling with his left hand, something West claims was a weakness). His most memorable shot was a 60+ foot buzzer-beater against the New York Knicks in Game 3 of the 1970 Finals (which he resents, since his Lakers eventually lost in overtime). His list of success goes on and on, but he remains fixated on his failures to this day.

“I know that incarcerated is a strong word, but that is how I felt; it is also how I felt in the locker room before a game, like a caged animal that needed to break out, and it is why I still, today, look to escape from places and keep moving, a man on the run.” (20).

It’s a depressing book. Of that, I’m sure. It’s full of wonderful anecdotes both from his time as a player, a GM, and a father – some of which will require rereading. It’s dense, and there are a lot of emotions that are laid out plain to see. Through interviews that co-writer Jonathan Coleman conducted with those closest to him, it’s evident that West is a beloved figure, though you’d have to dig through all of West’s self-loathing to get to that point.

If there is any hope, any peace in this book, it’s because he says there is. If you’re skeptical by the end of the book, I don’t blame you. I’m not so sure Jerry West believes it either.

You can buy the book on Amazon.com

Seth Carstens