Roland Lazenby discusses his new book on Lakers legend Jerry West
The never-ending theme in the newly released "Jerry West: The Life and Legend of a Basketball Icon" centers on how West became both the beneficiary and victim of his own perfectionism. Roland Lazenby, keeper of the Lakernoise website, tackles West's persona by delving into West's family history and revisiting his career at West Virginia and with the Lakers as a player (1960-74), coach (1976-79) and general manager (1982-2002).
Below is a Q&A with Lazenby on selected portions of the book.
On what initially interested him on writing a book on Jerry West:
"It runs pretty deep for me. My father was one of these two-handed set shooters from out of the West Virginia hills in the 1930s. When I was a little kid, obviously Jerry West was his favorite player. He idolized the guy. All the tales and stories that come with adulation, he gave to me. He took me to some Southern Conference games when I was a little fella, 6 years old and too young to really comprehend. He even took me to some Converse shoe exhibitions by "Hot Rod" Hundley. And so it's long been his love of basketball was a huge factor in my life. That's part of why I do what I do. I had a chance over the years to interview Jerry West. My father died in 1981 of brain cancer. Several years later, when I started to get the opportunity to do NBA work and then I remember one of the first interviews I got to do with Jerry, it was a very intense three-hour interview in Dallas back in the '80s. I remember finishing that interview and all I could think was, 'Boy I wish I could call my old man and tell him about this.'"
On devoting the early chapters to West Virginia's history:
"The story of Jerry West itself is amazing. The family story, I put a lot of time into telling it. Pete Newell, the great Cal coach who coached West on the '60 Olympic team and who coached against him in the 1959 NCAA championship game, was amazed at all the inferiority complexes and tortured persona of this star player and guy everybody admired. This guy was infinitely unhappy. Pete Newell said, "To really understand Jerry West, you have to understand West Virginia." So given my family background and given the important nature of this story of Jerry being the competitive emblem of the NBA, all of those things added up. It meant I really had to go into the West Virginia story. It ended up having some really wacky elements. The book begins with the death of Jerry's grandmother at Christmas in 1910. That's a difficult thing. She was a young woman when she died. She had nine kids in 14 years and endured a lot of hardship. It sort of set in motion a lot of the karma that contributed to making Jerry West who he is. It really sort of begins to explain this really harsh West Virginia story. But when you read it, you think this is the story of dirt-scratching hillbillies. But Jerry West's family came to America as nobility. His ancestral grandfather, Thomas West, was Lord De La Warr and he was one of the financiers of Jamestown. The Wests included a couple colonial governors of Virginia. They're very wealthy people. Lord De La Warr was supposedly the first Englishman to visit Delaware. So his last name, De La Warr, was corrupted to Delaware. Even the Delaware Indians are named after him. And 150 years later, one of Jerry West's ancestral grandfathers was in the lineage of these very wealthy Virginia landowners and tobacco owners that were cut out of the family will and loaded up his family and took it over to West Virginia, which was the wild frontier. Edmund West even wound up being scouted by the Indians. They constructed West Fort out of the frontier. So all of these things end up being quite a saga."
How Lazenby's research into West Virginia and West's family history helped him mold a better understanding of West as a person and basketball player:
"It falls in line with the belief I have that we have all this information, but we really don't have much context in our world today. You can throw something on the Internet in a hurry and we can talk in sound bites. But establishing context is what books do. The context really explains people. Pete Newell was exactly right. I had to build all of this context to the Jerry West story. You couldn't just know he was from the Cabin Creek area. You had to know that Cabin Creek, not long before he was born, was the hotbed of a violent labor conflict. There are all these things that factor into this. It factors into his father's belief. It factored into his alienation from his father. Jerry's a very, very complex person. He comes from a very complex context. So I had to do a lot of work to re-create West Virginia in the 1920s and '30s and '40s and '50s."
How West's perfectionism influenced him as a player:
That perfectionism, he got from his mother. As I said in the introduction, during his signing day in 1956 to go to West Virginia University to play basketball, there's a picture of his father, Fred Schaus the coach and his mother and Jerry. Jerry and his mother share a set of burning eyes. It's just this intensity, and she was this fierce perfectionist. She raised her kids immaculately. They were scrubbed and well fed, but she was not the kind of woman to tell them she loved them. This element of perfectionism is a huge factor in basketball greatness. Tex Winter really pointed that out to me when I discussed it to him. He said, "All these great ones, Michael [Jordan], Kobe [Bryant] and Jerry West and Oscar Robertson were alpha males and really determined and fierce leaders who sort of just drove everything with the force of their personas." But he said they're all perfectionists and have to get everything right. The reason Jerry West is the logo is that perfectionism drives everything. None of these guys are easy to deal with, as Tex Winter pointed out. They're all very complex people. But that's what makes them different. Out of the millions and millions and millions of people, there are a select few who come along that are just very, very different and very determined and very focused on getting things exactly like they should be.
If West's perfectionist qualities became a cyclical mind-set:
I was doing an interview with a very knowledgeable Memphis radio guy this morning. He asked me, "Do you like Jerry West?" I said, "Well yes, he's got complexities and there's things I admire about him." I said, "Do you like Jerry West?' He says, "Yes there are things I admire, but there's a part of his personality that is really difficult and unlikable." Jerry is not oblivious to this at all. He's known from a young age that he can be really gnarly. He's admitted that all along. But he also has been determined to hold onto that because that was the core essence in some regards with what drove him competitively. It was sort of like his edge. If he had this unhappiness that he shared with his mother, this perfectionism and this restlessness, if he had that then he could compete at a very high level. And that was his top priority.
On West's relationship with former West Virginia and Lakers Coach Fred Schaus:
First of all it was an unusual circumstance. Fred Schaus coached him for three years in college throughout his entire college career. Then he goes and coaches West for six seasons with the Lakers. What's the last time that happened? Then he's GM of the team. Fred Schaus, one of the things that I think is kind of disappointing is the Lakers haven't done more to honor Fred Schaus. But I think Fred Schaus was a great GM. But back to answer your question, Jerry, because of this very bitter youthful experience with his father and his loss of his brother, David, in the Korean War, all of this created at the formative stage of his life this very gnarly and contentious relationship with Howard West, his father. You add into that that Jerry identified so closely with his mother and persona and she was in conflict with his father. In one sense, you could say Jerry had issues with authority figures and it was sort of like why he downplayed the real effects of coaching, I believe. On the other hand, in other ways there was not a more respectful person than Jerry West. You look at 1971 when Bill Sharman came in to coach the team. Jerry had played forward throughout high school and college and he converted to a two-guard. He still played a lot of small forward for years and then late in his career Bill Sharman moved him to the point guard position. Think today of a veteran star player that is suddenly asked to play another position at that age. Think of the prima donna response you would get. But Jerry, as Bill Sharman said, was willing to do whatever. In one sense, he's this respectful person. And in another sense, he's got these issues. But there's no question in his playing career where was very resentful of Fred Schaus for a variety of reasons. They did not speak much for a long time. They were alienated until they reconciled.
On where Lazenby would rank West among the all-time Lakers greats:
"Let me preface this by saying there are a lot of factors that go into this. Most influential and greatest in the sense of everything he did culturally, I would think Magic [Johnson] is No. 1. I would place West at No. 2 because he came and brought everything he brought in 1960 when the team was virtually bankrupt as it moved to Los Angeles. There's no question he shares a lot of that early mojo with Elgin Baylor. But Jerry was an enduring figure that eventually delivered the championship and went on to be such a factor. He really was the Los Angeles Lakers and he is a competitive emblem of the NBA. He tried so hard and he cared so much. It was just obvious to everyone.
On West's frustration with the Lakers losing to the Boston Celtics six times in the NBA Finals during his career:
You lose six times to a team, and in those losses, Jerry played brilliantly against Boston all the time. He had his moments where he had lapses, but he really accepted that pressure. [Former Celtics player] Tommy Heinsohn articulated some things that really hadn't been said in a public way about how the Lakers played. They were really focused on their two stars [Baylor and West]. As Heinsohn pointed out, the Celtics really played as a five-man team. A lot of that was Fred Schaus' philosophy. West acknowledged the situation, but he said, "It wasn't my choice. I was playing the way I was told to play." He played that way in college too. There's no question that Jerry's burning desire, the thing he would've cut off both legs for, would've been to beat the Boston Celtics in the championship series. The other frustration was when he became coach and he was told he would get talent and they had a chance to get Dr. J right as he was starting to coach. It just came back to his conflict with [former Lakers owner] Jack Kent Cooke, which riffed real hard on his relationship with his father in some ways. Jerry ultimately made piece with Jack Kent Cooke, but that was a bitter, bitter relationship for a long time. I've had Jack Kent Cooke say hard things about Jerry to me back when I did interviews with him. I think Jerry was very frustrated that they could've had Dr. J play alongside Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and they wouldn't do it.
On what West learned from Elgin Baylor:
Jerry was coming into the league and averaging 15 rebounds a game as a small forward in college. Suddenly, he shifted to guard. It was a totally different level of play as it always is. It was really a condensed league back then. Eight teams, and it was a real fight to have one of those jobs. Baylor was this magnificent player and he knew how to do so many things. He taught Jerry so much just in the way he approached the game, much like Jerry learned from George King when he was an assistant coach at West Virginia. There were all these things. Jerry had this mind where he was trying to absorb everything about the game. That was a very big factor. Wilt [Chamberlain] pointed out something where a lot of fans are slow to pick up on sometimes. The idea of competition isn't just one team against another. Basketball teams and other teams have lots of internal competition where one guys is trying to outdo the other. Teams are often simply factions. You could argue NBA teams are simply collections of corporations. And each player is a corporation unto himself. It's always a cynical atmosphere and you have to work hard to achieve any human connections in that atmosphere. Jerry and Elgin had the conflicts you would expect of superstars, but they were never big and they never got out of control. I think they were models in terms of superstars finding their way together.
On West's contract troubles with Cooke:
There is the belief on Jerry's part and the part of the media that the allegation that Jack Kent Cooke made verbal promises and gave Jerry assurance and word that he was being paid to a certain level equivalent to Wilt and earlier to Elgin Baylor. Jack Kent Cooke denied some of that and Jerry felt he was lied to. It was a huge rupture along of the lines of what he experience in his father in some ways. Jerry felt extremely disrespected. Frankly, I don't think that was just then. I think Jerry has felt that way for much of his Lakers tenure. He never made much of any serious money. He was always underpaid for the most part until the very last contract until he was forced out at Los Angeles. He made the big money in Memphis when [owner] Michael Heisley was paying him handsomely, millions every year to run that franchise.
On the following excerpt: “That November, as a new season was set to open, Magic Johnson announced to the world that he was HIV positive, a stunning event that brought revelations about the climate of sexual frivolity around the Lakers. Johnson admitted he had been sleeping with 300-500 people a year. The team’s locker room, and its sauna, had been a place where the star and other players had entertained women, even right after games. Johnson would retire to the sauna after a game, have sex, then put on a robe and return to the locker room for his post-game media interviews. How far had the team gone in condoning such questionable behavior? "I cared,’"West said in his interviews for this book. "I did things for those guys. It was ridiculous, some of the things I did for those guys. If the public knew they’d be outraged. It was a pretty crazy period for us.’”
The Internet is a different world. I wrote this story 17 years ago. It's been published. Magic has talked a lot about it. Those are a lot of hurtful moments for Lakers fans, for the Lakers, for Magic Johnson and for all the people who love him. There are many of those. This book was about Jerry's career. I had to summarize in the last chapter his years as a general manager. It's a long chapter. But that's how I was asked to write the book in looking at the tension of finally beating the Celtics, i.e. 1985 bringing some resolution in that regard. I didn't see this coming. I should've, probably. It needs a broader context. The Internet sites have seized those few paragraphs and have said all kinds of weird stuff and tried to make Jerry look like a pimp. The truth of the matter is is these are exceptional competitors in just about every sport in just about every team, they are very complex. The sexuality of a competitor becomes an issue with the competition itself. Guys play rock 'n' roll, guitar, they try to star in athletics, they do all of these behaviors to get the attention from women. When we create this media with pro sports, they really get a lot of attention. We're struggling with that now by looking at the Tiger Woods issue. Tiger Woods didn't invent this stuff. It goes back to the earliest days. Babe Ruth lived very large and engaged in extensive debauchery. That's not something he did on his own. The people who managed and coached these teams have to facilitate and get along and help these players find their own complicated way in a complicated environment with a lot of females. When it becomes an element in competition, invariably coaches and the managers find themselves facilitating. That doesn't mean Jerry was out there procuring anything. But he was the GM and he was aware. Everybody within the organization was aware. Guess what? That happens with a lot of teams at a lot of different levels in professional sports. It's just a function of being human. It's unsavory for the fans and it's unsavory to even talk about it. So I felt I had to provide that larger context and explain it because all of these websites were seizing on that summary. They were going berserk with it.
On West's relationship with Phil Jackson:
West said he was used to always having this open atmosphere and the door was always open. He was used to having a friendly environment in the office. But he and Phil had some philosophical and personal differences. The book opens where I'm standing in the Forum with West in 1999 and I ask a question and he starts launching F-bombs about Phil. And then a month later, he's hiring him. It is what it is. He'd meet Phil in the office and there would be these stony silences. There just wasn't any warmth. Tex Winter confirmed for me several times that Phil wanted Jerry West out and of course, there was an elaborate number of things Phil did to achieve that. Phil creates his own mind games and messages.
On Bryant surpassing West as the franchise's all-time leading scorer:
I think that it's always tough for these older athletes who really fought through a much more complicated world in some regards to compete in the NBA. The world of the '60s is light years from the rock star treatment today with flying on private jets and having a catered life. I don't care when you get to the moment of truth with all the old timers, most of them harbor at least some level of resentment. But Jerry has always had a tremendous appreciation for the special athletes, whether it's a Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins and for Kobe to be his special protege. He's a player that discovered him. One of the neat stories that happens in the book is how Jerry talks John Calipari out of drafting Kobe with the Nets. That's the classic tale of the power of "The Logo" delivering that. Kobe, to have this work ethic and determination, that becomes apparent to these guys when they see the skill level of a young player. That's when Jerry West can know that somebody has that brilliant work ethic. It's a talent in itself, having the ability to work and focus at that level and to have all the athletic gifts too. I don't think it's every easy to see your mark get erased or eclipsed, but I think it helps certainly that it's Kobe.
On West's relationship with Bryant:
I think Jerry has expressed he wishes they had a closer relationship. But Kobe has also been one to keep his own council and these special guys are very complex. They're very guarded and focused with what they do. Kobe made a change in his life by the time he got married. There were guys like me who had access to him and he had a much broader format. He really tightened up, including his own family members. Kobe has a very tight focus to his circle. The GQ story the other day pointed out as much as Derek Fisher and him have worked together and he hadn't been to his house. I think that's much more of a function of Kobe than Jerry. Kobe is another one of these guys as you well know who is immensely complex.
How he would sum up Jerry West:
Just what a competitive lion Jerry West is. One of my focuses in the book is looking at these elements that makes for his competitive heart and trying to understand that. [Former Pistons Coach] Chuck Daly told me years ago that "the games are simple, but the people are complicated." Certain people like Jerry West and Kobe Bryant are really complicated.
Photo: Jerry West of the Lakers dribbles against Oscar Robertson of the Milwaukee Bucks during a game in January 1972. Credit: Malcolm Emmons/US Presswire.
Photo: Jerry West leads the Laker offense in this 1966 game against Philadelphia. Credit: LA Times.
Photo: Van Breda Kolff joined the Lakers in 1967, taking over a strugging team and leading it back to the NBA finals the following spring. Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke, left, introduces Van Breda Kolff; they are joined by General Manager Fred Schaus. Credit: LAT.
Photo: Jerry West walks off the court at the Forum after the Lakers lose the 1969 NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics. West is the only player from a losing team to win the NBA Finals MVP award. West had 43 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists in the Game 7 loss. Credit: Los Angeles Times.
Photo: Michigan State's Earvin "Magic" Johnson is introduced to the Los Angeles media by Lakers executive Jerry West on May 16, 1979. The Lakers announced that they had reached an agreement with Johnson and he would become the first pick in the upcoming NBA draft. Johnson, a 6-foot-9 point guard, left Michigan State following his sophomore season, when he led the Spartans to the NCAA championship. Credit: Associated Press.
Photo: Kobe Bryant, Jerry West and Norm Nixon at championship ring ceremony in October. West took about as many shots per game as Bryant. Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times.