Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Lazenby Comes up Clutch with Jerry West

Slammin' Sam on Sports Media
Jerry West is the epitome of the NBA. (You can change the tense of that statement if deemed necessary.) His silhouette remains the NBA logo – sewn, printed and emblazoned on every piece of official merchandise – but why West?

Chicago’s own, Red Kerr, explained the icon: When West would come down the floor, he’d really put it in second gear. All of a sudden, he’d put on the brakes, and he would go up and almost jump a little bit backward. He was just boom, the perfect shot. A quick hard dribble and up. That’s the NBA logo. (Jerry, 387)

OK, but how about the man who cast such a definitive shadow? That story is a little harder to figure, as you will read in “Jerry West: The Life and Legend of a Basketball Icon” by Roland Lazenby. Keep in mind, veteran LA writer Mark Heisler had this to say about “Mr. Clutch.” “Jerry West is one of the wackiest guys I’ve ever covered in sports, and I’ve covered [Raiders owner] Al Davis.” (287)

Like most people, West’s quirks seem to stem from his youth and family upbringing. West’s parents, Howard and Cecile, were not what you would call a loving couple. The result, Lazenby writes “… meant the primary bond between Howard and Cecile was their hope that they could climb back up [out of the Depression] together.” (30)

Their personalities could not have been more different, and of course inevitable strains came the family’s way. Then when Jerry was 13, his older brother David died in the Korean War. From that point on, no one could pry a basketball from Jerry’s hands. “The pressure I felt was to compensate, to account for my brother David’s death,” he realized years later (92).

A picture from his senior year taken on West’s signing day with the Mountaineers is telling. Lazenby writes, “This is no time to smile, not even a goofy 18-year-old, I-rule-the-world-in-this-moment sort of grin. For mother and son, the visages are fixed fiercely, because there are things to be done.” (xviii)

That mindset remained burned into West’s soul years later as the LA Lakers general manager. “Here was this great team he had put together, and he could barely even watch it. Here was the guy who was so cool under pressure, and yet in the stands he would crumble,” J.A. Adande said. (97)

With purple and gold coursing through his veins, it’s a wonder West didn’t miraculously suit up during recent years. If outcomes were predicated on will, few would surpass West’s. “The bottom line is, my number one priority in life is to see [the Lakers] prosper,” West said. “That’s my life. I do care about winning and the perpetuation of the franchise. That’s the one thing I care most about.” (381)

Case in point – West could not bear the sight of the color green. The forward-turned- guard refused to have anything to do with the Boston Celtics. “I don’t think people really understand the trauma associated with losing,” West said. “I don’t think people realize how miserable you can be, and me in particular. I was terrible.” (282)

Mr. Clutch says he’s softened, but only to a degree. One day Dennis Rodman showed up drunk to Lakers practice. West had seen enough and gave Rodman the boot. No matter that Phil Jackson had become accustomed, as much as that is possible, to Rodman’s ways (383).

Whereas “The Worm” would immediately toss his jersey into the crowd for a free-for-all, following games, you would have to cut the purple and gold off this Lakers lifer.

Sam Miller/Free Keon

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