Jerry West and Jonathan Coleman discuss the NBA legend's life and career

Dec 01, 2011

West by West When NBA legend Jerry West published his autobiography, West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life (written with Jonathan Coleman) in October, he revealed much more than what went on in the locker room and front office during his basketball career.

In the book, West describes a difficult childhood in West Virginia -- including physical abuse and the death of a beloved brother -- and how the scars that have stayed with him.

West and Coleman were online Thursday and discussed the book, the stories behind it, as well as West's NBA career and the current state of the league.

Note: West and Coleman took questions by phone and a Post staffer transcribed their replies live. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

West:  Hello, I am Jerry West, in Los Angeles, and I look forward to discussing (and answering questions about) my autobiography WEST BY WEST:  My Charmed, Tormented Life--why I decided to write it, the various things that have shaped my life, and the improbable journey I have made from a coal mining community in West Virginia to the Los Angeles Lakers and beyond.

Coleman:  Hello, I am Jonathan Coleman, in Charlottesville, Virginia, and I look forward to discussing how Jerry and I came to work together on this book--and what it was like to do so over an intense, three-year period. 

What do you attribute your success as a person and player to, considering all of the obstacles you had to overcome?

West: I think for me, a very vivid imagination. When you're young and when you're by yourself a lot of the time, you do a lot of hoping and wishing that you can have a life that's different from where you come from. I don't care from what background you come from, kids think "I'd like to do this, I'd like to do that ..." I think your imagination stirs emotions inside -- you're hoping for something special.

I had a skill and really didn't know I had it, which allowed me to live a life far beyond anything I ever dreamed.

What was the genesis of this book? How did Mr. Coleman end up writing it? 

West: It was obviously a story that needed to be told. As I told numerous people, it was a very reflective time in my life. I needed someone very skilled to get all this out of me, and it wasn't going to be easy, and I needed someone I trusted to get this out of me in a way that really reflected who I was. I have had numerous people say to me, "That sounds exactly like you when you are talking."

Coleman:  Jerry had let a couple of people know he was interested in doing this, although he wasn't entirely sure he wanted to do this. ... He wanted somebody who didn't make his or her living every day writing about the sport, and yet someone who had an appreciation of the game -- and who might understand him.

I was the person that the agent Ian Kleinert, who put this together, thought might fit the bill.

The key thing was when we met, there was a feeling that we could embark on this journey together, with complete trust, knowing it wasn't going to be easy.

I don't think it can be stressed enough that Jerry played at a very interesting time in American history, his career spanned the entire Civil Rights era, and I had written about race in my book, "Long Way to Go: Black and White in America" and had spent seven years doing so.  Jerry was curious--as he is about nearly everything--why I had devoted seven years of my life to writing about something so complex and a dilemma that we as a country still have not been able to entirely resolve. He had traveled with an integrated team around an America that was segregated and players didn't talk about this among themselves.  Jerry felt particularly close to his black teammates, even more so than to his white ones, and "Long Way to Go" resonated with him and apparently led him to feel that I might be the right person for him to work with.

What was the reaction inside the NBA when Texas Western beat Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA final, and the subsequent changes in colleges recruiting black players? Did you ever discuss this defeat with Pat Riley, who was a member of the Kentucky team? If so, what did he say?

West: First of all, forget the NBA. To me, in America, in the country -- it was a shock. When they won, it was one of the biggest sports stories ever. It was a really huge story in a time of racial discrimination and real anger about race in this country. ...

Pat and I have never really talked about it very much. But I just think it was a very big shock to everyone who were basketball fans -- but not to NBA players. Because you knew, playing against some of the incredible African American players at the time, you knew.

Just thinking about it, it was like, "Oh my gosh, the country is awakened now." 

I probably shouldn't say this, but privately, I rooted for them.

Coleman: I was just going to say that -- I think Jerry was very happy that it happened.

West: I thought it was a great thing.

First, thanks for talking about abuse and depression. It's not easy especially here in WV, and your story was shocking and amazing. I'd like to ask about your relationship to your home state. It seems we didn't see you for many years (maybe cause you were in LA) but now you've been quite visible in Morgantown. Have you re-connected or is it just more in the news these days?

P.S. to Coleman: I used to live in Charles County and loved "Exit the Rainmaker."

West: I was never divorced from West Virginia. It's  been a large staple in my life. I love the people there, I love the fact that they're hard-working, they're polite, they're generous with their time. I think the state has everything you could want. I think it's a beautiful place beyond description. My connection there will never change.

Coleman: Thank you, that's very nice. I've obviously spent a lot of time with Jerry in both California and West Virginia. He's the same person wherever he is -- he's unchanging, and I mean that in the best sense.

But I would say he seems even more at home in West Virginia. Maybe a little more relaxed, maybe even a little bit more himself. That's just my opinion based on three years.

In reading several of the reviews, it is mentioned several times that this is a very personal autobiography. What is your line on how personal autobiographies should be, and when should the consideration of how others may be hurt by what is revealed prevent something from being disclosed?

West: I think the sensitivity issue was a major one for me, and Jonathan will confirm that. But at the end of the day, there's nothing really controversial in the book. I don't rip anyone in it. My relationship with my father was the most telling thing I put in the book, that and my depression.

You'd be surprised how many letters I have gotten from people who said they had the same issues with their father and with depression. If you can't tell your own story, I think it's a sad place. How do you know other people don't share the same feelings and the same thoughts? From the letters I have received, I feel so much better about writing the book.

Frankly, while doing this, I went through a two-week period where I was low as can be, because I was opening old wounds. It's like a movie set -- people walk by and see the exterior, but they don't see what's on the inside.

Coleman: Of the many, many important things that took place between Jerry and me, perhaps the most important is that Jerry granted me freedom -- freedom to basically do what I needed to do and talk to who I wanted to talk with.

Even though at first he was taken aback by the number of people I wanted to talk to, he let me do it. This book wouldn't be the same book if I had just talked to Jerry.

In talking with his four siblings, I was careful with each of them, especially with Charlie, who was outspoken about not wanting Jerry to do this. But it became apparent that he knew a lot more than he said initially, that he is in denial, and it came out in a weekend in North Carolina. He wished Jerry didn't want to do this, but it was the right thing to do.

For Jerry's sister Hannah, who is three and a half years older, I know this was a very difficult book for her to read. But she is enormously proud of Jerry for having done it. And I think that's a tribute to the book.

West: My sister wrote me a note after reading the book, saying, "I lived with a brother I didn't even know."

Coleman: The words Jerry used in the beginning were that he knew it would be painful, but he hoped it would be cleansing. And then he said, in equal measure, that he hoped it would be inspirational.

The book, in a way, is a constatnt challenge to readers. It's a challenge to readers -- even his own friends -- who want to keep thinking of Jerry the way they always have. It's a challenge to take Jerry on his own terms.

West: At the end of the day, I knew I wasn't going to make everyone happy. There were things I didn't want to talk about, but I said the hell with it, if I'm going to do this book, it's going to be honest.

Mr. West: I know from playing sports myself that rivals often grow to dislike each other, though for no other reason than that they are fiercely competing for the same prize. How long after you retired did you start to become friends with players from opposing teams who once were your foes? And who are some of your best friends now from your playing days?

West: They say that time and distance create separation. When I played, players pretty much disappeared after the season and you didn't see them. Nowadays they don't.

The difference today is that these players play against each other from the time they were 14, 15, years old, and sometimes even younger. We didn't have that. So there's more reason that they would be closer than we were.

Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson are two in particular who I would say I am closest to today.

Hi Jerry, The obvious question is: What do you think of the agreement that's been reached to end the NBA lock-out? What kind of deal would you craft today to end it? I had the privilege of hanging out with you and the Lakers years ago and I'm grateful for our long, fascinating discussions about the world..... Happy Holidays, Joan Michelson

West: The agreement's not etched in stone, but I think it will allow teams that are really struggling financially to share in the wealth of the other teams. In football, teams like Green Bay, for example, can compete. That's what they hope to accomplish in the NBA.

I think the pot will continue to grow -- I'm talking about TV and ancillary rights from cable. So I think at the end of the day, it's going to be a deal that helps the players prosper and all sides to prosper.

I read that Kobe Bryant declined to be interviewed for this book. Why, do you think? Did anyone else of note decline? 

West: Kobe's a different person than when he was young. I think he might have been concerned that this would be a controversial book. I am speculating, and I shouldn't do this, but that's what I think. It made no difference to me at all. I am sure his agent had something to do with it.

Coleman: Kobe was the only one of significance who didn't participate.  It was surprising and disappointing in equal measure, and it was hurtful to Jerry, especially given the nature of the relationship -- which certainly seemed to me and others to be a father-son relationship. If you look at the pictures in the book, he celebrated the 2001 championship in Jerry's jersey, which he specifically asked Jerry to borrow. And in another picture, the way they look at each other tells everything.

Every effort was made on my part, including a long letter sent through his agent, Rob Pelinka.

Sometimes you have to "write around" something or somebody, and we did. I would have loved to have had the opportunity to talk to Kobe about his relationship with Jerry and about their years together, but that didn't happen.

Mr. West: Everyone knows--or should know--that you were one of the greatest players of all time. However, in my view, you were also as astute as a general manager as you were skilled as a player. I was a fanatical Celtics fan in the 1980s, and so I was continually depressed by your great moves to get Magic (okay, that was an easy pick), Kareem, Byron Scott (a controversial trade), Michael James Cooper, Worthy, AC Green, Mychal Thompson (that trade stole the championship from the Celtics that year), Vlade Divac, not to mention the role players you picked up who were instrumental in winning championships, such as Spencer Haywood and Bob McAdoo. So now my question: Did you enjoy being General Manager more, less, or as much as you did playing?

West: Well, it's a significant difference, but it's still a form of competition. And frankly, my life has been based on being competitive.

At the end of the day, it was much more exciting to be a player -- the days of the game were so special.

We had such greater success when I was an executive than when I was a player, but there's nothing like being a player and sitting in the locker room before a game. After the season as an executive, you're proud of what your team did, but it still doesn't approach the same feeling.

Not so much about basketball, but you mention briefly in your book that the John Kennedy campaign for president in the 1960 West Virginina primary tried to use your popularity with voters to aid the candidate. What did they want you to do? Did you rebuff them?

West: I'm not really a political person -- and certainly wasn't at that point of my life. Both Humphrey and Kennedy wanted to get me involved, and if I had, it probably would have been with Kennedy. He just seemed very presidential -- he had such charisma. In many ways, although he led a privileged life, he had a presence about himself with those whom I would consider "ordinary" people and those he was going to govern.

Mr. West: My heart broke when I read about your difficult childhood and the burdens you have carried through life. Has revealing these troubles eased or increased the burdens? And why do you think that is?

West: As I mentioned earlier, for a couple weeks after the book came out, I didn't want to talk about anything.

You think you have completed your journey by talking about it, but that really wasn't the case. Even after dealing with all this stuff with Jonathan, I remembered things that Jonathan and I didn't even talk about when others started to ask questions about it.

Coleman: The most important thing is that when Jerry is talking, he doesn't have an answer ahead of time -- that's the beauty of talking to Jerry. Nothing's canned. It's as if he's talking about it for the very first time. I heard things in October [after publication] that I never heard in all the time we worked together. I kidded him that perhaps we should do  Part II -- we had enough material -- but he said "no." 

West: Part II? I woudln't want to go through that again. [Laughs] But who knows, I still have a lot of living to do. Maybe when I'm sitting in a rocking chair ... 

Seriously, you just bury things in your past, and in the process of talking about it after the book was published, I remembered things I had not thought of before. 

Somebody who I didn't even know at all would ask me a question and it made me think, "Oh my, why didn't I think of that?"

I'm hopeful that this book will be inspirational to some young kid who can't find a way to be competitive, and can't find a way to show tenacity -- I'm just hopeful that kids can see that there's a way through whatever it is they might be dealing with. But you have to have imagination and you have to dream big.

Coleman: That's all the time we have. I appreciate the thoughtfulness of the questions and the very clear interest everyone has displayed in this book and in Jerry's life, in what he is trying to impart in telling his story.

Jerry did not need to do this book for any tangible or visible reason. But in the largest, most significant sense, he did need to do this. He wanted to explain himself and to be understood--which I have long known from my years in this line of work is something we all want, whether we are conscious of it or not.

In writing this book, Jerry displayed a great deal of courage and he took a lot of risk -- by taking himself off whatever pedestal people have put him on. The risk is alienating some people, including friends, and disillusioning people who have a need to view people like Jerry as heroes through and through. But to me, Jerry's doing this book reinforces  that he is the best kind of hero, the kind that is willing to be honest and to be real.

There's nothing self-serving about this book -- it's highly self-critical, even shockingly so.

West: Thanks to everyone for the questions you've asked.

In This Chat
Jerry West and Jonathan Coleman
Jerry West is a basketball Hall of Famer, a 14-time all-star for the Los Angeles Lakers and was named as one of the NBA's 50 greatest players in 1996. After retiring from the Lakers in 1974, he went on to lead the team -- first as a coach, and then as the general manager. West lives in California, where he is an advisor to the Golden State Warriors, and West Virginia.

His autobiography, West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, was published by Little, Brown and Company in October and is a New York Times best-seller.
Jonathan Coleman
Jonathan Coleman is the best-selling author of Exit the Rainmaker, At Mother's Request, and Long Way to Go: Black and White in America. He is a former producer and correspondent with CBS News. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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