Jerry West has always been direct and revealing about his personal history: the loss of a brother in the Korean War, his mental health challenges and his hyper-competitiveness, much of it detailed in his 2011 book, with Jonathan Coleman, "West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life." Now in his third season as a Clippers consultant, West addresses those questions, in addition to questions about a possible, historic all-L.A. Western Conference finals, working both sides of Staples Center and the loss of Kobe Bryant, in Episode 6 of the Legends of Sport: Restarting the Clock podcast. The excerpt below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.
You can listen to Andy Bernstein's interview West here.
Andy Bernstein: I reread your book and had a long talk with your co-author, Jonathan Coleman. And I asked Jonathan, “Was this book a catharsis for Jerry?” And he said that he believed that it wasn’t a catharsis, but that it was a cleansing. You told him that. What did you mean by that? What’s the difference?
Jerry West: I think a lot of us in life almost live a lie sometimes. People don’t look at what formed the person that you’ve become at all. And I know with me, I was almost ashamed of any success I had. That would be hard for people to believe. Winning was the only thing that mattered. I didn’t play for myself. I didn’t play for adulation. The thing that mattered most to me was to win.
It was such an awkward, complicated life for me when I first came to Los Angeles. I had a lot of success in college as a player and I could have gone to a lot of different schools because of my high school career. But I wanted to go to my state university. And it’s the best thing I’ve ever done because my connection with West Virginia is still very strong. As I told (Clippers owner) Steve Ballmer, I wish I had been able to amass a lot of money because that would have been completely the charity of my choice. Even though I’ve done some things for the university to try to help kids get an education to honor my brother who was killed in Korea, the awkward part is. . . . I wish I would have done something really important in my life. Something really important.
Being an athlete was easy. I was given a gift. I just wish that I could have made an impact on the world in some different way. When you go to bed at night and you start thinking about things like that, you realize there’s so much more in this world that is more important than just being an athlete.
Andy Bernstein: I have to differ with what you said because athletes now have such a voice through their platforms. They can be a hero on the court, which is great, but they can also effect social change. They can affect voting. They can bring topics to the forefront that have been left in the shadows. And one of those, very importantly, is mental health issues.
Jerry West: I never had sought help in my life for my particular problems. I used to say 'suffer in silence.' And I sort of learned how to deal with it personally. There were some days that I would wake up and, frankly, I didn’t want to wake up. When you see the enormous amount of suicide today, and I’m sure this pandemic, people inside, not interacting with their friends, it’s difficult. It’s really, really difficult. And for me, there were times, honestly. . . I know a couple of times after we lost in the championships, I didn’t want to be around.
Players have an enormous platform to help make a change. I think anything related to mental health, emotional stability. Probably the worst thing in the world, I think, when you have this problem with yourself is the person you talk to all the time is you. You don’t talk to anyone else unless you seek help. It’s just a God-awful feeling to have looked at yourself and have no self-worth at all regardless of what you’ve accomplished. I think today you see so many — and I see these very accomplished people in sports and people who are writers, creative, really smart people — all of a sudden, you look and they’re gone by their own doing. It’s so sad to see people that are so gifted and so talented leave much too early.
Andy Bernstein: Do you think that your really incredible competitive spirit was fueled by the loss of your brother? You talk about it in the book and I can’t really express what you said, but you talk about throughout the book how the loss of your brother stayed with you your whole life and drove you. But it drove you to the nth degree. Did that competitiveness start before his death or it came afterwards?
Jerry West: I’ve always been ultracompetitive. It’s almost ridiculous that at 82 years of age I’m still that way. I don’t like to lose. But I think you have to learn how to lose. But you also have to learn how to win. And as I say, I don’t think that did it for me, but it just changed me as a person completely. Beside my bed, every once in a while, I have a bunch of letters my brother wrote from the Korean War in 1953, 1952. They were passed along to me.
Obviously, there wasn’t much time to write because they were in combat. They were in Seoul and I think they got driven out of Seoul two or three different times. And he was deeply religious. And just reading these simple little letters — they might not be more than two paragraphs because he didn’t have time — and how simply they were written, but it’s almost like he wanted to say hello to everyone. When I’m in one of my dark moods, I’ll go pick those up and read them. I probably shouldn’t even read them because it makes it even worse anymore. But it’s something that I’ve embraced, his death.I will never understand why someone as deeply religious as him could get killed. And my question of faith has always been shaken by that incident, as it did a lot of people, I’m sure.
I used to say 'suffer in silence.' And I sort of learned how to deal with it personally. There were some days that I would wake up and, frankly, I didn’t want to wake up.
Andy Bernstein: So, Jerry, when Kobe died so suddenly with his daughter and all of those people on the helicopter in January, it had to bring that back to you?
Jerry West: I think you have to come with grips with things, OK? The finality is something that’s there. When I think back to that day, I’m sitting here on a Sunday morning reading the newspaper, as I always do, because I love to read. And I get a call that said somebody said there was a helicopter crash. And they suspect that it might have been Kobe on that plane with other people. The first thing you do, you start to worry. Please, this can’t happen to him. He’s got too much of a life to give. His career afterwards was going to be bigger than it was as an athlete. And I think the suddenness of it and his age, but more importantly the daughter and let’s not forget the other people, it just was gut-wrenching to me to think that they’d been taken.
I’ll never forget of some of the times I saw him sitting at the game with his daughter, Gianna, on the floor. And to see the joy, to see the love between those two, it was just amazing.
We have some pictures here with him and my kids, and when I look at them, I say, “Oh, my God. Look at how young he was. Look how young my kids were.” Those are the constant reminders that I have.
We have some pictures here with (Kobe) and my kids, and when I look at them, I say, “Oh, my God. Look at how young he was. Look how young my kids were.”
Andy Bernstein: Yeah. I was with you in Maui (when you took the job with the Clippers). Why did you do it? You never really said why you took that job.
Jerry West: First of all, Steve Ballmer, if you’re around him, he’s infectious, OK? He’s the most straightforward guy. He doesn’t beat around the bush. He’s just there. OK?
And I’m just too competitive even to this day to sit around. I just am too competitive. And obviously, you know, when someone wants you that feels pretty good. They still feel that you have something to give. And obviously, I wasn’t wanted in some other places. It was just a good feeling. And this place has got a lot of basketball people there. This is one of the most formulative teams in basketball, by far. I wouldn’t trade our top 10 guys for any team member. Not one. I just think we’re that deep.
Some of the things that have been done there in a short period of time are pretty remarkable. There are probably five years left here for this team to be really good because all of these players are going to be in their prime. And when I look at other teams aging, their players, look at the age of players, we should be here for a while in Los Angeles.
And how fun would it be for the Clippers and Lakers to play? Would it be for bragging rights of the city? It might be bragging rights for a season if the Clippers would win, but the Lakers’ history and the people they’ve had playing here, that’s never going to go away. But from now on when (the Clippers) have a new building here, they’re going to have their own group of fans. They’re going to be completely different than the Laker fans. And that’s what I think makes life so interesting.
Let’s hope the best team wins, and I think we have the best team.