Growing up in West Virginia, there are several things you were expected to know.
West Virginia broke away from Virginia during the Civil War. Coal is king. Politics is corrupting. Oh, and Jerry West is a cultural icon and the state’s favorite son.
I never had the opportunity to watch West play for West Virginia University and the Los Angeles Lakers. That didn’t matter. His name was all around. You knew about him and you knew his importance to West Virginia; that he grew up in Chelyan, a tiny town near Charleston; that he played for West Virginia University; and, that he was “The Logo.”
Even though you knew West was from West Virginia and his many athletic accomplishments, you never really felt like you knew West. This was probably because I was more familiar with West as the general manager of the Lakers during the “Showtime” era and the familiar face in black and white photos that decorated trophy cases at the WVU Coliseum. I never felt I really knew much about him. I don’t think I am alone, as far as the general public is concerned, in feeling this way.
This curiosity to learn more about a cultural icon from my home state is why I wanted to read West By West, which is West’s recently released autobiography. What you find in its 300-plus pages is a narrative of a life filled with athletic achievements and personal challenges of depression, which stemmed from an abusive relationship with his father and the loss of his brother, David, during the Korean War. It is a hard read, because it deals with difficult subjects in abuse and depression. At the same time, it is an important read because it tells of how much West overcame in order to achieve the success he had.
West is tremendously vulnerable in the book. He goes into detail that takes you deep into his family life. He makes the point to say his father only cared for him when he became successful. This came after much discussion of his father’s beatings, abuse, and neglect.
West also was open about what his battles with depression had cost him personally. The depression, and perhaps his fame, led to some of his mistakes, especially with women. West is open about his failings involving his first wife, and how his second and current wife helped him to have a true family. Yet, West is open about his inability to truly express how he feels about someone. A struggle, he writes, that comes out of his family life as a child.
At times, the book is a retrospective on a great career, but, at other times, the book is West’s attempt to understand himself. By the book’s conclusion, you are left with a deeper appreciation of West as a person and a player. The reader is also left with a deep sadness for a life filled with so much pain.
After reading the book, I feel as though I can relate to West more than ever. Before reading, my only connection to West was that he was from West Virginia, attended West Virginia University, and was involved with the Lakers. The Lakers were my favorite team growing up, in part, because of West and Magic Johnson. I understand how West might have felt of wondering what it would take to earn his father’s love, because it is a question I, and perhaps many others, have asked as well. The inability to have a strong home environment can have a lasting impact on someone’s life, especially with how they interact with others. West was able to rise above it due to basketball, but in reading you are left wondering what his life would have been life had he not found a release to his personal frustration. His is basketball. Mine has always been communication, whether it be writing or preaching. It is important for anyone who has had personal struggles, especially as children, to find something they are good at that can be a release point for them.
West’s book is not going to appeal to everyone, because it is focuses so much on his athletic career. If a reader is interested in understanding the life of someone who battles from self-doubt and depression, they would find no better subject to study than West and no better book to read than West By West.