Continuing from today’s “Off the Wall” column, with Roland Lazenby, who has authored a biography of Jerry West (linked here):
Q: With Jerry West planning his own autobiography later this year, can see how that book and your book would complement each other rather than compete?
A: Jerry is a very smart man, and in talking to me and choosing to do it this way, I think it’s the best possible way for him to discuss his life in detail.
Q: Some of the pre-book release publicity centered on an excerpt taken from the last chapter, a part where Jerry, as the Lakers general manager, admits to protecting the image of the players in the 1980s and ’90s, revelations of players like Magic Johnson having sex with women in the Lakers’ locker room after games and before going out to talk to the media. Did that distract much from what this book is really about?
A: This book really is a serious effort, and those who have reviewed it have noted that. So I’m not too concerned. Like anyone else, I don’t want something things in a different direction from how I intended. For people who have read the book, they’ve said, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not what this book is about.’ Everyone in Los Angeles is fairly familiar with the painful events that happened in 1991, when Magic announced his was HIV positive. This book is really aimed at the playing career of Jerry West and his efforts to beat the Boston Celtics, which finally happened in 1985. (The publishers) asked me to add a chapter on Jerry’s afterlife as a general manager, so I did that, but I really had to summarize a lot of things. I did a book on the Lakers 17 years ago, so I took a lot of information from that. Then a columnist in Milwaukee seized on that information. And that’s fine to focus there, but really, it got weird when all these websites picked it up and hyped it in a strange and bizarre direction. I don’t think that serves anyone. There’s the adage that any publicity is good as long as you spell my name right, but I don’t think that applies here. I wrote about it more on my blog to give it some context. It’s a relatively minor thing in the course of things.
Q: When you speak of generations not having seen him play, many of today’s Lakers fans will naturally assume Kobe Bryant is the greatest player in franchise history, because he just passed West as the all-time leading scorer. Do too many not know that West could really be the best player in franchise history?
A: Let’s not forget Magic Johnson. Greatness is measured in points, but it extends to so many things. When you see how Magic energized the city of L.A. and delivered championships and all the amazing things he did, it’s hard to beat him as the No. 1 player. It’s hard to also overlook Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar). But looking at Jerry West when he came into the league in 1960, with this bankrupt franchise that just moved from Minnesota, joining up with the great Elgin Baylor to form a hyper competitive twosome. They faced Celtics teams with Bill Russell that could be the greatest teams of all time. You see what Jerry and Elgin meant to Los Angeles in terms of bringing the crowds alive and introducing pro basketball as a left-coast thing, then later with Jerry in his role as a coach and executive. It’s hard to say. It’s always subjective. My personal list would have Magic first, then Jerry, then probably Kareem and Baylor, too, before Kobe.
Q: As far as Jerry’s career as a Laker executive, there are quotes you have from him about his relationship with Phil Jackson, and now that we’re hearing Jerry’s side of things about why he left the franchise, do you believe his story to be accurate?
A: There’s no question that Phil forced him out. Tex explained all that to me. Phil just wanted to start over with that culture and he didn’t want to get into whether this was ‘Jerry’s team’ or his team. Phil did ask him to leave the locker room in 2000 during the playoffs against Portland, and Tex said Phil knew that would be a blow to Jerry’s ego. Del Harris later said that Phil was the only one who could have done something like that to Jerry.
Jerry has had a lot of conflict in his life. He had trouble with Bob Short, the first Lakers’ owner, and with Fred Schaus, his college coach who was then his pro coach, and then GM of the team. They were alienated for years. (Eventual Lakers owner) Jack Kent Cooke had a huge, bitter confrontation with him. So all this shows that it’s not just all on Jerry. He has a demand for the way a perfect world of basketball should be. It drives him crazy that it’s not perfect. He battled a lot with Pat Riley when he thought his ego overflowed. He had his moments with Jerry Buss. So he’s had this alienation from a variety of figures, back to his own father. I don’t think Jerry ever got the chance to reconcile with his father, but he learned that lesson and did, later in life, reconcile things with Schaus and Cook, and Riley eventually asked him to present him for his Hall of Fame induction.
Q: Ultimately, where do you think Jerry West’s contradictory nature comes from?
A: I’ve had a lot of talks with Tex Winter, and he says there are these types of people, who Phil Jackson calls the ‘Alpha males,’ who are perfectionists, like Oscar Robertson, or Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson. They are complex and can be difficult to be around. That makes for a great way to play on the court, but you’re stunned about how hard they can be to live with that kind of nature day in and day out. Jerry has known that he’s horribly moody and could have taken steps to change it, but he knew he needed that anxiety and high pitch to be able to compete. That gave him his edge. He nurtured that over the years.
And there are all these stories out there about him. His legendary unhappiness was always there. I did a radio interview with someone recently in Memphis, and he asked me, ‘Do you like Jerry West?’ I said, ‘Well, I admire him tremendously and, yes, he was very gentlemanly in dealing with me, but he did have these outbursts and anger.’ So the host asked me again, ‘Do you like him?’ And I knew what he was talking about. Sometimes, he’s unlikable and truly difficult. But my answer to him was, ‘I think you’ve encapsulated everything in that question.’
Q: Do you look forward to Jerry West’s autobiography when it comes out later this year?
A: Oh, I sure do. I can’t wait. I’m curious to see how it comes out.
== More Lazenby books of interest:
== “The Show: The Inside Story of the Spectacular Los Angeles Lakers In The Words of Those Who Lived It” (2005) (linked here)
== “Mindgames: Phil Jackson’s Long Strange Journey” (2000) (linked here)
== “Mad Game: The NBA Education of Kobe Bryant” (1999) (linked here)
== “The Lakers: A Basketball Journey” (1995) (linked here)
== “The NBA Finals: The Official Illustrated History” (1990) (linked here)
== “They Call Me Coach” (with John Wooden and Jack Tobin) (1988) (linked here)