By Roland Lazenby
On rare occasions, the right person is at the right place in the right time to carry out an extraordinary task. When Roland Lazenby set out to write a biography on Jerry West, that was one of those special moments.
For starters, Lazenby is one of the best sportswriters in the business. Of all the many books written about the Chicago Bulls dynasty, his masterpiece Blood on the Horns sits above all the others (even ahead of Sam Smith’s The Jordan Rules.) He also wrote THE book on the history of the Lakers franchise, The Lakers and then followed it up with the bigger more impressive tome The Show. He’s one of the very few writers who doesn’t fall under the spell of basketball demigods, such as Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson, and do their bidding. He does his homework and reports the facts and puts them out there.
Second, he’s a Lakers fan. I did not know this for some time, because he has written on many teams and written multiple books on the Bulls. Writing about what you love versus what you know has got to energize a writer, and you can see it here. To borrow a phrase quoted by those associated with West, how can you NOT be jazzed to write about “Jerry F***ing West?” The man IS the Lakers. He played 14 years, coached 2 years, scouted for the team, and served in various front office roles, including General Manager for 20 years. He built the 1980s and the early 2000s dynasty. This book radiates energy, and I imagine it was extremely difficult to craft this out, balancing love and fairness, rounding out the character and keeping the story pushing forward while covering such an extensive career.
The third reason has to do with West himself. The advantage of the autobiography is that the person telling the story knows more about himself than anyone. When you read a biography about a great person in history, there is a certain amount of guesswork, albeit educated. For instance, no one REALLY knows what George Washington was feeling during certain times. We can read his letters, but without talking to him directly, we don’t know the full truth. At the same time, the disadvantage of the autobiography is that people value themselves probably more highly than they ought. No one wants to look like the bad guy or the screw up, so some points are glossed over or rationalized, even if it’s a case of the person convincing himself that this revised history is the truth. To see this point illustrated, read Pete Maravich’s autobiography “Heir to a Dream” and then read Mark Kriegel’s excellent biography “Pistol.” An outside observer is often more brutally honest about the subject than the subject. Besides this book and Kriegel’s the other biography that really stands out is Robert Cherry’s biography about Wilt Chamberlain, Wilt: Larger than Life. The advantage Lazenby has over Cherry and Kriegel is that Jerry West is still alive, whereas Maravich and Chamberlain had passed away, so he was able to interview West himself. Furthermore, West is 71 years old, so he has a sense of perspective and is more likely to be honest looking back in retrospect to past relationships and performances, unlike a biography written about a 32 year old player in the prime of his career.
Finally, and probably most importantly, former Lakers General Manager Pete Newell said to understand Jerry West, you have to understand West, you have understand West Virginia. Lazenby, a West Virginia native, understands West Virginia. He spends significant time explaining the background of West Virginia, including the settling and conflict dating back to the French and Indian War, along with the exploitation of the land, resources, and people by large mining corporations. And beyond understanding the land and the people of the state as a whole, Lazenby also sets the background to West’s upbringing. You have to understand his parents to understand why he is such a perfectionist. To understand his parents, you have to understand his grandparents. Lazenby goes into detail on this, along with some even more distant relatives. He spends three chapters setting up back story before we even get to West playing basketball in high school. In doing so, you really get into the mind of West and although he is a hard man to understand – namely his nervous energy, and inability to be sit back and take satisfaction in the fruit of his work – you still see WHY he is the way he is. And that is why this book is so special. Most books are more interested in the events rather than the “whys”. Lazenby answers both.
You also get to see West’s view on this relationships with key people in his career: Fred Schaus, Elgin Baylor, Jack Kent Cooke, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry Buss, and Phil Jackson.
The one question I always wondered was knowing West’s perfectionist attitude and his wont for reliving the failures to win the championship in 6 meetings with the Celtics (along with past failures in college) and subjecting himself to misery, when the Lakers finally won the title in 1972, West went through a shooting slump in the finals and conference finals. I always wondered how he dealt with winning the finals, yet performing at a sub-standard level. Had I met West, I would never have asked him this. After all, when you stand before “Jerry F***ing West”, you are in the presence of royalty, so how could you do anything except heap praise? Yet Lazenby does address this issue in detail – proving why he is one of the best at what he does. He’s a fan, yet he’s fair.
When I finished this book, I knew more about the subject matter than I did in any other sports book, and probably more than any other historical character. This is not just a good sports book, this is a textbook example of how to write a biography. This can proudly take its place alongside David McCollough’s biography on John Adams and Edmund Morris’ “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” on the bookshelf, both of which won the Pulitzer Prize, but have nothing on this book. This is the best 3-dimensional analysis of a character in any biography I have come across, and I have read many: sports and non-sports.
I have often wondered which 5-star rated book was the best, and I had never been able to pick one out that stood above the rest – until now. This book stands out so far above the rest, that I had to create a new rating: 6-stars. The master sports author who created two previous brilliant works has created his magnum opus.
Jerry West: The Life and Legend of a Basketball Icon. Roland Lazenby. Ballantine Books. 2009.