Jerry West: A Very Special Agony, 1970

[Over the past 12 years or so, there have been two outstanding books published on NBA great Jerry West. In 2010, author Roland Lazenby hit Amazon and what remained of American bookstores with his outstanding biography Jerry West: The Life and Legend of a Basketball Icon. (Get a copy, if you haven’t already.) The following year, Jerry West came out with his autobiography titled West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life.

Until these two books, anyone interested in the Laker legend had to root around for a dog-eared copy of Mr. Clutch: The Jerry West Story, published in 1970. (I picked up my copy, pictured below, at a used bookstore in Morgantown.) Mr. Clutch remains a borderline sports classic, mainly for its tight connection to West and life in the 1960s NBA. 

West wrote the book with author Bill Libby, who passed away back in 1984. In this article from 1970, Libby talks about West, his character, and writing Mr. Clutch. I’m guessing the article was written for marketing reasons: to shill the upcoming book to pro basketball fans. So, pardon his extreme bias for number 44. One quick note. Though Libby was a prolific writer, he wasn’t much of a stylist. It really shows in this article, which badly needed a good copy edit. In a few places where one word, not six, were crying out to streamline a sentence, I took the liberty. I couldn’t help it. That editorial nitpicking aside, this is a nice article that offers a unique view inside the writing of Mr. Clutch. Libby’s article ran in the magazine Fast Break: 1970 Basketball Annual]

I’ve watched Jerry West play basketball for 10 or 12 years and written quite a few magazine stories about him and always have respected him as a performer and as a person. But never as much as last season, when I observed him more closely than ever because I was doing a book with him. I didn’t get to live with him, as a writer would like to do when he is doing a book with a subject, but I got to spend a lot of time with him. I think, as a writer is apt to think, that I got to know him better than he may think I do. 

Some 150 years ago, a London journalist, writing about the death of a champion fives-player, which, I believe, was a game like squash, wrote something to the effect that it does not matter what a man does, but if he does any one thing better than anyone else in the world, which so many others try to do well, it is something very special. It has stuck in my mind for a long time, and I am reminded of it when I think of West, who may not play basketball much beyond this coming season, his 10th as a professional. 

After last season, I had come to the conclusion, and I know many others had come to the conclusion, that West does his thing better than any other player ever has, yet has not been well appreciated for it—certainly not as much as some others have been. He has been an All-American and an All-Pro, and he is considered for a place on all the all-time all-star teams, but he is not automatically given this place as perhaps he should be. 

Jerry will tell you Oscar Robertson is the best basketball player he’s ever seen, Elgin Baylor the best he’s ever played with, and Bill Russell the most valuable of all. Robertson probably has been the most skilled; but of them all, only Russell, not Robertson and not Baylor and not Bob Cousy and certainly not Wilt Chamberlain and probably not even George Mikan or Bob Pettit, ever rose to the heights to which West has risen in crisis. 

The thing West does is not just play basketball brilliantly, but play it best when it counts the most. This is the rarest of things. Some athletes choke. It is a terrible thing to say of anyone, but it is true. When the pressure is on, some don’t want any part of it, and if they are stuck with it, they are bent by it. A few have been exceptional performers under pressure. West has been possibly the most exceptional. 

Russell has won more, but perhaps this has made it a little easier to keep winning. West has performed with similar brilliance under the burden of frustration. He has been injured an uncommon amount of times, yet always overcame injuries. His high school team won a state championship, but his college team lost by one point the one time it reached the national finals. And his pro team has lost, sometimes by a point or two, four times in the last game of a series, six times in the world championships. Yet, every time he has been outstanding. 

He has been blameless, yet blames himself. One more basket. One more steal. One more key play. “I can always see where I might have done something more,” he sighs. 

He is a country boy from West Virginia, who still speaks with a slight southern accent. He speaks simply, which in some ways disguises how shrewd he is. A writer, Merv Harris, says, “I learned more basketball just talking to Jerry than I did any other way from anyone else.” 

Bill van Breda Kolff, who coached him two years, says, “I quickly found out I didn’t have to explain anything to Jerry. He knew it.” 

Off the court, he is similarly perceptive. This doesn’t always come through because he is shy and modest and sensitive and proud and very careful, usually, to say “the right thing.” One writer  said, “There’s no point talking to Jerry after a good game. He’ll just make you think it wasn’t as good as you thought it was.”

Growing up, he never had much, and while he has gotten a great deal since, he’s basically conservative about money and possessions. Whether it be prestige or possessions, he seems concerned that he might make a move which would sacrifice what he has gained. He and his wife, Jane, are unpretentious and live simply in a comfortable house in a comfortable neighborhood. They have two sons, and Jerry yells at them and loves them and says proudly that they are average boys whom he does not believe have been spoiled by his prominence, though once he found out one was selling his autographed photos to other kids at school for a penny apiece. Jerry, himself, makes a big salary. But he probably makes less side money than most top athletes. He simply is unwilling to commit himself to a lot of business deals. He does not make half as much as Wilt Chamberlain makes. 

As a boy, Jerry was tall and skinny and short on clothes and cars and almost painfully shy. He kept himself alive and spent a lot of time shooting baskets alone, and other times hunting and fishing. He had few close friends. Jerry was close to an older brother, but he died in service during the Korean conflict. Jerry’s father worked hard for a living, and his mother had a large family to raise. Reluctantly, Jerry admits his was not a close family. Perhaps because of this, he seems very close to his wife and sons now. 

He says he hardly dated before he met Jane in college, and she has been one person with whom he has always felt comfortable. “I’m a difficult person to live with,” he says. “I’m very critical and very moody and very intense. Jane understands me and puts up with me.” She is a bright, lovely girl, who says, “He is not always an easy person, but he is a good person, which is more important.” 

Jerry is a very straight guy, who hates it when he is called “an All-American boy,” although, as Jane says, “that’s just about what he is.” Men say they would like their sons to be like him. He grins ruefully and says, “Kids and dogs like me.”

It is hard to like him on game days. He is so wrapped up in the game that he must play that night. As the tension thickens, he coils and recoils, and his wife admits she hides from him sometimes to avoid arguments. He leaves for the game as early as possible because then he can at least be among other players, who understand what this thing is for him. Yet, even after having played nearly 20 seasons, he still gets so sick near game time that he must gulp pills to settle his stomach. “It is best,” he says, “when the game begins, because then all the other stuff is done with, and I can do what I know how to do.”

Yet, as brilliantly as he does this thing, he is never satisfied. He is one who works and practices at not what he does best, but what he does not do as well. There was a time when he was not a good ballhandler, but, with work and practice, he has become a fine dribbler and an extra fine passer, not fancy, but exceptionally efficient, and seldom kicks the ball away or has it taken from him. 

He has become an extraordinary defender, who considers defense the most underrated part of the game and of his game. He is unorthodox, but because he is unusually quick, he is tough to beat. Yet, he himself says, “No one stops the best shooters. If they have a bad night, they are stopping themselves. But if you can take just one or two baskets away from a top shooter in a given game, you may have provided the difference between winning and losing that game.”

No one stops him. He has bad nights, but fewer than most. If something is going bad for him, he can do something else. He has always been an exceptional shooter. Usually, he shoots from 15 to 20 feet out, jumping and tossing up soft, sort-of flat one-handers. Usually, he makes his move to his right, and usually, he does not get fancy with fakes, but he goes up so quick and shoots so fast, he has fewer shots blocked than any player around. He is a gorgeous shooter, as graceful as an athlete can be. Practicing it to perfection, he now is deadly on drives, too. If foes crowd him, he goes around them. Driving, he is fearless and flawless. 

He has averaged 28 points a game throughout his professional career, and he has scored as many as 64 points in a single game. But it bothers him that there is so much emphasis in the press on scoring. He says, “There are a lot scorers in pro basketball, and there is a lot of scoring in every game. But too often the stolen pass in a key situation, the rebound at the right time, the perfect play when it’s needed—the isolated single incidents that really decide the game—are overlooked. I’ve had reporters come up to congratulate me for scoring 30 in a game, and I didn’t know what to say to them because how could I explain to them that I really played rotten and didn’t make the play I should have made when it came to me?” 

Defeats depress him deeply. Of course, everyone who plays wants to win, but observing him, you see that he is the one who wants to win much more than most, who takes his game more seriously than most. “There are many reasons for playing this game, but winning is the best one,” he says. He has been on a loser only a few times in his long career, but the fact that he has not been on a champion in college and pro play pursues him. “I guess I’m a loser,” he mutters. 

I wanted to call his book A Very Special Agony, because I think that’s what this is for West. The editor and publisher, Prentice-Hall, vetoed that as too downbeat and settled on Mr. Clutch, a nickname which typifies Jerry’s record. 

Probably no athlete ever has won more games in the last moments than Jerry. The most outstanding came in a playoff game against Boston. West hit two baskets to tie it, but after a timeout, Boston had the ball out of bounds with only three seconds to play. Sam Jones threw in to Bob Cousy, but West knifed in between them, stole the ball, dribble-drove for the basket, jumped, shot, and hit as the buzzer sounded. Wistfully, West knows such magic moments are too-soon forgotten.

He recalled it and many other moments for the book. It was not easy for him to talk about himself and about others, openly, as he really feels. But a book is a special thing, and Jerry wanted to do it right. He is a perfectionist, very serious and very concerned. We began to meet in the evenings at his home even before the season began, and we’d talk until he’d grow hoarse. Athletes, used to hour-long interviews, never realize how much they’re going to have to give of themselves for a book until they’re faced with it. Jerry gave and then gave some more. His wife was always there, contributing. His sons were there, trying not to be neglected. His mother, old friends, teammates, coaches, were called on. 

As the season wore on, I tried not to disturb Jerry much. I was writing now, but as gaps appeared that had to be filled, I’d call on Jane to alert me when Jerry’s schedule in mood were receptive to additional discussion. 

It was not an easy season for West. No season is. But this was more difficult than most. 

Owner Jack Kent Cooke had acquired Wilt Chamberlain in exchange for players and considerable cash. In nine previous seasons, Wilt’s teams had won only one previous crown, yet many felt he was the big man the Lakers had so long lacked, and with Wilt, West, and Baylor, three “superstars,” the Lakers would be unbeatable. It was not to be so. 

The giant Wilt is not an easy man to live with. He treated West well, but others indifferently. Wilt and Baylor rubbed each other the wrong way. Wilt and van Breda Kolff developed deep divisions. The coach wanted Wilt to move around more, play out further from the hoop more often, sit on the bench occasionally. Wilt wanted to anchor himself under the basket all the time, as he always had done. Meanwhile, new men filling in the gaps left by departed players had to round into place. It was a powerful team, but a thin one, not accustomed to playing together, and it was not a happy team. Writers rubbed raw the open sores. 

Gradually, the principals achieved a sort of armed truce, and the team began to steady down. But still the press, playing up the fires of dissension, were often spurred by the outspoken Chamberlain. 

West kept going to work and doing his job. But he pulled a leg muscle and a groin muscle and sprained an ankle and caught the flu. This has been his history. His nose has been broken eight or nine times. His hands have been broken twice. He has pulled or torn almost every muscle in his body. He is 6-foot-3 and weighs 190 pounds, but he plays a rough game against men much taller and heavier, and he always seems to be hurt. 

He had missed more than 100 games in previous seasons, and when he missed 21 more last season, it depressed him deeply. He had always insisted he was just unlucky, the victim of freak accidents. “What should I do, quit?” he asked. Now, finally, as the season ended, he admitted that he probably was, as he had always denied he was, “injury-prone.” “What else can I think,” he confessed miserably. 

He was healthy going into the 1969 playoffs. And hopeful once again. The Lakers, if not happy, still were hungry. And if not awesome, they were effective. Though not always impressive, they had won another Western title. Meanwhile, an aging Boston team had backed into the playoffs in fourth place in the East and seemed unlikely to make the finals. In the playoffs, the Lakers started slowly, but picked up as they went along. They took San Francisco apart at the end, then outslugged Atlanta. Meanwhile, Boston upset first Philadelphia, then New York. 

So it was Boston and LA in the last round once again. This time, while no student of history expected Wilt to dominate the finals, many felt he would at least neutralize Russell. After a fine season, Elgin suddenly seemed old and was not playing well.

But West was playing better than ever. He is the only player in NBA history to score better in the playoffs than in the regular season every season, and he was maintaining that pace now. And others were helping out from time to time. “All those years, I felt we had chances to upset Boston, but I always felt the Celtics were really the better team,” Jerry said. “But the last two years, I felt we were better and should win.”

The Lakers won the first two at home. West scored 53 in the first. He played brilliantly in both games. Havlicek was outstanding, but Jerry was more so. Then the Lakers went to Boston and lost two. 

The second really hurt. It was a bad ballgame. But the Lakers did lead by one with 15 seconds to play and had the ball. But Baylor inbounded to John Egan, and Emmette Bryant stole it. Sam Jones shot and missed, but Russell tipped the rebound and Baylor went out of bounds with it. The Celts took it out with three seconds to play, and Sam Jones shot and hit while off balance and falling down. In the dressing room, West, who had played with a bruised and swollen hand, said, “We let it get away.” It was the key game. 

Most of the series, West was the only consistently brilliant Laker. Baylor had only one big game. He couldn’t hit and quit shooting. Wilt had one big game, the fifth, in L.A. He dominated Russell, and the Lakers won big. But in the waning moments of that game, West and Bryant collided, and Jerry tore a hamstring muscle. Any other time, he would have had to sit out two weeks or so. Now, he was bound to continue playing, but how well? The Lakers had gone one up, but in the dressing room and on the flight back to Boston, they were wistfully quiet. “Why did it have to happen to him again?” Jane asked. 

The book was supposed to be done. Late in the season, Jerry had gone over the final manuscript, making changes. Now it was set in type and had been returned to me in what are called galley proofs, but now was not the time for Jerry to check it over a last time. It had to wait. 

A magazine was giving a Dodge to the outstanding player in the finals. West at this point rated far ahead of all rivals. But he gave it only passing thought. He figured it would go, as it usually did, to a member of the winning side. If the Lakers won, he would be happy, and such additional laurels would only be icing on the cake. If it came, it wouldn’t be the prize that counted, but the honor.  

West got two injections of painkillers and limped into the sixth game and played magnificently. But he got little help, and the Lakers lost. Now they had to go home for the final game. For the first time in their sad series with these Celtics, the Lakers did, at least, have the last one at home. If West’s leg held up, maybe the Lakers would, at last, win. 

Cooke’s Fabulous Forum was filled as it had been all playoffs with a record or near-record crowd of more than 17,000 championship-starved fans. They were ready to explode. Balloons encased in plastic were suspended from the ceiling ready to be released. Champagne was packed in ice ready to be hoisted in victory toasts. 

All his career, West had played in the shadow of the more-showy Baylor. They had worked together wonderfully well, but West wistfully envied Elgin’s popularity. Officially, the organization honored Elg as it never honored Jerry. Unofficially, the fans cheered Elg as they never cheered Jerry. Now, introduced before the final game, the gallant West for the first time received the standing ovation. When Jerry’s name was called, the folks came to their feet cheering. Nursing his private thoughts, sick with his anxiety to get on with the climactic contest, he hung his head and scuffed his toe on the court. 

He was unbelievable in that last game, scoring 42 points, hitting from outside and even driving successfully on big Russell as no one else ever has done, stealing the ball, setting up baskets with perfect passes, even rebounding. But his mates fell apart all around him as the Celts, confident and coolly efficient, built a huge lead. Late in the game, the Celts stalled. West whipped up a rally. Little by little, the Lakers crept closer and closer. The fans went wild. The Lakers caught the Celtics—and then died. All of a sudden. 

Wilt had begun to limp and was sitting to finish out. The Celts got a couple of points, then another couple and another. All of a sudden, it was over. The Celts had won again, for the 11th time in 13 seasons, for the sixth time over the Lakers. It is as though it belongs to the Celtics. Whatever happens, one way or another, they usually take it home with them. 

West sat sorrowfully in the dressing room, his bum leg hiked up on a stool. “I guess it just wasn’t meant to be,” he said. “I just wasn’t destined to play in a championship team.” But he won the car, and he said, “What does it mean now? I’d give the car for the title.” He looked at the wall through which the shouts of the celebrating Celtics could be heard. “I can’t take anything away from them,” he said. “I envy them.” They came to him. Russell held his hand for long minutes unable to speak. Havlicek faced Jerry and said, simply, “I love you.”

He had the greatest respect of everyone, but he did not have the title. The champagne grew warm. The balloons hung unpopped in the dark rafters. The building had emptied and hushed. In the press lounge, the wives wept. Congratulated on her husband’s winning the car, Jane said, “It’s a terrible thing to say, but it doesn’t mean anything to him, I know. All he ever wanted was to be a part of winning the title, and now he still hasn’t gotten that, and nothing else matters.”

A few days later, we met and he went over the galley-proofs of his book. He ripped them apart, reading the book a fourth time and then a fifth time. When some athletes finish something like this, they let it go. West can’t do that. He cares. He is too much of a perfectionist. Far more than is usual, this became his book. He had put some guts into it, painfully, and now, faced with his words in cold print, he reconsidered them. He did not take the guts out. But he studied the words carefully, reshaping them until they said just what he wanted to say. He had gotten a strep throat, and he finished lying in bed with me kneeling by his bedside and making final corrections, anxious to make the last mailing of the day to meet a deadline. Reluctantly, he let it go. 

It has been a long summer now. The coach, van Breda Kolff, has gone, and Jerry, who admired the way he stood up to unusual pressure, misses him. But West is back, healthy for the moment, hopeful again, ready for his 10th and perhaps last campaign. The book is due out, and he waits for it, hopeful that it will be received well and with understanding. But the book is one thing and the car another. And no such thing matters to this slim, fragile, intense young man as does his game in the title that has eluded him so long. 

He will work with Wilt and Elg and do his job and try to live his life with Jane and the boys as best he can, imperfect, but a perfectionist. 

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