Roland Lazenby, one of the best basketball writers of our time, has penned a new book: Jerry West, the life and legend of a basketball icon. West is one of the most compelling and complex figures in basketball, and the book is a detailed look at the conditions that formed him and how that affected him as a player and general manager..
Lazenby was kind enough to spend some time answering questions about West for us, and this is the first installment of a two-part interview with him.
There are a lot of younger fans in the league who know Jerry West as a general manager or as “the Logo” but they don’t know him as a player. What should they know? What defined him as an elite player?
His athleticism. You know a lot of people think of Jerry West as this guy who could really shoot, and he was a fine shooter, but Jerry West had this blinding quickness. He was a very, very strong person…
(Boston Celtic legend) Tommy Heinsohn said (teammate) K.C. Jones just used to sort of tackle West. K.C. was sort of like this dog that would get a hold of your pants leg and wouldn’t let go (as a defender), and he and West had these battles. When I asked KC about him, he said, “You just can’t imagine how strong West was.” This strength, this quickness, he had this tremendous leaping ability, he had 38-inch arms length….
West had this athleticism that was uncommon. And he came from this family that didn’t care at all about athletics… But Jerry was just self-taught. It’s a story that doesn’t make any sense… (in high school) he couldn’t really dribble very well, couldn’t dribble to his left at all and his shot was pretty flat. He didn’t play guard until he reached the NBA…
Still nobody at West Virginia will ever catch his scoring record. And it took a Kobe Bryant — I want to repeat that, it took a Kobe Bryant — to catch him as the all-time scorer for the Lakers.
You recently talked a little bit about how Kobe and West had some similar qualities.
That comes somewhat from a conversation I had with Tex (Winter) before his stroke, and the theme of the story I was working on was perfectionists. (West’s) mother, was a perfectionist. She was a woman living a very limited, narrow live in West Virginia but she was unrivaled as a perfectionist. She took care of everything, the kids were always perfectly dressed… she was a very fierce, pioneer sort of woman…
I was talking with Tex about this and he said all the great ones are unbelievable perfectionists. They are all very complex people. It’s part of the whole “alpha male” thing… this male who is so competitive, so driven, such a perfectionist. Tex said guys like Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan — he named those four — they are such perfectionists they are very demanding of their teammates in different ways.