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 second installment of a two-part interview with him (read the first part here).
The general perception of West is as this very successful person. He won an NBA championship, a gold medal, one of the 50 greatest players of all time. But that is not how West saw himself, he was driven more by his failures than his success, wasn’t he?
Pete Newell, who coached against him in the NCAA championship game in 1959 and later coached him on that famed 1960 Olympics team that won the gold medal in Rome… West wanted to quit (the Olympic) team, he didn’t think he was good enough to be there. And Newell was just flabbergasted. You could see he was going to be this all time great player, he was this tremendous, tremendous competitor, but he was almost paralyzed at times by these inferiority complexes.
This is something that Newell contemplated for a long time. Newell later became the GM of the Lakers during West’s playing career… but Newell said you really had to look into West’s background in West Virginia to start to understand why he was so complex… That’s what I try to do with the book.
A lot of great players struggle to the next phase of their lives. West, however, was able to be successful as a GM. Why was he able to transition?
I think one of the factors was he played along side Elgin Baylor. That was a tremendous benefit because he learned a lot from him. Someone who took the pressure off. Jerry grew to intensely dislike his coach, his college coach from West Virginia went to the Lakers as Jerry did. Jerry had already played three years for him and that started to wear down on the relationship, then he went on to play six more seasons, almost 1,000 games, for Fred Schaus.
But Jerry was beset by doubt and anxiety, and Schaus decided not to start him as a rookie. And this is the thing that really clinched Jerry’s long term dislike of Fred Schaus. It was a hard thing because Oscar Robertson had come into the league — Oscar was the number one pick, Jerry number two — and Jerry wanted to be a starter. In fact, when was the last time a rookie substitute was named to the All-Star Team?…
I think he enjoyed (being a general manager). He obviously loved basketball. I think he loved the players with all his heart. And I think being a general manager gave him the chance to address all those things that annoyed him so much as a player and coach… They were always down a player, maybe more, in their battles with the Celtics. And there was nobody at the Lakers (front office) who really cared. Jerry, by nature of his presence, changed that.