‘Tragedy Full of Joy’: The Complicated American Dream of West Virginia’s Jerry West

Jerry West, one of the greatest basketball players of all time and almost certainly the greatest athlete from the state of West Virginia, was born in Chelyan, a tiny town with a population of less than 1,000 people.

West won an Olympic Gold Medal for Team USA in 1960, played 1960-1974 in the NBA for the Los Angeles Lakers, coached for the Lakers 1976-1979, and worked in the Lakers’ front office 1979-2000. Since then, he’s worked in different roles for the Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors, and Los Angeles Clippers. At 83, he’s still a consultant for the Clippers.

In 1997, as part of the league’s 50th anniversary, West was named one of the 50 greatest NBA players of all time. He was a 6ft3 shooting guard with pinpoint long-range accuracy, 360-degree court vision, and a ferocious drive to win. Since 1969, his picture has provided the silhouette for the NBA’s iconic emblem. One of his nicknames is The Logo.

Jerry West

I didn’t know West’s story until I picked up West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, his 2011 memoir with Jonathan Coleman. It’s an all-time great sports book, a first-person account of a famous athlete’s life that talks as much about his mental health struggles as about his playing highlights. West admits marital infidelities and taking Prozac for depression.

It’s also one of the most West Virginia stories I’ve ever read, the fable of a man who grew up poor playing basketball on dirt, and had to leave the state to find stardom, but never shed the identity of his home people. West comes off as tough, honest, stubborn, funny, and loyal. A gracious gentleman, he always picks up the check. “West Virginia, you see, is far more than the place where I was born,” West writes. I believe it. The basketball legend, who currently splits his time between West Virginia and California and is personal pals with Gov. Jim Justice, even writes that one of his “biggest regrets is that I never found the wherewithal, emotionally, and mentally, to go back to West Virginia and run for governor, something I had been encouraged and was sorely tempted to do on a few occasions once my playing days were over.”

West was one of six children. His dad was a machine operator for a company called Pure Oil. The world of his youth was one of “Methodist church bingo, Red Ryder BB guns, and coal tipples; of mean dogs (one in particular – Bear – used to chase my ass) and sneaky cats and heated political discussion among edgy union men; of one big river – the mighty Kanawha – and many black, coal-darkened creeks.”

West started shooting hoops on “a makeshift basket in a neighbor’s dirt yard (two poles, a hoop, and a wooden backboard) and that at first I summoned all my strength to get the ball up there, underhand,” he writes. “And I do know that I attached a wire basket with no net to the side of a bridge, and if the ball didn’t go in, it would roll down an embankment and I would have to chase it a long way, and because of that, I learned the practical importance of following my shot and following through.”

As a child, West used to go with his friends to the train tracks to watch cars go by. It was one point for Fords and Chevrolets, “extra points” for Cadillacs. “I have often wondered if my ability to see the whole basketball court when I played – even, it seemed, what was going on behind me head – to see and anticipate things before they actually happened, was honed was back then, one Cadillac at a time.”

Those were the happy parts of childhood. The rest was mostly bleak. When West was 13, his beloved older brother David was killed fighting in the Korean war. West’s father beat him, and one of his sisters, sometimes with a hammer.

During one particularly hard stretch, we ate the same soup out of the same pot for six days until I told my mother I simple couldn’t do it any longer. Well, let me tell you, I took the most god-awful beating that day from my father and it made me into a tough, nasty kid and it turned me even more inward than I already was. I never forgave him for it. Still haven’t. But I promised myself that I would do everything I could to make sure that never happened to me again. I screwed up my courage and told him so, told him that he’d better never lay another hand on me and reminded him that I had a shotgun under my bed and would damn well use it if I had to.

That shaped his character into a hard nut that never seemed to crack. “When you had a father who beat you, as mine did, for reasons I am still trying to fathom, it is hard to think of yourself as very special, as deserving of acclaim.”

Although his father was uneducated and mean, he was smart, and read the newspaper cover to cover every day. “He often fell asleep on the couch with the paper covering his face.” West became a voracious reader. In his memoir, he quotes Joseph Campbell, Joan Didion, Bernard Malamud, and others. “Life is a tragedy full of joy,” West quotes Malamud writing, then adds: “I deeply believe the first part, and frequently struggle with the second.”

It’s not hard to understand how West became the man he did. “In my house growing up, you didn’t hear the words I love you, which I am sure plays a large part in why I find it so difficult to say the same thing, or fully understand what it is. Three goddamn words, and I struggle like hell with them.”

The overall feeling of his childhood was one of being locked up. “I know that incarcerated is a strong word, but that is how I felt; it is also how I felt in the locker room before a game, like a caged animal that needed to break out; and it is why I still, today, look to escape from places and keep moving, a man on the run.”

West’s dad died in a fire in 1967. “I didn’t feel as if I knew either of my parents,” he writes. “Or what I knew, I wanted to forget.”

Despite the difficult childhood, West still has nostalgia for what he describes as the can-do energy of West Virginia in those days. “Back when I was going to school, things were more vibrant, if you can believe it. But when I visit there now, not a day goes by that I don’t think how lucky I was to get out. Some people might take that the wrong way, but I love West Virginia and that is why I am saying this.”

At 18, after setting records and winning a state championship at East Bank High School in Kanawha County, West moved to Morgantown to play for the Mountaineers of West Virginia University, the obsession of a state without any major league pro sports team.

In 1960, he won a gold medal with the U.S. Olympic basketball team in Rome. Then, California was the place he went to be. He became one of the biggest basketball stars on the planet. He helped build a modern sports league. The Lakers in the 1960s lost six championships to the Boston Celtics, before finally winning one in 1972. As an executive, he’d win eight championships with the Lakers and Warriors. His biggest coup was bringing Shaquille O’Neil and Kobe Bryant to play together on the Lakers in 1996.

West’s life shows the painful complexity of America’s myths. A man can come from the holler, with little money and a dad who beat him, and end up in Los Angeles, hooping for the Lakers and partying with Jack Nicholson. West’s life shares a trajectory with other famous Americans who’ve risen to stardom, including Brad Paisley from Glen Dale/Moundsville, and Lady Gaga. But there is a cost to these adventures, of a homesick life, broken friendships, and struggling communities always drained of their best and brightest. You can’t have it both ways. In his book, West speaks with envy of old friends who stayed behind and lived simpler, happier lives.

In 2019, West received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Trump. “My dreams have come true,” he said at the White House ceremony. “I spent my childhood in West Virginia, and my adulthood in Los Angeles, two of the most profoundly different places in this country. And I’ve been shaped by wonderful people in both.” He talked about his “long, rich American life.”

In his book, West writes of his support for President Obama. That decision “did not sit well with many of the guys I play gin with at Bel-Air Country Club Los Angeles. Every chance they got, they chided me about this, reminding me that I would be paying a lot more in taxes,” he writes. “I didn’t care. I liked the cool, graceful way he conducted himself, and I had a sense he could be a unifying figure, a brilliant leader.”

What I love most about West’s book is that he tells the truth about his gift.

Basketball is, and always has been, a huge, huge part of me, the canvas I tried to paint each time I stepped on the court and never stopped trying to perfect. It’s been my life. It’s been my love. I’ve hated it. Been frustrated with it – and delighted with it – beyond tears. There’s the been the allure of the damn basketball (though I am convinced it chose me, not the other way around). And there has always been a constant battle for me to try to find the satisfaction that I should have got by now (should being one of the trickiest, most dangerous words imaginable). It was really hard to find, and even harder to hold on to. It was almost like I was tormented.

Jerry West might be living a tormented life, but, as is the case for his beloved West Virginia, a lot of other things are true.

John W. Miller

5 comments

    1. Thanks for sharing this. He is a remarkable man whose talent is legendary. It always gives me pleasure to say that I, too, was born in Chelyan, West Virginia. It makes me sad to hear of his unhappy childhood.

      1. I lived in East Bank and graduated High School there. My mother ( Lois Keeney ) grew up in East Bank, a true coal miners daughter and attended High School with Mr. West. What a legend he still is with West Virginians .

  1. I did not know him when he was playing basketball and met him only once at a grand opening of a permarket.
    However I knew Archie Searls who befriended him and talked endedlessly about him. He had great confidence tthat Jerry would one day show the world that he was a great basketball player. Archie was correct.

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