What ‘Winning Time’ Lost: Like West Virginia, Jerry West is More Complicated Than You Think

Like West Virginia, the state where he was born, Jerry West is more complicated – deeper, smarter, more vulnerable – than he looks at first glance. 

In HBO’s new show Winning Time, about the great LA Lakers’ teams of the 1980s, the West Virginian, now 83, is depicted as a crazy, angry hick who’s jumped from Deliverance into a cool, hip place where he doesn’t belong. (Refuting that stereotype is one of the goals of our PBS film Moundsvillle.)

Of course Jerry West belongs. He is The Logo, the man portrayed in the NBA’s official emblem. He was one of professional basketball’s biggest stars in the 1960s and 1970s.

But that, too, is a cliché that shortchanges the actual human being, who with Jonathan Coleman wrote one of the most remarkable memoirs ever penned by a famous athlete.

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West by West, which I wrote about recently, is a funny, honest, and revealing account of playing professional sports at its highest levels. The book reinforces a truth we often forget: Each of the athletes we see on TV is a different human being with a complicated personality, living with the tensions that life gives each one of us. 

But in Winning Time, West is, simply, a hot mess. He deserves better. 

I wasn’t surprised this week to learn that West and his legal team this week demanded that Winning Time apologize and retract the portrayal of his character in the show.

West’s lawyer Skip Miller wrote in a letter to producers Adam McKay and Kevin Messick that they had done “egregious wrong” to a “good and decent man.”

Winning Time falsely and cruelly portrays Mr. West as an out-of-control, intoxicated rage-aholic. The Jerry West in Winning Time bears no resemblance to the real man. The real Jerry West prided himself on treating people with dignity and respect. Winning Time is a baseless and malicious assault on Jerry West’s character. You reduced the legacy of an 83-year-old legend and role model to that of a vulgar and unprofessional bully — the polar opposite of the real man.

In a message to me, Coleman told me that “the irony is that the creators and the actors pay lip service to understanding the complexity” of West’s mental health issues, and “yet they, for whatever reason, reduce him to some sort of nut/lunatic who has nerve left his parents’ basement.” West is the “logo of the NBA,” Coleman added, “and has done more for the game of basketball than anybody, along with Bill Russell, whose contributions were both on and off the court.”

West was born in Chelyan, a West Virginia hamlet with a population of less than 1,000 people. He 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. 

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.”

That was a happy part of his 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.”

It’s in this confrontation with painful, complicated truths that escape simplistic narratives that Jerry West shows himself to be a real winner.

John W. Miller

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