Jerry West: The Man in the Logo
That someone whose career-long nickname was Mr. Clutch was also known to get puking nervous prior to stepping on the basketball court is counterintuitive on its surface, but then, once you take it a little deeper, starts to make a revelatory kind of sense. First came the nerves, you see, then came the 48 minutes of punishing aerobics, and then came the clutch. Then came Jerry West to pull through it. By that time the nerves had been burned clean out of him–all that was left was the desperate determination. What the desperate determination got converted into wasn’t jittery sloppiness but a tight-sealed focus. Players who lacked the drive responsible for anxiety also lacked the means of finding that tunneled-in singularity of purpose.
That’s some of what Roland Lazenby’s got me thinking about. He’s not presumptuous enough, in Jerry West: The Life and Legend of a Basketball Icon, to posit such a theory as I’ve attempted here, but his book is rich with the kind of documentation that allows the impudent among us to proffer our speculations. Once he quit playing and became, briefly, the coach of the Lakers after having played with them for the entirety of his 13-year career, the only place all that anxiety had to burn through was his heart, stomach, and soul. He could no longer go out on the floor and make it burn out of his pores and become kinetic energy.
As a a player, he had made basketball-success the aim to which everything else got subordinated, and when he came to see that his “tendencies toward annoyance and unhappiness were the keys to his highly competitive nature,” what he did, “instead of trying to quell them,” was “he nurtured them.” That’s coming from Lazenby, who goes on to write, “He wanted to be the way he was. He had to be that way. For him, there was no other way to compete, no other way to win….”
He quit coaching in a hurry–he was out of there in less than a year–and then he became general manager, maybe the greatest general manager in the history of the league, which made for counterintuition layered upon counterinuition. One thing he could do as GM that he couldn’t do as coach was leave the building in the midst of a game, and that’s what he often did. Sometimes he’d head for the stadium parking lot and try to cool out there, or hide in his office with the game on the TV. He might get in his car, of all fatal places, and have the damn thing in motion while he listened to the game on the radio.
But that’s some of what made him such a great GM, too. You might think that it’d make him too nervous to pull the trigger on high-stakes moves, but he did so time after time, from Magic Johnson to Kobe Bryant and two decades of brilliant moves that fell in between–and then the several years after, throughout the remainder of his lifetime Lakers tenure, followed, unthinkably, by his service on behalf of another team, the Memphis Grizzlies. He wasn’t too precious to scout out players himself. A lot of his fellow executives throughout the league couldn’t be bothered, but for West, to not do so would leave him truly bothered. So he traveled, attended college games, scrutinized still-developing talent. It paid dividends.
He wasn’t always the best player on the court, and I’m not just talking about when Elgin Baylor, Mr. Inside to his Mr. Outside, was on the court with him. Sometimes there was Oscar Robertson or Clyde Frazier or Bob Cousy, and that’s just talking about his fellow guards. Terribly underrated as a defensive player, maybe if they’d bothered to keep stats on steals in West’s day, he would have received his due as a defender. But West had the purity of purpose–he had the kind of work ethic that, in the 1970s, was often a coded phrase for white respectability, but in West’s case was so much more. And he was the player whose silhouette was used for the NBA logo, a logo whose ubiquity would become pervasive and total as a presence in American culture–hell, in world culture–to an extent far exceeding what anybody anticipated back in 1969. The designer whom the league commisioned, Alan Siegel, “picked through many photographs,” according to Lazenby,
before settling on a shot by photographer Wen Roberts of West pushing the ball along the baseline on a sortie to the basket. Siegel took West’s balanced, graceful silhouette and reversed it out of a red, white, and blue background. The logo was an instant hit upon its unveiling. No one, not Siegel, not the league itself, certainly not West, announced that he had become the symbol for the game. Yet it was immediately recognizable and soon became ingrained in every phase of the NBA’s daily operations.
No one who reads this book will complain that Lazenby doesn’t spend enough time on his subject’s West Virginia ancestors or on the history of the region itself. Similarly, no one will complain that he spent too much time on the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome and what West did there. These are significant flaws of Lazenby’s biography, but to dwell on them betrays an unbecoming ingratitude toward a writer–a very worthy and engaging writer–who has written that rarest of artifacts, a first-rate book about basketball–a game that lends itself to great prose yet so seldom receives it.
When West got to the NBA, he was a rookie All-Star whose coach nevertheless deemed it appropriate to play him off the bench–not as a sixth man, mind you, but as a genuine second-stringer. Soon, though, West received the respect he’d already earned, as an individual player, but then spent the next decade of his life lusting after an NBA championship, and the kind of respect one receives only upon partaking in collective achievement, as a team. By then, his careeer was almost over, and soon West was experiencing what he called “the worst period in my life.” There was divorce from his wife, crisis over his identity, resentment toward his coaches and Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke, and then, as always, there was the nervousness, and his nervousness over what to do about the nervousness. Eventually, he found his answer but the answer was fleeting. There was coaching, general-managing, and the same old anxieties. There was disloyalty by the team to which he’d given his career. At the end of it all was the ill-defined figure known as Jerry West: a shade, a shadow, or a silhouette of the best self he imagined possible.
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