The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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August 5, 2012

‘It was time to tell the true story of Jerry West’

LEWISBURG — Jerry West is almost as much a symbol of West Virginia as a piece of coal, a cardinal or a “flying WV.”

Named as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history, when the list was released in 1986, West took West Virginia University to a NCAA basketball championship game in 1959, when he was named the NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player. He won a gold medal with the United States basketball team in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome — an achievement he labeled as his greatest — and was a household name by the time he graduated from WVU and was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers with the second overall pick in the 1960 NBA Draft.

As a Laker, the man whose silhouette is now the NBA’s logo, won an NBA championship in 1972, was a 14-time All-Star and had his No. 44 retired by both WVU and the Lakers.

After his playing career, West became a two-time NBA Executive of the Year, constructing the great Lakers dynasty of the 1980s, which saw the club win five championship rings.

The basketball part of his life is well known, but as West told the crowd gathered at Lewisburg’s Carnegie Hall — where he spoke as part of the Lewisburg Literary Festival — not much was known about the man behind the jersey.

“It was like a Hollywood movie set,” said West, explaining that behind the construction of a movie set is usually just empty space.

So “Mr. Clutch” decided it was time to tell the true story of Jerry West with “West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life,” released last October.

“I felt I had a lot of explaining to do about who I am,” said West, who grew up in an abusive home and saw his life change when his older brother and mentor, David, was killed in the Korean War. “It was a critical look at myself as a person.”

West admitted that writing the book, along with the help of accomplished author Jonathan Coleman, was no easy task, and twice he wanted to throw in the towel and say, “the hell with it.”

But with Coleman pushing, West got through the book, which is a brutally honest view of his life on and off the court, which he discussed with moderator Josh Baldwin and a crowd of more than 200 Saturday in Lewisburg, not far from the home in White Sulphur Springs where he now spends part of his time, along with his wife, Karen.

West opened up to the crowd, admitting regrets with not being a better father to his first three children from his first marriage, fighting his emotions as he talked about the impact that David’s death had on his life and becoming almost angry as he discussed a newspaper editorial that questioned his impact on WVU and Morgantown when a road was named in his honor in 2000.

“I wanted to see the person that wrote that face-to-face,” he said. “I had always kept my contributions quiet, because it was not about the attention.”

But the bulk of West’s talk was explaining the motivation that put him on the path to being one of the greatest players the game of basketball has ever seen.

The first, West remembered, was one of the last times he saw his brother before he was killed.

David was playing basketball with some friends, when Jerry approached the group and asked if he could play. David explained to his younger brother that he wasn’t big enough, but Jerry didn’t like the answer and responded with some language that he wouldn’t repeat.

As older brothers often do, David threw the ball at the pesky youngster, and West caught it and ran. He yelled at his brother, “You’re going to be sorry. I’m going to be the greatest basketball player ever from West Virginia.”

David didn’t live long enough to see his brother live up to those words, but Jerry always worked to keep that promise.

Another big motivator came when West was a youth in the Kanawha County town of Chelyan. Running through a neighbor’s backyard on his way home, West heard a woman say, “There goes Jerry. He’s never going to amount to (anything).”

“That was just inspiring,” West said. “I never forgot that.”

Doubts were what drove West most, and that was also the situation after his junior year in high school, when he was left off the first-, second- and third-team all-state squads and instead named only honorable mention.

“That was the lowest ebb of my career,” he said.

West set out for revenge, and when he went to Mountaineer Boys State that summer, he met up with many of the first-team selections.

“I was the last one chosen when they picked teams for basketball,” he said. “By the end of the week, I was the one choosing the teams.”

The final motivator, and one that still drives him today, was representing the state of West Virginia.

West said he had scholarship offers to play almost anywhere in the country, and he remembered one coach from a Texas college pulling out everything to get him on campus.

He was offered a car, until West told him he didn’t know how to drive. He was offered clothes that would fit his long arms, and the coach even told him he would make sure he married the richest girl in Texas.

“I had never even had a date,” West laughed.

But he eventually chose to attend WVU.

“It’s the greatest decision I ever made in my life, and I can promise you I got paid zero,” said West, admitting that he’s always been bothered by the stereotypes that come with being from the Mountain State.

West said that though he’s traveled the world since leaving Morgantown, he’s always been “a West Virginia boy,” and he even considered a run for governor at one point in order to give back to the state he loves.

“I’ve always felt that West Virginians have been short-changed,” he said. “There are so many brilliant minds in this state, but it needs the infrastructure to allow these people to succeed. I felt that I could make a difference.”

West’s book, a New York Times bestseller, is available at all the major booksellers across the country.

———

Serving as the warmup act for West Saturday was John Antonik, WVU’s director of new media.

Antonik has published two books, “West Virginia University Football Vault” in 2009 and “Roll Out the Carpet: 101 Seasons of West Virginia University Basketball” in 2010. His third book “The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History,” is due to be released Sept. 1.

Antonik’s main focus Saturday was on the “Roll Out the Carpet” book, because of the roll that West played in WVU’s basketball history.

Antonik said he first had the idea to write the book when watching former WVU athletic director Fred Schaus walk the ring of the Coliseum after his retirement.

“I wondered if the students that saw him in his sweat pants and tennis shoes knew what he accomplished in his life,” he said of the man who helped bring WVU basketball to national prominence as a coach in the ’50s, led the Lakers to four Western Conference championships in five years and later returned to WVU as the athletic director, helping to take the program to a new level.

Antonik later learned of the story of Fritz Williams, “WVU’s Jackie Robinson,” who was the first African-American to play basketball at WVU. He heard about Rod Hundley and his antics on and off the court, and he knew it was time to write a book.

“They are stories that needed to be told,” Antonik said.

Antonik’s books are available at Amazon.com and other major booksellers.

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