As you know by now if you’ve been following these posts, Jerry West is the through line for GOLDEN DAYS. At the time I started the project, I wasn’t even sure I had anything more than a long article about the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, never mind a book that would encompass two distinct eras of the NBA. I knew I had to start with West, who was one of six survivors of that team, but didn’t know exactly what to tell him I wanted to talk about.
But he agreed to meet me anyway, at a hotel near his house in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. Our first interview was on Mother’s Day of 2016. I remember that because he said he couldn’t talk long due to a commitment to celebrate with his wife Karen’s mom.
We talked for two hours. If you’re not wasting time and getting almost everything on the record, one can collect an awful lot of material in two hours.
[[Fifth in a series of stories about the interviews that went into the writing of GOLDEN DAYS. Buy the book HERE.]]
To be honest, some interviews are a fishing trip. You not only don’t know what you’re going to get, you’re not even sure what you’re looking for. In the back of my mind was the fact that West (above with Klay Thompson) had written a revealing autobiography, with author Jonathan Coleman, in 2011. I didn’t want to recount every detail that was in West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life. Here’s that book.
But sometimes you have to start where your subject wants to start, and we began the conversation with West talking about his early days in Los Angeles. (His rookie season of 1960-61 coincided with the franchise’s move from Minneapolis to the Left Coast.) After a couple minutes, I knew this was great material and that there was a book to be written. If you see passion in your subject, and you can capture that passion, you have something rich.
Among the things that West said about L.A. was: “The density of the city wasn’t like today. There were no skyscrapers. It was like moving to Disneyland.”
The awe in West’s voice got to me. It was like he was reliving it. And his mention of “Disneyland” helped me see L.A. as almost a character in the book, a sprawling city that at the dawn of the 1960s was in the process of turning into something, rather than something that already was.
West also said this: “We [the Lakers] were kind of a sideshow to the Dodgers and even the Rams, even though the Dodgers hadn’t been there much longer than us. [Only two years.] I went to a game one night and there were 80,000 Dodger fans screaming, but only a smattering of applause for a Laker.”
It fit a strange lifelong West narrative. He was a demigod in his home state of West Virginia, and, frankly, well beyond it. But there is a part of West that, as he sees it, was always second-best, a narrative that played out in the championship frustration he felt throughout the decade, which is a big part of GOLDEN DAYS.
West began talking about Elgin Baylor, both as a player and as a fellow soldier in the army of the frustrated. You don’t get far when subjects offer up endless clichés, but here was West talking about the frustration of seven—seven!—Finals losses between 1961 and 1971, six of them to the Boston Celtics:
Elgin and I were like two kids staring at a Christmas present we wanted and all that separated us was a windowpane. But we couldn’t get into the store. That’s how close it was and how far away. Those are the things that really take their toll as an athlete.
If you can’t plug into that story line, you should give up. It also made me realize how desperately I needed to get to Baylor, which, after some considerable effort, I was able to do.
We moved around a lot in that first interview and West ended up talking about the subjects that he thinks the most about, things away from the basketball court. One of them is this:
When I speak to groups I often talk about race. It is morally disgraceful to think that one race is better than the other. I expand on it a little. It’s multi-textured. Some of the language that I heard growing up, and that I still hear people say today … [West shakes his head.] It really offends me.
West’s comments weren’t a show. He wasn’t trying to get across that he’s a thoughtful man. At the age of 79—he was about to turn 78 then—he thinks about those issues and has been thinking about them for a long time. Coleman, his co-author, has a deep appreciation for the basketball, but was selected by West because of a book he wrote called Long Way to Go: Black and White in America, which is about race relations. West had read it and was impressed that Coleman had spent seven years trying to find answers to such a confounding subject. “You’re as crazy as I am,” he told Coleman. It still shames West that the discrimination displayed against Baylor and two black Minneapolis Lakers teammates in 1958 occurred in his home state of West Virginia. (See Baylor story for details.)
One of the things I talk about in GOLDEN DAYS is West’s regret that he didn’t speak out more when he was a player. Being around the socially conscious Warriors has only loosened his tongue. “I’m a lot deeper thinker than most people think. I mean, a lot. One of the things I’ve learned, and it wasn’t until I got older that I did learn it, is to be impeccable with your words. When you say, ‘I hate that guy,’ well, you probably don’t. Be careful what you say.”
As we roamed around and around in that first interview, West returned to his boyhood. It was enlightening to hear that he was still thinking about these big themes, that they still resonate in his life. Here’s part of what he said:
Basketball gave me something I loved. I was a loner. I could’ve fished or hunted alone, but there was basketball. Always basketball. And so you find that and you find some success in it, and what does that do for a loner? It makes you feel protected. Every kid needs that. What would I have done without this game? I just don’t know.
I carried West’s words around in every future interaction I had with him. And when it came time to find an ending for GOLDEN DAYS, well, this bit of introspection fit in nicely. So did about a hundred other things he had to say in subsequent interviews.