Local author crafts autobiography of an NBA legend

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Jonathan Coleman will tell you that his latest book has taken him on a strange journey. West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life is the autobiography of basketball legend Jerry West, told in the first person. Coleman, who graduated from the University of Virginia in 1973 and lives in Charlottesville, has enjoyed successful careers in publishing, journalism, and as a best-selling nonfiction author. He decided to write West’s story in spite of his fear that he wasn’t wired right for the assignment.

Local author Jonathan Coleman has had successful careers in book publishing, journalism and as a best-selling author. His latest project, West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, is a collaboration with basketball legend Jerry West.

“I had never collaborated in my writing career and I had never wanted to,” Coleman said. “My agent felt I didn’t have the temperament for it and I’m still not sure I do.”

West is a mystery man, sometimes called “The Logo” because his silhouette graces the National Basketball Association’s trademark seal. Born in the small West Virginia coal mining town of Chelyan, his rise as a collegiate star for the Mountaineers, his prominence as a perennial NBA All-Star with the Lakers, and finally his career as one of the most successful front office executives in the sport’s history, could easily be turned into a quintessential American hagiography.

But that’s not the book Coleman wrote, in part because that’s not the story West wanted to tell.

“Some people hide things tremendously. If you’re going to write something, why write something that just glorifies you?” West told C-VILLE. “I’m no better than you. I just happened to have a skill that allowed me to live my childhood dream.”

West By West isn’t full of basketball, and it doesn’t tell the story of an athlete’s rise to glory. It won’t satisfy basketball buffs looking for a version of John McPhee’s seminal look at Bill Bradley, A Sense of Where You Are, or general sports fans who want an insider’s account of a famous career, like Andre Agassi’s Open.

Instead, West’s autobiography occupies a unique literary space, where you’ll find conversations with sporting legends like Jim Brown, Michael Jordan, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar mixed in with frank recollections of a man’s life-long struggle to overcome the effects of a hard and isolated childhood and adult depression.

“During one particularly hard stretch, we ate the same soup out of the same pot for six days until I told my mother I simply couldn’t do it any longer,” recalled West in the text. “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.”

Coleman chose the words, informed by exhaustive interview sessions, but the message West is trying to get across is that he’s a flawed, self-made man who happened to be really good at basketball.

“The conventional sports book goes year by year and game by game and the intent is to glorify the athlete’s accomplishments. Here you have somebody who’s trying to debunk them because he’s so genuinely humble and insecure in a lot of ways,” Coleman said.

What gives the book its force is that West, like a Roman general displaying his wounds to the public, is focused on inventorying his failings, and to some extent, the failings of the people around him. He struggles with his own legacy, rages against it at times and demands credit for it other times. I’ve never seen Jerry West play basketball, and think of Ray Allen as having the best jump shot of all time. But it’s still thrilling to be a voyeur watching a sports star, who has in some ways always thought of himself as a stranger, try to evaluate his own life.

“Elgin Baylor gave me a lot of nicknames, but the one that irritated me even more than Zeke from Cabin Creek was ‘Louella,’ after the famous gossip columnist Louella Parsons. [My wife] says it is fitting, and Mitch Kupchak says he has run into people who have run into me, people I didn’t even know, and I have shared with them my deepest darkest worries about the team, that I have essentially told them everything.”

 

Behind the mask

Getting West to go through with the book was, according to Coleman, “like negotiations with Russia,” and after the two of them had met for the first round of interviews, it looked like the project might not go anywhere.

“Jerry went into a Greta Garbo period where he was ‘I want to do this with you, but maybe I don’t want to do this.’ That went on for months and it was very nerve-racking,” Coleman said.

Coleman, whose book on race relations Long Way to Go: Black and White in America received wide critical acclaim for the tenacity with which he attacked his topic, ultimately broke through West’s reserve.

“A lot of the stuff I’ve hidden for years, O.K. Just hidden. I think you get a connection with someone and you’re more likely to open up a little bit and I did,” said West.

The book functions as a more or less chronological confessional narrative, and in that sense it can be seen as a book about generations. Young Jerry listening to a transistor radio, going fishing, being hungry, mourning his brother’s death in Korea. Jerry, the star, burning to win, admiring his African-American teammates, uncomfortable with the limelight. Jerry, the executive, wondering what kind of father he is, obsessing over big decisions, reading Joan Didion and William Styron to make sense of his depression.

Readers will likely respond according to their own generational viewpoints. My father remembers seeing Jerry West in Madison Square Garden in 1961, the year he graduated from college, systematically destroying a Navy center with a 6" height advantage on him. I know he’ll enjoy the passages about Pete Newell, Bill Russell, and the Big O.

UVA hoops legend Barry Parkhill was a classmate of Coleman’s and a longtime friend of West’s. Reading the book, he said, was an incredible experience because of his relationships with subject and author.

“Jerry had some demons. Well, in the book Jerry laid a lot of those on the table for the public to read. To me [Jonathan’s] the one who made that happen,” Parkhill said. “I don’t know, maybe Jerry wanted to do this before he met Jonathan. To me he got Jerry to tell all, and I hope that book really helps Jerry for the rest of his life.”

West took Parkhill under his wing as a recent college grad. Parkhill remembers sitting behind Raquel Welch at a Lakers game, driving a car West won in an All-Star game, babysitting his kids. West’s inner turmoil didn’t surprise him, and you hear the same sentiment repeated over and over again by people like Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, and Magic Johnson.

“I am glad Jerry is doing this book. He needs therapy, and I have to believe that doing this is good therapy, that it could really help him,” Johnson said in the book.

Younger readers will tune in to the stories about Shaq and Kobe, Magic and Kareem, Pat Riley and Phil Jackson. West’s career in basketball, uniquely, has spanned his whole life, and his memoir at times reads like a history of the NBA.

The author’s desire to tell West’s story came from watching him as a Laker, losing six times in the NBA Finals to the great Boston Celtics teams Coleman supported growing up.

“It stemmed from my interest as a Celtics fan and wondering in the last two minutes what West would do. Because if the Celtics didn’t win the championship it would have been because of him. A guy with a face that tells you nothing,” Coleman said.

A guy with a face that tells you nothing. West has decided to let people behind the curtain and glimpse the inner turmoil of an athlete obsessed by winning, tormented by depression, and driven to succeed by a fear of being what he suspects he is.

“Years ago it was a tougher world and people didn’t have the ability to be able to talk about some of the things they’ve lived in their lives. There are things that I’ve lived through that have greatly determined who I am,” West said. “They’ve made me a stronger person. I’m not sure they’ve made me a better person. I just thought it could be inspirational and show people that you can overcome obstacles and do it yourself.”

Coleman said writing from West’s point of view gave him the chance to offer context, to hone in on the message. 

“If I had just been a ghost on the book, then everything would have really needed to sound completely like Jerry,” Coleman said. “But being on the book gives you some license because it’s a collaboration. And yet it’s in the first person. I just had to learn how he thinks about things.”

You can hear that in the most confessional passages, which share certain amounts of hesitancy and pain.

“I got married far too young and had children far too young and I never felt I was a particularly good father to David, Michael, and Mark. I was gone too much, and even when I was there, I did things with them, but in my opinion, I wasn’t emotionally present in the way a husband and father should ideally be.”

Coleman clearly overcame his fear of collaborating, because he ultimately enlisted the help of West’s friends and family. The intimacy of the information he gathered, he said, made the relationship with West’s wife Karen important, and tense.

“I know that Karen trusted me, has always trusted me, but there’s just the factor, ‘I’m his wife. No one knows him better than I do.’ And it’s not entirely true,” he said.

West recalled in his book, “When I become depressed, Karen stays clear of me. I am barely able to function and am only able to keep going because of the enormous drive I have always had. But trying to concentrate––what Styron calls ‘the luxury of concentration’––is almost impossible, it’s ridiculous.”

When Coleman finally showed them the final draft, West called Karen over to the couch and read the entire last chapter out loud. He was reading his own story, and he liked it.

“I wish I could have said it quite like that, but if I had written it, I’m sure it wouldn’t have come out that well,” West said. “And at the end of the day I felt it was a fair book in terms of Jonathan capturing who I was and also trying to put it into my words. I think he did a hell of a job.”

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