You all know me here as a basketball legend. I’m rarely caught expressing myself outside of a game of hoops. Like Jerry West before me, I am both a depressive and a fierce competitor. I compete with other people who are depressed. Come to think of it, I don’t typically play basketball so much as cry in front of extinguished TV sets on which watching basketball is an option. I am winning at that. But I have great respect for athletes. My family members like to run around and throw things. My siblings routinely crush me in paddle ball matches on the beach, when I am handicapped by my grip on Pinot Grigio bottles. My dad was an athlete, or at least he liked to take his shirt off in the driveway when he sensed something physical happening in the vicinity. My mother, on the other hand, is sports challenged. Throw a ball at her when she is not looking and it will likely hit her.
But Jerry West knows how to play basketball. His last-minute heroics on the Lakers team earned him the nickname “Mr. Clutch” (which sounds a lot like Wistar Clutch, for those of you still shopping for a term of endearment). And West recently collaborated on a memoir with author Jonathan Coleman, a book that features me in the acknowledgements because I had the honor of transcribing audio interviews with Jerry West and his long-limbed cohorts, an honor that true basketball fans will forever resent me for because I had to look up the spelling of venerable names such as “Elgin Baylor” and “the Lakers.” And because I feel so privileged to have gotten to know Jerry West in this raw form before the book was published, through his interviews and once or twice on the phone, I was outraged to read Dwight Garner’s mean-spirited review of West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, in the New York Times last month.
I’ve met Jerry West in person since the book came out, and I couldn’t have hoped for a better experience. The man has beans. He’s forever curious about other people. He’s weird and kind and conflicted and wonderful. If he hadn’t been so tall, I would’ve determined that he played a different sport, perhaps something having to do with chess. Garner’s description of Jerry as “a boor and, worse, a bore” is so outlandish as to belong in the Outlandish Descriptions Hall of Fame, which I have often visited because I keep my medals there.
I treasure my experience with Jerry West. His complexity and thoughtfulness far exceed his on-court exploits, which is saying a lot because I hear the man has done some things. As a girl I never had a sports hero, and I didn’t expect to acquire one as a struggling, slouchy writer of 31, but now the Jerry West posters have joined the Nabokov posters on my wall, and the Jerry West trading cards have replaced the Sartre trading cards in my lockbox–and keep in mind that I’m just being writerly and I actually own none of these things–and even though I’ve still only watched a handful of basketball games in my life, I now rank myself up there with Jerry’s many other number one fans.