The real heart of Jerry West
Posted July 30, 2012
This “Behind the scenes of WRAL TV” story – and a personal brush with fame – requires a bit of background which involves my youth while growing up in Raleigh.
As a kid, I played baseball in the big open field at Fallon Park in Raleigh, usually with just 2 or 3 guys on a team. That's also where we played full contact football – no pads, no helmet. The driveway at our house on Beechridge Road with a goal nailed to the edge of the roof above the garage was basketball central for our neighborhood in the '60s and '70s. All I had to do was start bouncing the ball and at least one of my friends would come running for a game.
For some reason it wasn't until 1970 that I suddenly I realized that grown men played these same games and if they were real good in college, they could get paid for it in the pros. That was the year that NC State, with their star forward Vann Williford, won the ACC title by beating John Roche and his South Carolina Gamecocks. With the college season over, I went in search of an NBA team to call my own. The one I chose wasn't anywhere close to home. In fact it was on the other side of the country. This was the year the Los Angeles Lakers would end the disappointment of so many promising seasons.
Jerry West was their star. He could practically will his teams to win. He earned the name Mr. Clutch for his uncanny ability to win a close game at the buzzer. West knew he had something special. In an interview I shot many years later, West said, "I was given a gift; saw the game in slow motion. You see things differently. Your mind's wired differently." With the addition of Wilt Chamberlain, the Lakers and West finally won the big one.
Though it was his only NBA title, he racked up an enviable list of accomplishments. He was a 14 time NBA All Star and held the NBA record for the highest career scoring average until Michael Jordan broke it about two decades later. His is the silhouette figure on the official NBA logo. Kids like me dreamed of being like Jerry West, but I never realized how hard it was for Jerry West to be Jerry West.
He subtitled a 2011 autobiography “A Charmed, Tormented Life." He finally revealed the source that pushed him to punish his opponents – the drive that left him perpetually unsatisfied and depressed. In a word, it was anger – anger at his father back home in West Virginia who beat him as a child, anger at an indifferent mother, anger that the older brother he adored died at the age of 21 in Korea, anger at every perceived slight from anyone who crossed his path on the court or in the Lakers' office when he was the team's general manager. The book was a therapeutic catharsis for West, revealing the secrets that had been kept from the world, from people like me who only knew him as a legend on the court.
In April 2010, a little more than a year before the release of his autobiography, West visited North Carolina to reveal another flaw that brought the legend closer to the rest of us humans. Yes, he had the heart of a champion – a heart that doctors at the time said had an "extra beat." What they failed to diagnose during his playing days was actually Atrial Fibrillation, a condition that could have led to stroke or even death.
"My heart would just be pounding, and you're saying to yourself this is just not like normal," said West. He wasn't diagnosed until age 42 and he wasn't on medication until he was 50. He'd been hospitalized twice for severe exhaustion.
Dr. Allen Mask and I met West in April of 2010 after he visited with state lawmakers on behalf of an organization called AF Stat. He wanted to elevate Atrial Fibrillation on the state and national health care agendas. He was 71 years old with a rounder face, graying hair, but still looking physically fit. I had to let him know right away how hard I pulled for him on that 1970 team and throughout the rest of his career – and what a big deal it was for me to meet him. He was glad to be coming out of his shell of privacy to open up about his heart condition. He knew he could shine a brighter light of awareness on the condition and help others to get checked, diagnosed and treated.
As he told Dr. Mask about his heart periodically going out of rhythm, the good doctor reached over to gently pinch West's wrist. It sort of startled him. Dr. Mask broke a barrier of personal space. You could almost see it in West's eyes. Perhaps he was wondering, "How dare he interrupt me and touch my arm."
The autobiography he wrote later showed that just about anything someone said to him or did to him could easily be taken as a sign of disrespect. In his playing days, he used these moments as an opportunity to prove himself and to humiliate the person who violated his code of dignity and respect. That was the look on West's face for a split second as Dr. Mask's thumb searched his wrist for a pulse. Then West noticeably relaxed and smiled. Dr. Mask was quietly counting the pulse beats while looking at his watch. "Boom boom – boom boom," Dr. Mask whispered. "Yeah, you're in sinus rhythm now."
This was just another early step in West's personal therapy, to break away from his tormented past where he alone was his greatest enemy. Now he was ready to begin using his flaws to help others. He told us, "I was reluctant to talk about it, but it's probably one of the best things I've done in my life. I feel like maybe somebody might pay attention." Boy was that an understatement. Generations spanning from guys like me to those even older than West hung on every public word uttered by this man. God bless him for overcoming his personal demons and for having the courage to shatter the immortal, god-like image so many people had of him. He's a greater hero to me now that he's just a mere human.