Basketball great Jerry West’s accomplishments are legion.
A high school and college star, West won an Olympic gold medal, an NBA title, was a 12-time All-Star and was named league MVP in 1972. He then went then went on to win seven more titles as a general manager.
To get an idea how big Jerry West is in the National Basketball Association, consider this: It is his image that is the NBA’s corporate logo.
One other thing: West is a living example of the devastation wrought by child abuse.
His recently released book West by West: My Charmed Tormented Life, details the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, abuse West believes contributed to depression which has haunted him his entire life.
Mike Downey of the Los Angeles Times writes that even after reading West’s book, it’s impossible to understand the man – likely because West doesn’t fully understand himself because of what he went through and also because it’s impossible to understand West’s torment unless one has suffered through a similar experience.
Downey writes of West:
If perhaps he kept a majority of the people he met at arm’s length, it turns out he might have had good cause. He was physically abused in his youth, despising his father to the extent that young Jerry kept a gun under his bed and entertained thoughts of using it on the old man. He has been haunted all his life by a beloved brother’s death in military combat. He suffers from a clinical depression so acute that even his daily Prozac doesn’t always keep him from feeling suicidal. A woman who ultimately would marry him found West to be “the saddest man she had ever met.” Years later, she wrote a note to his boss, Lakers owner Jerry Buss, to warn him that her husband was “a very tormented individual” on the brink of self-destruction.
We plainly are dealing here with someone far more complex than an enigmatic fellow who once walked out on his own surprise party, who skipped NBA nights held in his honor, who came to a Lakers news conference to be introduced as the team’s new coach but promptly announced to everyone there (including his boss) that he would be no such thing, a man who no-showed his own retirement announcement, a man so stressed out that he could not bear to watch his own team while it was playing in a championship game.
West’s abuse was extreme, but the fact is all abuse, whether it be physical, sexual, emotional or neglect, is damaging.
Dr. Mark Goulston, after hearing details of West’s book, writes that it is critical to our developing personalities that when we hit an obstacle, a setback or defeat to receive from our parents over and over unconditional comforting and a confident and informed reassurance.
When that happens consistently, beginning as an infant, responses to this support becomes “internalized into a solid core” which an individual can always return to and use to fortify them themselves during times of hurt, disappointment and physical and psychic injury, Goulston writes.
But when such caregiving is in short supply or absent, or worse, replaced by abuse or shaming, there is nothing for an individual to turn inward to for help in assisting oneself in weathering hard times.
“Furthermore if instead of ‘paying forward’ the pain and suffering others inflicted on you (because you don’t want to hurt or anger them…), when they are hurtful to you, you turn it inward and that is a recipe for a rapid descent into depression (you know, the old Freudian notion, “Anger turned inward” = depression),” Goulston adds.
“In the midst of such experiences, one may at times turn to thoughts of suicide as relief for the pain.”
As West himself says in an interview with the LA Times: “In your home, you just want someone to say, ’You’re OK.’ When that doesn’t happen, you play imaginary mental games with yourself. I wanted to feel good about something. I picked up a basketball. I was self-taught. It was no sanctuary. I just loved being by myself, having the imagination I had. It led me to a way of living to make my own dreams possible.”
The sad thing is, even with all West’s myriad accomplishments, the one thing he’s never been able to achieve is peace.
Here’s one of the 50 greatest NBA players in history, yet he carries around more demons than inhabit Dante’s Inferno – all because of what happened to him as a child.
Why does West and his book matter? Because if Jerry West – an unquestionably successful, uncommonly admired man – can’t escape the clutches of physical and emotional trauma at the hands of his parents, trauma which has rent his life asunder for the better part of seven decades, what chance does someone without his record of achievement have for throwing off the ravages of child abuse?
(Above: “Mr. Clutch” Jerry West during his playing days with the Los Angeles Lakers.)