By Jason Keidel
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With his bold, brave bio recently released, Jerry West etched a scorching brand of candor into the sporting lexicon.
We watch sports for many reasons. They are entertaining, of course. But, as with most endeavors, there’s a deeper pathos. Often we’re celebrating our childhood, unwilling to let it go, or a cocktail of the two.
And West’s memoir shows that there are reasons to do neither. The NBA logo, the man with more rings and regalia than most of us could conceive, is corporeal proof of the human paradox.
We spend much of our lives trying to be something other than ourselves – if only I made it into the movies, M.I.T., the majors, etc – and when those among us reach the peak of our professions, we find the nadir is equally near. From the Three Js (Janis, Jim, and Jimi) to Elvis to Michael Jackson, from Doc to Darryl to Mickey Mantle, history keeps trying to teach us that there’s no social or monetary panacea for pain. Yet we never listen, reaching for some abstract relief from reality.
You wonder why West, who was an NBA All-Star for 14 seasons only because he didn’t play 15, has never been happy. If losing to Boston in all those NBA Finals left a filthy taste in his mouth, then surely the dual dynasties he built with Magic and Kobe would cure the eternal thirst he couldn’t quench near Cabin Creek.
With painful honesty and humility, West told Sports Illustrated, HBO and WFAN that his emotional pain trumped any vocational gain, even hinting that he considered suicide. The details are amply archived, particularly the barbaric beatings his father gave him, preferring the buckle end of the belt. Making it worse, Jerry was the primary target of the abuse, despite having several siblings at his father’s disposal.
Since about 22 million Americans suffer from depression, you probably know someone who has it and hides it, even when it’s obvious.
How do you treat something with no physical fingerprint? How do you douse the dark, toxic cloud that only the afflicted can see? The depressed walk within an inverted nimbus, not just sick but also sure there’s no cure.
My father, my hero, barely Jerry’s junior, grew up about two hours east of West, in Pennsylvania, in the same, hopeless poverty of coal mining country. Abandoned by his parents as an infant, my dad shares West’s demons. Despite having his own lucrative career as a television director, my dad’s only windows of happiness were with me, doing all he could to shield me from the Beast, the spiritual squalor that engulfs men (and women) for reasons we don’t understand. All those nights he spent alone under a cone of light and a book, while I was aloof to his angst, a typical, teen narcissist. Only decades later did I begin to comprehend his agony. How much is nature and nurture? The answer is above my pay grade.
Some cynics – haters, really – will say things like addiction and depression are more about weakness than illness. If you don’t have it then you don’t feel anything for those who do.
To you, I say look west, at Jerry West, whose singular gallantry, whose life was a monolithic path to perfection, and came closer to that ideal than any of us ever will, shows there’s no shame in showing the dark side of the brightest star.
Feel free to email me: Jakster1@mac.com
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