Jonathan Coleman is a writer in Charlottesville. His most recent publication is West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, which he co-authored with Jerry West.
In all my years as an author, I had never collaborated before, nor had I wanted to. My agent, Owen Laster, always felt I lacked the temperament for it, and I am still not sure I have it now. But when Ian Kleinert, who had worked for Owen at one time, phoned me out of the blue and asked if I might have interest in working with Jerry West, I found myself saying yes, without entirely being conscious of why. All Ian knew at that point was that Jerry emphatically did not want to write a sports book per se, mainly glorifying his accomplishments in a transparently self-serving way. What he wanted was really the opposite: a book that would illuminate and reveal a very flawed, extremely-hard-on-himself, humble individual, that would take the reader deep into his life and explore his demons and would hopefully succeed in making sense of the difficult, improbable road he had traveled—the personal adversity he had faced and the choices he had made along the way.
Coleman and West
And he apparently wanted a coauthor he did not know, someone who was not so close to the game that he or she might not be able to see him clearly, to view beyond him as a basketball player. When Jerry and I first spoke on the phone in April 2008, I was surprised when he said that he was in West Virginia, hunting. “Hunting season is in November,” I blithely said, even though I am not a hunter. “I am not hunting deer,” he laughed. “Hell, you don’t know anything about hunting. If you did, you’d know it was turkey season.” I can’t say for sure why I immediately knew the game had begun, but it had. I also sensed an instant rapport, one of those intangible things you just know and never question. (By the time we next talked, five hours later, I had boned up on turkey hunting.) After he talked for a bit about what he was hoping to accomplish and why he hoped I could help, I stopped him and said, half-seriously, “Jerry, there’s one thing you need to know. I grew up a Celtics fan and, frankly, it might be very hard for me to do this book with you.” There was a long silence on the line before he said, “Oh, don’t worry, you’ll get over it.”
Coleman at work
It didn’t take me long to realize that Jerry never had. What took me longer to realize was the real reason I said I was interested in the first place. Whenever I watched the Lakers and the Celtics wage their epic battles, Jerry’s face was the one I found most inscrutable, the one that interested me the most. Even as a teenager, I was intent on figuring people out; with Jerry, all I could see was the passion and sniper-like intensity with which he played. I had no clue what he was thinking, or who he really was. So, for me, this would be an opportunity to peel back the onion, layer by layer, to get at, by whatever means necessary, the riddle and enigma that Jerry West had always represented to me. That he has been the silhouetted figure of the NBA logo for more than 40 years only furthered my determination to unravel the mystery.
West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life
The journey Jerry invited me on and that we took together has been the ride of my life. My three previous books tested me in a variety of ways, but working with Jerry belongs in a separate category. Trust me (as he loves to say). And the trust he had in me is something I will always cherish and always be grateful to him for. He allowed me, quite reluctantly at first, to go wherever I felt I needed to go and to talk to whomever I felt I needed to talk to in order to get as close to the whole story as possible, which I absolutely knew I could never get from him alone. It’s human nature, after all, to leave things out. We are both strong-willed individuals and we are both a little crazy, but, in my opinion, it is only because we care enormously about what we do in our different spheres. We locked horns plenty, but we both knew we were after the same thing. Jerry is the most impatient human being I have ever met, but I have never met anyone who works harder and is more dedicated. Had he not been fully committed to doing this book in a full-on way, I would never have agreed to it. Never. He often threatened that he “could lose interest in doing this in five minutes,” but somehow he never did. In Jerry’s ideal world, the book would have been published two months after we signed the contract and he could never understand “why it’s taking you so damn long?” Well, I could never understand, I told him, why it took four years for Shaquille and Kobe to bring the Lakers a championship. What I do understand, though, and understand beyond measure from having worked with Jerry, is this—all that it takes to endure a seven-game NBA Finals. That, and that alone, is something I would never have experienced otherwise.
West and Coleman at a book signing