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West bares all about battles on court, against depression

There was one second left in the 1972 All-Star Game when Jerry West dribbled to the top of the key and sank a game-winning jumper over defender Walt Frazier.

Everyone knew the ball would be inbounded to him and he would take the shot. And everyone who was a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers, as I was growing up, and was there in attendance, knew "Mr. Clutch" would make it.

For 14 years, the Lakers rode West's patented jump shot to victory, often in the final seconds when the game's outcome was in doubt. Two years earlier, West threw up a 60-foot shot from behind the midcourt line at the buzzer -- one of the NBA's most famous baskets -- to send a playoff game with the Knicks into overtime.

West, who was selected to the all-star team every year he played, retired as the NBA's third leading career scorer. His 27 points per game average stands fourth all time among retired players. Only Michael Jordan had a higher scoring average in the playoffs.

West went on to have a long and successful career as an executive with the Lakers, after coaching them for three years, and then with the Memphis Grizzlies.

Shy and uncomfortable in the spotlight, the product of humble beginnings in Cheylan, W.Va., seemed the last sports personality who would put out an unflattering, tell-all book about himself. One hopes writing "West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life," with Jonathan Coleman, was cathartic for West, because the man whose silhouette was incorporated into the NBA logo long ago reveals an emotionally crippled and often joyless life.

West was scarred at an early age by a physically abusive and unloving father, whom the young boy threatened to shoot with a shotgun he kept under his bed. And he was devastated by the death of a beloved older brother in the Korean War. Those experiences, he believes, help to explain why he keeps almost everyone, including family members, at an emotional and physical distance.

Finding refuge in basketball, West enrolled at West Virginia University and led the Mountaineers in a losing effort in the NCAA championship game in 1959.

It started a debilitating pattern for the fierce competitor and perfectionist -- losing big games, including all six championship series the Lakers played against the Boston Celtics that, he says, "remain embedded in my psyche to this day." He would win his lone championship as a player late in his career.

In baring all, West reveals that he is clinically depressed. He skipped out on his own surprise party and a celebration honoring the Top 50 NBA players of all time. He has compulsions and idiosyncrasies that make it hard for others to be around him.

West is also difficult to pigeonhole. He grew up among poor, rural whites but felt a greater affinity with black teammates. He could be cruel to players he was coaching and overly generous to others. West dishes a little, telling how Lakers coach Phil Jackson, with whom he had no real relationship, once kicked him out of the locker room in front of the team when he was general manager.

But really what West wants to do is dish on himself, from revealing an unfaithful period as his first marriage hit the skids to his need to ask others to deliver unpleasant news to loved ones. By raising the curtain on his often unhappy life, West hopes the book will help him come to a better understanding of himself and find inner peace. One hopes this all-time great sports star and flawed man doesn't have to wait until the final buzzer to get there.

Mark Sommer is a News staff reporter.

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West by West: My Charmed Tormented Life

By Jerry West and Jonathan Coleman

Little, Brown and Company

305 pages, $27.99.