Jerry West’s Journey

December 6th, 2011

I just finished reading NBA legend Jerry West’s acclaimed new book: West By West: My Charmed, Tormented Life. As a boy, I came to regard West as the quintessential competitor.  I saw him play several times at the old Boston Garden, and his brilliance on the court was fueled by his unrelenting effort.  Several members of the Boston Celtics, including Bill Russell and John Havlicek, regarded West as the most admirable of all Celtics opponents.  One well chronicled example occurred minutes after the Celtics won the 1969 World Championship Series over the Lakers, when Russell and Havlicek visited the Lakers locker room to seek out West and convey their unqualified respect for him.

The book is compelling.  It is sad, profound, honest, and surprising… but absolutely engaging throughout.  West dug deep into his psyche to disabuse the reader of any notion that this is a superstar who has glided through life.  On the contrary, he has faced haunting experiences that have affected him in the most profound ways. As a result of the dark place in which he has often resided, he readily admits that he was not emotionally present in the way “a husband and father should ideally be.”

West is unsparing in his criticism of his parents and several others, including Coach Phil Jackson.  But I did not get the sense that this is done with any spirit of meanness, rather as a cathartic journey.  As Magic Johnson points out in the book, “Jerry needs therapy, and I have to believe doing this [book] is good therapy, that it could really help him.”

Among the strengths of the book is that it causes the reader to consider the difference between the healthy pursuit of excellence and the debilitating obsession to win.  In Jerry West’s case, I don’t believe he had any choice in his intense obsession – such were the demons invading him at an early age and controlling him throughout his adult life.

Readers will surely come away with an altered view of West, but I doubt, a negative one.  In fact, if you admired him before you read the book, you will probably still admire him, perhaps even more so… but in a different way.  You will also know him intimately, perhaps as intimately as anyone you have ever read about but did not know personally.

Bill Russell seemed to understand West’s melancholia when he appeared as a surprise guest at “Jerry West Night” in 1971 and said, “If I could have one wish granted, it would be that you would always be happy.”

I feel the same way, as do, I imagine, countless others who marveled at his skill, effort and uncommon dignity on the court.

Unguarded: The Story of Chris Herren

November 7th, 2011

It was quite a moving experience for me to watch ESPN’s “Unguarded: The Story of Chris Herren”. Chris worked for us in 2007 when he was close to or at his lowest point. Despite the challenges he was facing at that time, I grew very fond of Chris and his wife, Heather.

Unguarded, which will air a number of times in the future, is powerful and full of hope. It also does a wonderful job of acknowledging the many people who care greatly about Chris, including author Bill Reynolds. Bill’s brilliant book, “Basketball Junkie”, which he co-wrote with Chris, was published in 2011 and led to the ESPN production.

Everyone here at the Institute for International Sport is rooting hard for Chris.

Good Reading for Parents and Educators

October 19th, 2011

Bill Beaney, Head Men’s Hockey Coach at Middlebury College, is one of the most enlightened thinkers in intercollegiate sport.  In 2007, the Institute for International Sport chose Bill as one of the “100 Most Influential Sports Educators in America”.  Recently, Bill sent me an interesting article by Lori Gottlieb which appeared in The Atlantic entitled, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy“.  Good reading for parents and educators.


September 14th, 2011

My boyhood hero was Bob Cousy and for reasons that went well beyond his genius on the basketball court.

I grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts during the time that “the Cooz” was at the height of his NBA career.  When Bob graduated from Holy Cross in 1950, he decided to make Worcester his permanent residence and commute into Boston to play for the Celtics.  One of the main reasons for making this decision was Bob’s desire to make his adopted hometown the base for his considerable goodwill.  I doubt that any superstar has ever done more for a community than Bob Cousy has done for Worcester.  And I am certain that no athlete has ever done so much with such grace and dignity.

When I was 12, I saw firsthand Bob’s commitment to his community.  Bob worked with our St. Peter’s parish priest, Father Donald Gonyor, to form the Chi Rho Basketball League.  In the league’s first year, the Worcester Telegram reported that it was the largest youth basketball league in the country.  The St. Peter’s court enjoyed regular visits from Bob, and he arranged several major exhibition games to raise additional funds.  The games featured the likes of future Hall of Famers Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn and Dolph Schayes.  I well remember as a 13 year-old playing in a three-on-three game with none other than Schayes, a 12-time All-Star.  The league attracted players from throughout Central Massachusetts.  The diverse make up of the players caused me, for the first time, to contemplate the power of sport as a vehicle to bring people together from different backgrounds.

I got to know Bob on a personal basis when I was 17.  Bob ran a highly successful basketball camp in New Hampshire.  His college coach, Buster Sheary, was the chief lecturer at the camp.  I knew Buster well, having had the privilege of working under him for several years at the Worcester Academy day camp as a junior counselor.  In the spring prior to my senior year of high school, Buster recommended that I go to Bob’s camp, indicating that the competition would be excellent.

At the end of the week, I was selected to play on the camp’s All-Star team, to be coached by Buster.  To my surprise, Buster chose me to be in the starting lineup on a team that had several players who, four years later, would be drafted into the NBA.  The opposition would be the camp counselors, made up of a number of Bob’s outstanding players from Boston College, where he was then coaching.  The opposing team also featured “the Cooz” himself!

Over the course of the game, Bob played sporadically.  Due in large measure to Buster’s inspired coaching, with four minutes remaining in the game, our team was actually ahead.  At that point, I well remember the buzzer ringing, signaling a substitution.  Bob jogged onto the court, and then performed basketball magic the likes of which I had never seen.  We lost by 12 points!

During that week, I was struck by Bob’s genuine interest in all of the campers and the thoughtful way he treated everyone – staff members and kids alike.  I also learned that Bob was a bellwether for racial equality.

In 1950, Bob wrote his senior thesis at Holy Cross on the persecution of minorities. The following year, the Celtics drafted Chuck Cooper of Duquesne.  He was the first African American drafted into the NBA. In his rookie year, Chuck roomed with Bob on road trips.

During the 1951 pre-season, the Celtics traveled to North Carolina for an exhibition game.  Upon arrival, Chuck was informed that he could not stay at the hotel with the team.  When Chuck decided to take a sleeper out of town after the game, Bob accompanied him on the overnight train ride.

Years later, Chuck Cooper had this to say about Bob Cousy: “Bob is the highest kind of individual. He is as free of racism as any white person I have ever known.  He is just a beautiful person.”

In the years that followed my week at Bob’s camp, he became a mentor to me, helping me in ways I could never repay.  One of his most thoughtful gestures occurred in 1989.  I sent Bob a draft of my first novel, Are You Watching, Adolph Rupp?, hoping that he might be willing to provide a brief testimonial for the book.  Bob called me to say that he would do much more than provide a testimonial.  “I would be honored to write the foreword,” he stated.

What impresses me most about Bob is his commitment to use his celebrity to do good deeds for others.  Now 83 years young, he continues along this noble path.  I cannot begin to say how many times I have observed him to go out of his way to sign an autograph, shake a hand, make a hospital visit, or do something else that literally made a person’s day, if not year.  A call from Bob last week was typical of his goodwill.  He phoned about a television program he saw on autism which he thought might be of help to my wife, Kathy, and I and our autistic son, Danny.

Recently, I came across a video of Bob’s “poetry” on the court that I am pleased to share.  To this day, I have never seen an athlete do anything as beautiful as Bob Cousy leading a fast break…as this video will attest.

During his 13-year Hall of Fame career in the NBA, Bob played an astonishing 924 games.  He amassed 16,960 points, 4,786 rebounds and 6,955 assists (that translates into averages of 18.4 points, 5.2 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game).

These numbers pale in comparison to Bob’s off-court assists.

Fan Behavior – Food for Thought

September 6th, 2011

I was pleased to be quoted in Karen Crouse’s splendid article in the New York Times about fan behavior.  Here is a link to the article, When Manners Go Missing.