In Honor of Jerry West

The world lost a great basketball player, incredible executive and dynamic leader.

On the south bank of the Kanawha River in West Virginia is a town called Cabin Creek, famous for the formation of the largest Protestant church in the nation, led by Pastor Adam Powell. 

Cabin Creek was a coal town, with most of the residents entering the mines early in the morning and returning home late at night for small wages. Being poor in Cabin Creek was a way of life. For a young Jerry West, it was all he knew. 

The economic hardships never bothered West, as he devoted himself to working hard, being competitive and worshipping his older brother, David. 

One day, when a military man knocked on their door, the 12-year-old West learned that David had been killed in the Korean War. West was devastated. From that day forward, he bottled his anger, developing coping mechanisms, often finding solace in solitary activities like exploring the mountains near his home and obsessively practicing basketball. 

This also provided West an escape from the domestic turmoil, brought on by his abusive father and fueled his obsession with being the best to avoid dwelling on his emptiness in his life outside the game. 

West was unable to make his varsity teams because he lacked the size and strength needed to participate. Instead of finding another hobby, he was determined to become a basketball star, nailing a makeshift hoop to his neighbor’s storage shed, practicing relentlessly in spite of the weather.

Night and day everyone could hear that old ball bouncing off the gravel driveway. He learned how to shoot the ball quickly, his eye hand coordination was at an elite level and when he grew dramatically during his senior year, West became the talk of the state, leading his team to the state championship. Then he enrolled at West Virginia and became the school’s all-time leading rebounder and scorer, playing in the 1959 NCAA Championship game and winning a Gold Medal in the 1960 Olympics. 

West combined his incredible talent with an unyielding work ethic. This allowed him to have a Hall-of-Fame career with the Los Angeles Lakers, becoming a 14-time NBA All-Star, and a world champion in 1972. When he retired in 1975, West went on to become one of the best general managers in the NBA, winning the executive of the year award two times and eight NBA titles for the Lakers. 

For all the success West enjoyed, he never could get over his obsession with winning. The scars of his childhood, the fear of failure drove his every move, resulting in constant bouts of depression. 

Eventually, through writing his book, “West By West,” and telling his story, he implored several strategies to manage his lifelong struggle with depression:

  1. Medication: He eventually relied on antidepressants like Prozac to help alleviate his depression symptoms. The medication provided some relief, though he continued to battle depressive episodes.

  2. Immersing himself in work: West found solace in obsessively dedicating himself to basketball as both a player and executive. His intense focus on the game served as a coping mechanism and temporary escape from his inner turmoil.

  3. Support from loved ones: His wife Karen provided crucial emotional support during his darkest moments of depression. Her empathy and understanding helped West get through many difficult periods.

  4. Avoidance: At times, West would isolate himself and avoid social interactions, even with his wife and children, when his depression became overwhelming. He would not speak to anyone for days or weeks.

  5. Therapy: While he tried psychotherapy briefly on a few occasions, West did not find it particularly helpful and did not consistently pursue this treatment method.

The world lost a great basketball player on Wednesday, an incredible executive and more importantly, a spokesman for how to deal with his life-long depression. 

Thank you, Jerry, for being a role model not from being a great player, rather from sharing your battles with the hopes someone will seek help.

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