By Cory Franklin
The topic of today’s sermon, fellow parishioners, is gratitude, or lack thereof, and the subject at issue is a member of America’s most reviled class – elderly white males, in this case 83 year-old Jerry West.
Regarding gratitude, in his new book, The War on the West, author Douglas Murray recalls the episode in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov where Ivan encounters the Devil, who cannot feel gratitude. Murray explains this is because only someone intent on great evil would be denied or deny themselves this essential human attribute.
Murray writes that without an ability to feel gratitude “all human life and experience is a marketplace of blame, where people tear up the landscape of the past and present hoping to find other people to blame…without gratitude the prevailing attitudes of life are blame and resentment… without some sense of gratitude it is impossible to get anything into proper order.”
Comes now Jerry West, among the greatest basketball figures of the 20th century and unquestionably one of the five best guards in the history of the sport, who gave so much of his personal and professional life to the Los Angeles Lakers. Born in a small rural West Virginia coal mining town, he was nicknamed “Zeke From Cabin Creek”. His West Virginia team lost the 1959 NCAA Championship Game by one point and he was named tourney MVP. In 1960, as amateurs, he and Oscar Robertson led the US Olympic Team to the gold medal with a performance every bit as dominant as the professional Dream Team of Michael Jordan.
Then he moved to the Los Angeles Lakers. In his 15 years with the Lakers, they never failed to make the playoffs. He was “Mr. Clutch,” one of the top players in the league. The Lakers made the NBA Finals nine times but always seemed to suffer agonizing, often Game 7 defeats, to the Boston Celtics or the New York Knicks. When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar entered the league with Milwaukee teaming with Oscar Robertson, they beat West’s Lakers in the 1971 Finals.
It seemed Jerry West would never win an NBA Championship with the Lakers. However, in 1972, he and Wilt Chamberlain worked together to win a championship with one of the greatest NBA teams in history. The Lakers won 33 consecutive games that season, still the league record.
Retiring as a player, West became the Lakers general manager and was the key to continuing the franchise’s winning tradition. He was instrumental in building the Showtime Lakers of the 1980’s featuring Magic Johnson and now-Laker Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a team that won five NBA titles. West later drafted Kobe Bryant out of high school, signed Shaquille O’Neal, and hired Phil Jackson to coach the great Laker teams of the early 21st century that won five more NBA titles.
All this time, there was never any hint of scandal around Jerry West. He comported himself as an ambassador of basketball and was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2019. He is the model for the NBA logo, one of the most recognizable images in sports
Jerry West receives no royalties.
What has all this earned Jerry West from the Lakers? When he burned out for a time several years ago, he and the Lakers parted company, and they have treated him shabbily ever since. When controlling owner Jeannie Buss was asked to name the five greatest Lakers, she left Jerry West off the list. She did include LeBron James, whose four years with the Lakers include two seasons of missed playoffs, one first-round exit, and one championship in the shambolic COVID year of 2020. The Lebron-led Lakers missed the playoffs this year and are currently in total disarray.
Worse yet, no one is saying why but the Lakers have revoked Jerry West’s lifetime seasons’ tickets. He has to buy a ticket to see the Los Angeles Lakers play.
Sports is an arena where some of the immortals have experienced similar ingratitude. At the end of his career Babe Ruth was shunted off from the mighty New York Yankees, who played in the “House That Ruth Built,”, to the lowly Boston Braves. Jackie Robinson was traded from the Brooklyn Dodgers, for whom he integrated baseball, to their hated rivals the New York Giants (Robinson refused to report). Famed quarterbacks Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Joe Montana and Payton Manning all ended their days in uniforms other than those of the teams they helped to greatness. The same fate has already befallen NFL quarterback Tom Brady.
But the experience of Jerry West resonates most. The unkindest cut of all is the current HBO series about the Lakers, which portrays West as an out-of-control intoxicated rage-aholic. Try to imagine Jerry West watching that show with his memories of painful championship losses to the Celtics, hoisting championship banners with Magic Johnson, and mentoring a teenage Kobe Bryant alone in a gym.
West and his lawyer sent a letter to HBO demanding a retraction of the show’s claims about his character:
“You replaced the real Jerry West — a consummate professional — with his polar opposite, then portrayed this lie to the public as genuine.” The letter was accompanied by testimonials to West from former Laker greats including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper. Nothing from Lakers upper management, though, and HBO has basically told Jerry West and his attorney to pound sand. If there is a lawsuit, the entire world should be on Jerry West’s side.
In The War on the West, Douglas Murray recounts the last days of his mentor, English philosopher Roger Scruton, who was also unjustly and publicly mistreated by the British Establishment before his death. Scruton was an elegant writer and the last words he published were these, “Coming close to death, you begin to know what life means and what it means is gratitude.”
Cory Franklin is a doctor who was director of medical intensive care at Cook County Hospital in Chicago for over 25 years.An editorial board contributor to the Chicago Tribune op-ed page, he writes freelance medical and non-medical articles. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, Jerusalem Post, Chicago Sun-Times, New York Post, Guardian, Washington Post and has been excerpted in the New York Review of Books. Cory was also Harrison Ford’s technical adviser and one of the role models for the character Ford played in the 1993 movie, “The Fugitive.” His YouTube podcast Rememberingthepassed has received 900,000 hits to date. He published Chicago Flashbulbs in 2013, Cook County ICU: 30 Years Of Unforgettable Patients And Odd Cases in 2015, and most recently coauthored, A Guide to Writing College Admission Essays: Practical Advice for Students and Parents in 2021.