Despite his legendary status in the basketball world, Jerry West had a difficult life. He understands suffering and pain. That’s why West is so supportive of African-American players fighting for justice and equality. As in his book West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life (2011), West immediately made it clear that he fully empathizes with the black community. He made a comparison to something a lot more benign, but something we can all connect to in the present day.
“And I think you can see it now with people who walk around, no mask on, in an area which is dangerous to people, particularly people my age. It’s a lack of respect that bothers me more than anything. People are human beings. We all should be treated alike.”Jerry West, Legends of Sport
After winning a gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics, West was selected by the L.A. Lakers with the 2nd overall pick in the 1960 NBA draft. Playing for the Lakers until 1974, West witnessed the emergence of the civil rights and community movement in Los Angeles and across the United States.
The 60s and 70s were a bit different than the experience players have now. It was actually more like the Orlando bubble. Everyone would stay at the same hotel, players didn’t make that much money and there wasn’t a lot to do. So players would often hang out with the opposing team, playing cards all night and getting to know each other. That’s when West realized how little he knows and understands.
“There were times when we spent so much time together, and probably the greatest learning lesson I had about race was by black teammates. Because, back then, everyone had to go to school for four years. You’re talking about a 22-year old young man who, some of us were wet behind the ears, but what they saw was completely different from what I saw. And my empathy for the race has always been there.”Jerry West, Legends of Sport
Six decades after becoming a part of the Lakers organization, the architect of the 1980s and 2000s Lakers dynasties, shows a great deal of respect for The Black Lives Matter movement. West recognizes the social media platforms as the potential game-changers in the fight against racial discrimination.
“Everyone should have a right to have some dignity, and in this country, there’s a lot of people that had been disenfranchised, and they certainly did. Today, with the promise of the black athletes, and the ability to see, people will listen because they are so popular. And hopefully, this would change the mind of the people on how we should treat each other, not only with respect but with dignity. And respect different cultures. My goodness, in this city [Los Angeles], what do we have, ninety different languages, their different communities here and there. And I think the greatest lesson that I have learned in my life is giving, being kind to everyone.”Jerry West, Legends of Sport
It’s troubling to know that most people learned about the Tulsa massacre from “Watchmen” and not in school. Jerry West’s lesson is precious – we all need to find that late card game with someone different than us and listen. Have an open mind, take people at their best, and try to learn.