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Getting A Medal From Donald Trump Fits Jerry West All Too Well

NBA legend Jerry West, seen here at left with a haunted Norfin Troll.
Photo: Jesse Grant (Getty Images for Los Angeles Police Memorial Foundation)

Have you ever seen Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, The Lonely Island’s 2016 mockumentary about a very specific kind of post-Obama cultural success? It’s a good movie. Funny gags, and some insight into the sort of of-this-moment famous person who is transparently drowning in narcissism but also dedicated to performing masculinity that he is constantly letting everyone know he is actually not self regarding at all. The opening number will give you a pretty succinct idea about the kind of guy we’re dealing with:

In his biography, West On West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, the legendary NBA player and GM Jerry West proves himself more than willing to tell you about how grounded he is. “I may be many things,” he writes, “but a braggart I am not. That is not who I am, and that was never the case. Ever.” West broods, at length, over his losses to the Celtics in the finals, which makes some sense—he lost to Bill Russell’s squad a whopping six times, after all, in increasingly hilarious ways, the last of which literally involved a clutch shot from Island Don Nelson. West also discusses the terrors of his childhood, the stress of making his second wife sign a prenup, and the psychological torment of Phil Jackson not saying hello to him in the morning even though their offices were next to each other. At one point, he somehow manages to steal Manson Family valor:

I am almost certain that I was being followed as I drove around, aimless and sullen, in my white Ferrari. It was not unusual for kids to follow me home after a game, but my instincts told me this was something different. Not long after that, the Manson Family (Charles Manson, ironically, spent much of his childhood in West Virginia) murdered Sharon Tate (wife of Roman Polanski) and others, a gruesome story that gripped the country that summer and was later recounted in Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter. I read the book, and imagine my reaction as I came upon the following sentence on page 357: “Observing a white sports car ahead of them. At the next red light, pull up beside. I’m going to kill the driver.” I’ve often wondered if that could have been me.

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As it happened, Jerry West was not murdered by the Manson Family, despite the fact that their patriarch was also from West Virginia; it’s really very strange that he is still haunted by the outside chance that, in some universe, they might have. The book’s catalogue of torments are broken up by a parade of people who are all willing to fucking die for Jerry West and the career accomplishments that he so clearly wanted to skip over. He discusses his rivalry with Bill Russell, and Russell’s historically fraught relationship with Boston and its fans, seemingly as a way to make this point:

I, on the other hand, always seemed to be a fan favorite. Part of the reason, I guess, was the way I played—giving my all each and every night—and part of it was no doubt because I was white. I have heard that I was the most popular visiting player ever to compete in both Madison Square Garden and Boston Garden (Johnny Most, the Celtics’ announcer, called me “Gentleman Jerry,” though perhaps he was subtly mocking me), but that didn’t stop people from heckling us.

Anyway, you get it. Jerry West insists, over and over, on his abiding passion for not tooting his own horn and his fundamental humility, although it invariably ends up not mattering because there’s a whole universe of people who are willing to fucking do it for him.

This leaves some things out, naturally. Chick Hearn called West “Mr. Clutch,” and he got to keep that moniker even after getting his ass kicked by the Celtics for half a decade, and then getting Wilt Chamberlain on his squad only to lose to the Celtics again. West was awarded Finals MVP after his team lost to Russell and the Celtics in the Finals. West insists that experience was just terribly hellish for him, all those reporters going out of their way to honor him like that.

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After that, West lost to the Knicks—he notes that while Willis Reed might have briefly played with a broken leg in Game 7, his hand was also hurt and he was shot up with novocaine, which is something that no one ever gives him credit for, which actually doesn’t bother him. When West won his single NBA title, the league was so proud of their golden boy that they stuck him on the league’s logo, casting Jerry West in the role of basketball’s platonic immediately after Bill Russell spent a fucking decade grinding him into dust and snorting him. A league that really wanted to celebrate excellence would have opted for the silhouette of Iron Bill skying for a board or beasting on some weak shit in the lane. Instead it’s Mr. Play The Game The Right Way up there. Jerry doesn’t have much to say about that beyond that he has the photo they used, it’s a picture of him dribbling with his left hand, and which is ironic because “that was never my strong suit.”

Recently, after a Utah Jazz fan treated Russell Westbrook to some ugly racist jeering, Kyle Korver wrote an essay for The Players’ Tribune about the privilege he’s afforded as a white NBA player:

“What I’m realizing is, no matter how passionately I commit to being an ally, and no matter how unwavering my support is for NBA and WNBA players of color….. I’m still in this conversation from the privileged perspective of opting in to it. Which of course means that on the flip side, I could just as easily opt out of it. Every day, I’m given that choice—I’m granted that privilege—based on the color of my skin.”

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Jerry West wasn’t the first white NBA star, of course. But he was the league’s most prominent white player during the tumult of the 1960s, and Jerry really did yeoman’s work during those years in just opting all the way out of letting anyone know where he stood on anything.

If there’s a through-line to West’s book beyond real accomplishment and less-real-seeming modesty, it’s his tendency to disappear in the face of serious conflict. He’s just too modest, or too Southern maybe, to speak up. West laments the shitty job he did after Kermit Washington was dragged through the mud after his errant punch accidentally sent Rudy Tomjanovich to the hospital, but he still did a shitty job. He delivers one single sentence of admiration for Bill Bradley, who opted out of appearing in advertising work in the 1960s because his black teammates and coworkers weren’t afforded the same opportunities, but West never did anything like that, or really anything at all; neither does he express any real regrets about that refusal to rock the boat. He does express some admiration for Barack Obama, although he notes that his friends at the country club ragged on him for it; he doesn’t mention that he donated the maximum $2,000 allowed to George W. Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004, or that he never gave Obama any money.

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Piece by piece, this is picayune stuff. Taken together, though, it’s something else. Every white superstar that let themselves be a symbol of white excellence, or sucked up media praise while black teammates were caricatured or ignored by reporters who were from a fundamentally different world, every star who noticed injustice and then went back to not noticing it owes a debt to Jerry West. He was a great player and a hard worker, but so much of what made West’s legend was grounded in getting out of the way—letting everyone know how humble he was, letting them see how hard he was trying, letting them call him Mr. Clutch and pay him for swimsuit ads and give him a trophy after yet another absurd finals defeat. He came out the other side of this as an American hero.

And now West is getting another reward for his grit. This time it’s the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, which West will receive from Donald Trump himself. There’s no obvious reason why West should receive this award at this particular time—he’s not an especially charitable man, although he holds a golf tournament from time to time, and while he was a great player a couple generations ago he has few concrete accomplishments away from basketball, and hasn’t even been an NBA GM since he left the Grizzlies back in 2009. It may just be that Trump, opportunist that he is, correctly identified that while no active NBA player this side of Andrew Bogut would ever deign to pose in a photo with him, Jerry West would have no such compunction. It’s not that West supports Trump, although who knows. It’s that everything in his career as a performatively self-effacing white man suggests that, when offered a medal by widely loathed shithead bigot, he would once again find a way not to say no.

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Of course this could all turn out to be wrong! West has yet to accept the medal, which means there’s still time for him to tell Trump to shove it. That confrontation would be out of character, but it would at least save him having to write about how much he regrets not doing it in the next edition of his autobiography.


Corbin Smith is a writer from Vancouver, Washington, and the host of the Take it or Break it podcast.

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