HBO’s Distorted Portrayal of Jerry West

It must be difficult to be Jerry West.

That may sound like misplaced sympathy, given that West is regarded as one of the greatest basketball players and executives ever.   But we know West is a tortured soul. He told us so in his 2011 autobiography–West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life.

His hardscrabble upbringing in Chelyan, West Virginia, and beatings by his father contributed to life-long insecurities. By his own admission, he suffers from depression, self-hatred, and low self-esteem. Long ago losses haunt him. “I have a hole in my heart,” West wrote, “a hole that can never be filled.”

West is clearly a complicated human being, so it is disappointing, shameful, and perhaps even libelous, that the portrayal of him in HBO’s miniseries “Winning Time” about the 1980s Lakers dynasty has been reduced to a caricature.

In the series, West is an incompetent, hard-drinking, out-of-control hick, given to fits of rage. Former Laker Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote that HBO turned West into a “Wile E. Coyote cartoon to be laughed at. He never broke a golf club, he didn’t throw his trophy through the window.”

But that is what the viewers see. If you were not around West and the Lakers during that time, or you were not very familiar with West, how would you know any different?

But West is fighting back. His lawyer, Skip Miller, has demanded that HBO, Warner Brothers, Discovery and producer Adam McKay publish a retraction and an apology. “The portrayal of NBA icon and LA Lakers legend Jerry West in ‘Winning Time’ is fiction pretending to be fact—a deliberate false characterization that has caused great distress to Jerry and his family,” Miller said in a statement.

(Read more here from Jeff Zillgitt in USA Today.)

The letter includes testimonials from individuals who worked with West and know him well.

Former Lakers player and general manager Mitch Kupchak said, “During my time with the Lakers as a player and in the front office, Jerry was always professional, even-keeled and soft spoken. He was always positive and encouraging to me.”

Former Lakers player Jamaal Wilkes said, “In all the time I knew Jerry as a coach and as a Laker executive, I never saw him drink alcohol on the job nor did I ever see him intoxicated or impaired.”

No one disputes West is wound tight and high strung. In Jeff Pearlman’s book Showtime, which is supposedly the source for the miniseries, West is quoted as saying, “The Lakers were my life, and I took it, probably, too seriously. “I loved it, loved the game and the job, but I didn’t get the joy out of it that I should. It’s a classic example of putting too much pressure on yourself.”

(It is worth noting that the worst behavior by the West character in the HBO series is not in Pearlman’s book.)

In Abdul-Jabbar’s review of “Winning Time” he wrote that the “characters are crude stick-figure representations… they are caricatures not characters.” That is especially true of how West is portrayed, and he comes out worse than anyone else in the series.

Jerry West’s life story is darkly fascinating. Through his autobiography, this very private individual has allowed us to peer behind the curtain and better understand him. Unfortunately, viewers who judge West by “Winning Time” get only a simplistic and distorted portrayal that is really more of a betrayal.

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