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O’Brien: Jerry West and Aaron Smith Overcome Childhood Challenges

November 19, 2011

O’Brien: Jerry West and Aaron Smith Overcome Childhood Challenges:

I was listening to Jerry West and I was thinking about Aaron Smith.

          I doubt that Jerry West and Aaron Smith have ever appeared in the same sentence in the sports pages, but they share a strong bond, and not just because they both played basketball in high school.

          Both suffered severe beatings at the hands of their fathers and often feared for their lives and those of their family members when they were children.  They have startling stories to share.

          West has been the symbol of the NBA for most of his adult life, as a star with the Los Angeles Lakers, indeed, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, and as a coach and front-office executive with several franchises.  The image on the NBA logo is a silhouette of Jerry West.

          Smith is regarded as one of the greatest defensive ends in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  He’s presently on injured reserve, finished for the rest of the season and some fear his pro career has come to an end.

          Smith was on the sideline Sunday night at Heinz Field, wishing he could be out on the field to fend off the game-winning drive by the Baltimore Ravens in the final four minutes of a critical AFC North match-up that was seen on national television.

          The Steelers gave away the game the way Pitt did the night before at the same site against Cincinnati.  It was a difficult weekend for Pittsburgh football fans.  Penn State was dealing with a sexual abuse scandal involving one of its former assistant coaches, with some administrators accused of being complicit in a cover-up.

          In short, it was not a good weekend for our favorite teams and schools.

          Smith felt as helpless as he often did as a child growing up in a trailer park in Colorado Springs.  When he was eight, nine and ten years old, he told me he slept with a baseball bat under his pillow in case his father came after him when he was sleeping.

          He used to tell his father he loved him, hoping that would keep him safe from the verbal and physical assaults his father committed on Aaron’s mother and siblings.

          West said he was so angry with his father he wanted to kill him.  West now discloses that he slept with a rifle in his bed to defend himself from any assaults.

          West was being interviewed by Scott Simon on his Saturday morning talk show on NPR this past weekend.  The former West Virginia University All-American and NBA icon has a new tell-all memoir out called West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life.   

          In his book, West tells a dark side of his life I had never heard disclosed.  He has suffered from depression and said he didn’t know what love was really all about because his father was always swearing and hitting whoever was nearby in a humble home in Chelyan, West Virginia.  His mother withheld affection, and was a cold sort.  West’s first marriage ended in divorce.

          The family mail came to a Cabin Creek post office address, and hence West was heralded in a national magazine article I read as a teen in Sport magazine called “The Zeke from Cabin Creek.”

          I did know that West hated that nickname the way his giant teammate Wilt Chamberlain hated being called “Wilt the Stilt.”  West still speaks with a West Virginia twang, but he never thought of himself as a hillbilly.  He was proud to call West Virginia home.

          I interviewed and spoke with West on at least a dozen occasions in my career as a sports journalist, but he never mentioned the madness of his upbringing.

          He always seemed like the epitome of athletic success, a true Horatio Alger story.  He seemed so confident, one of the greatest clutch performers I’d seen in any sport or athletic endeavor.

          I have interviewed Aaron Smith once, and he let it all hang out.  “How big is your book?” he asked me when I approached him about doing an interview for: Steeler Stuff: Stories About A Championship Season and a Remarkable Journey.  “I have lots of stories to tell you.”    

          The hair went up on the back of my neck as he shared his stories, and talked about the terrible tirades of his father, Harold Smith, a 6-4, 250-pound hard-drinking unhappy man who wreaked havoc on his family.  I felt like I was in a confessional box hearing Smith’s disturbing story.

          “I can’t remember when my father wasn’t swearing at us,” said Smith.  “I thought it was the American way.

          “When I was a young kid I often told my father how much I loved him, hoping he’d spare me the next time he went on a tirade.”

          So many kids are ruined by being raised in this kind of environment.  They never recover from it, or find happiness in their own lives.  Often they repeat the sins of the father.

          That’s not the case with Jerry West and Aaron Smith.  They are two of the best people I’ve met in my 55 years as a professional sports writer.  They have always been popular in the clubhouse, team leaders.  In that sense, they are like Bill Mazeroski, Arnold Palmer, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Mario Lemieux.

          West and Smith had great reputations with the media because they made themselves available, and they were generous with their comments and reflections.  They set the best example.  They were model citizens.

          I wasn’t planning on including Smith in my book about the Steelers because I hadn’t read anything interesting about him at the time, about five or six years ago.  But when I was in the Steelers’ locker room one day he smiled and said hello, and made me feel comfortable in his company.

          His story ended up being the first chapter in the book because his story was so compelling.  To this day, I have yet to read the story of his difficult upbringing in any newspaper or magazine.

          He and his wife Jaimie have five children, and much has been written about their child Elijah who has a rare form of leukemia, but appears to be faring well with proper medical treatment.  The Steelers, to a man, have rallied around Smith and his family in that regard.

          Aaron Smith has gotten involved in many fund-raising events for local agencies involved with looking after challenged children, kids who have suffered from neglect and abuse, children looking for foster or adoptive parents.  Smith stands up for kids because he can understand their plight.

          I recall seeing him and some of his teammates at a fund-raiser organized by Charlie Batch, the Steelers’ reserve quarterback from Homestead.  It was a night of games to benefit Every Child, an East Liberty based agency that looks after hard-to-place children to find foster and adoptive parents.  The event was held at Dave & Buster’s on The Waterfront in Homestead.

          Smith has also worked with Auberle Foundation in McKeesport and the Holy Family Institute in Pittsburgh.  The latter organization, supported by the Rooney Family, has honored him as their Man of the Year on one occasion at a luncheon I attended at Heinz Field.

          His teammates on the Steelers are upset that he’s sidelined again, for the third year in a row, and that he might be finished as a pro football player.  He is one of the team favorites.

          Jerry West was always one of my favorite professional athletes.  We go back a long way.

          I recall traveling through West Virginia about 12 years ago when I saw a sign on the highway that heralded Cabin Creek as the home town of Hall of Fame (1979) star Jerry West.  I told my wife Kathie that I had wondered where Cabin Creek was since I was a teenager.  I got off the highway and visited the community.  It made me realize just how humble were the beginnings of Jerry West.

          I first saw West with his Lakers’ teammates in the lobby of the Hotel Manhattan when I stayed there with the Pitt football team in 1962 when I was the sports editor of The Pitt News.  I saw him and the great Elgin Baylor in their warm-ups.  They’d come from a workout at the old Madison Square Garden.

          My brother Dan and I traveled to New York City in the mid-60s and saw West leading the Lakers to a victory over the New York Knicks at the old Madison Square Garden on Ninth Avenue. He kept hitting one outside jumper after another in the stretch run.

          I saw West playing against the Knicks at the current Madison Square Garden over Penn Station in the NBA championship playoff series in 1970.

          I saw West hit a 60-foot shot in The Forum in Los Angeles during that same series that sent the game into overtime.  “I wanted the ball when the game was on the line,” he said.  That’s why they called him “Mr. Clutch.”

          West starred for the Olympic basketball team that won a gold medal in 1960 and he played 14 seasons in the NBA and he was in the All-Star Game every season.  He was one of the league’s greatest scorers and he was a terrific playmaker and rebounder as well.  He and Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are the best guards I’ve seen. 

          I visited West in his office in the same building when he was the Lakers’ general manager.  When I was leaving, I asked him if he could direct me to the men’s room.  He took me there.  It was a small gesture, but to me it told me so much about Jerry West.

          He has always been so down-to-earth. When I worked as the public relations director for the athletic department in the mid-80s, West would come to the Pitt Field House to scout college talent for the Lakers.

          Whenever I asked him to do a pre-game or half-time interview on Pitt’s radio broadcast, West was always willing to oblige. 

          The last time I saw him was on August 14, 2000 when I traveled to Morgantown, the community where West Virginia University is located, to attend a ceremony where they named a street after Jerry West.

          His coach at WVU and with the Lakers, Fred Schaus, was present for the ceremony.  Schaus was also a class act. West Virginia Governor Cecil H. Underwood was there as well.  West was kind and obliging to everybody that day.

          I have to get a copy of Jerry West’s new book.  I guess there’s a lot about Jerry West I don’t know.

          Pittsburgh sports author Jim O’Brien has books called Steeler Stuff and Hometown Heroes that contain chapters on Aaron Smith and Jerry West.  Jim will be signing copies of his books on Black Friday, Nov. 25, from 9 a.m. till 4 p.m. at Bradley’s Book Outlet at Century III Mall in West Mifflin

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