Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Legends in Our Midst

In new books, Steve Jobs and Jerry West talk about Memphis.

Posted By on Wed, Oct 26, 2011 at 12:08 PM

They were two famous and famously private men with no intention of moving to Memphis until illness and opportunity brought them here from California later in life.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs got a life-saving liver transplant at Methodist University Hospital in 2009. He stayed three months. Walter Isaacson's biography Steve Jobs adds details to the story, including a touching anecdote about Jobs visiting Sun Studio and helping his tour guide get a job at iTunes.

NBA Hall of Famer Jerry West came to Memphis in 2002 as general manager of the Memphis Grizzlies. He stayed five years, during which time the Grizzlies made the NBA Playoffs three times and West was named Executive of the Year in 2004. That was "the proudest moment in my long career as an executive," he says in West By West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, written with Jonathan Coleman. But West was not a happy guy, as this dreary tour de psyche makes clear, and even walked out of his own surprise farewell party.

Two books on two legends, published in the same month. Let's start with Jobs.

As he told the nation on CBS' 60 Minutes Sunday, Isaacson interviewed Jobs 40 times with the understanding that he would write a warts-and-all biography. The subchapter on Memphis is only six pages of the 571-page book, which is scant, considering the medical, ethical, and financial issues in saving Steve Jobs, who would live 30 more productive months.

"There is no legal way for a patient, even one as wealthy as Jobs, to jump the queue, and he didn't," Isaacson writes.

Jobs' wife, Laurene Powell, got him on the organ recipient list in Tennessee and California at the same time.

"Such multiple listing is not discouraged by policy, even though critics say it favors the rich, but it is difficult," Isaacson says.

Jobs flew to Memphis on March 21, 2009. Dr. James Eason transplanted the liver of a man in his mid-20s who was killed in a car crash, but Jobs developed pneumonia and nearly died. Eason took complete charge of his care and recovery. Jobs would eat only fruit smoothies, sampling seven or eight of them at a time.

Before leaving Memphis (and selling his house in Midtown to Eason for $850,000), Jobs and a small group of friends made an after-hours visit to Sun Studio. Their guide did such a good job that Jobs suggested he be hired at iTunes. Friends identified the guide as David Brookings, a musician and songwriter who moved to San Jose in 2009. He declined to be interviewed for this column.

Steve Jobs came to Memphis to save his life. Jerry West came to Memphis to save the Grizzlies. His presence gave the team and its adopted hometown instant and badly needed credibility at a time when FedExForum was still on the drawing board.

West asked owner Michael Heisley "for an amount of money that I was sure he would find unreasonable, but he didn't."

He was "shocked" to find the poverty in Memphis even worse than his native West Virginia or Los Angeles. And he was treated "as if I were Elvis, back from the dead, though people in Memphis are convinced he is still alive."

West By West lost me long before I read this hokum. Like millions of mediocre athletes in the Fifties and Sixties, I dreamed of shooting jump shots like Jerry West or hitting baseballs like Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. By the time we were in college, it had dawned on most of us that our heroes screwed around, drank, had egos, and knew despair and discrimination. We were not clueless.

West's demons included depression, a temper, stalkers, and shyness. He made a pact with the volatile Heisley that if the owner raised his voice to him "I will be out the door before it has a chance to shut."

The marriage lasted five years. West lived in the Southwind gated community and has kind words for James Davis clothing store and Ronnie Grisanti's, his favorite watering hole. West watched the home games from his suite, to which, a friend said, he "basically invited the world and made it into America's living room."

What? You say you weren't invited?

West has a way of telegraphing his punches. He "liked Sidney [Lowe] very much" but fired him as head coach. He "always liked Mike [Fratello] personally" but hated his coaching style. He "liked Geoff Calkins personally" but felt he should have been supportive.

He should talk to R.C. Johnson about that.

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