JOLIET, Ill. – He may be 77 years old now, but NBA Hall of Famer Jerry West still looks like he could pop in a 20-footer or drive the lane for two.
But instead of the Staples Center or United Center, West found himself on Friday in the middle of NASCAR land at Chicagoland Speedway.
West and fellow sports legend, tennis great Billie Jean King, will serve as co-grand marshals for Sunday’s MyAFibRisk.om 400, the opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
West and King both know about AFib, short for atrial fibrillation, an irregular and often rapid heartbeat that can lead to strokes, heart attacks and even deaths.
“I lost three friends just in the last year to strokes,” West said.
As for his own battle with AFib, he added, “I’m sure I had it when I was an athlete. Doctors would always say I had an extra beat in my heart and I had real low blood pressure.
“I was a Type A personality, and particularly when I got into my (playing) career and there’s so much pressure on you every night, and my desire to excel and win and that’s what drove me.
“They had me doing crazy things. I was hyperventilating, they had me breathing in a paper bag, so I knew something wasn’t normal.
“It didn’t really manifest itself until I became an (NBA team) executive. There’s so much more pressure there because we had a lot of success in Los Angeles, and the expectations of people – there’s a lot of pressure on people to produce and win there.
“Los Angeles, I think because of my desire to win and the Lakers’ success, you put so much pressure on yourself, you just get out of kilter, you feel horrible. I had to be hospitalized twice, I was just exhausted. And at the end of the day, I found out why I was exhausted: your heart never shuts off.”
West grew up in West Virginia during the moonshine era that preceded NASCAR, but this weekend will be his closest exposure to the sport.
“They’re fascinating athletes with the reflexes these guys have, driving at their speeds and so close together,” he said of NASCAR drivers. “If all athletes had those kind of reflexes – and some of them do – but the risk for these people out there, going those speeds, is enormous.
“And to me, I’m amazed that there’s not more accidents than they have, but they’re remarkable athletes.”
West will get real up-close with the track and drivers on Saturday when he takes some hot laps in the pace car.
“I’m hopeful that the person driving is a real good driver,” West quipped.