Bespectacled eyes softly studying the sun-washed Lincoln Memorial in front of him, besuited back turned toward the towering Washington Monument behind him, a smile signifying freedom crosses Delonte West’s lips, and, as if contagious, spreads to all of us in his vicinity.
Supreme symbols of America, the Memorial and Monument aren’t the cause of our sense of liberation. No. We’ve felt this way since the chauffeur pulled up the gravel driveway outside his house in Fort Washington, MD, earlier this July morning and West, myself, a photographer, friends and family members piled into the back of the black Escalade ESV.
We felt this way while we were cruising the George Washington Parkway on our way to a day camp in Rockville. We felt this way when we stopped in Georgetown. And at the Monument. And, later, the Barry Farms courts and a social services office in Southeast DC.
We feel free, here in Abe Lincoln’s marble shadow, because Delonte West is finally free.
“A lot of people don’t know this, but all of last year I was on house arrest,” West says from the driver’s side passenger seat as we pull away from the National Mall and watch the city fade in the rearview. “When I wasn’t in the arena, I had an ankle bracelet monitor on. And right after the game, they’d put it right back on and I’d have to go straight back home.”
Home detention can take a few forms, ranging from a nightly curfew to semi-hourly GPS and phone monitoring. In West’s case, his eight-month detention was on the severe side of the penalty. Every two weeks throughout this past season, West had to give a detailed schedule of his upcoming activities to the probation office monitoring him. On a daily basis, he had to phone in his whereabouts four times, often in the darkest hours of the night.
“It didn’t change D, but it did help him mature some,” Mark Fassett, Delonte’s childhood friend and business manager, says. “It helped him focus his energy on what mattered.”
More than a nuisance but less than shackles and chains, home detention impacted West’s ability to play. While he was allowed to travel out of Massachusetts to Boston’s away games, it often precluded him from coming to practice early or staying late. It precluded him from attending non-sanctioned team functions, like teammates’ birthday parties, and it kept him from leaving his hotel room on the road. It was even problematic when he suffered an injury early in the season.
“When I broke my wrist they took me straight to the hospital,” says West, wrist externally covered in tattoos and internally held together with surgical pins. “I got into trouble because I didn’t call and let them know I was going to the hospital. They said, ‘If something happens on the way to the hospital, I don’t know where you’re at, so you better call in advance next time.’ That’s how they was on me.”
Physically, by mid-July, the electronic anklet is already four months removed. Mentally, though, West still often feels the weight of it. It’s no surprise, then, that the 28-year-old can get an odd sense of freedom from something as mundane as spending a day crisscrossing the nation’s capital in the backseat of an Escalade.
Nearly two years ago, in September of ’09, on a similarly quiet DC evening but in a different vehicle, a three-wheel Can-Am Spyder, West was pulled over for negligent driving. According to newspaper reports, after West admitted to having a weapon on him, the police officer requested assistance and proceeded to search the Can-Am and its owner. The cop discovered—again, according to reports—four weapons: a Beretta 9mm, a Ruger .357 magnum, a shotgun (in a guitar case) and a Bowie knife. Hit with eight separate charges, West plead guilty to two, leading to home detention, probation, community service and counseling.
The fallout from the incident was nuclear. The NBA eventually suspended the uniquely skilled, 6-3 southpaw for 10 games. Fans embellished the story. Musicians rhymed about it. Comedians made punchlines out of it. A character, and West definitely is one, was turned into a pistol-packing caricature. Shaken by all the negativity, West momentarily lost focus on and off the court. He eventually regrouped, but until now he’s never addressed the events of that night to a member of the media.
Delonte West is an avid outdoorsman, likes to hunt and fish in the backwoods of Virginia, but that’s not really why he owned the guns. Like many nouveau riche athletes, he had hammers because he could afford them. The same way money buys cars and clothes and comfort, it also buys guns. It’s the American way.
After the ’09 season ended with his Cavaliers getting knocked out by the Orlando Magic in the Conference Finals, West returned home to Maryland and set about finding a good place to store the weapons, which he saw more as collector’s items. He chose the recording studio.
Tucked away in his fully finished basement, West’s studio is his sanctuary. Off limits to children, the sparsely furnished wood paneled room is his home within his home. All of that’s why he thought it was the perfect stash spot. Everything was fine—the guns remained safely hidden—until, on the night of September 17, feeling unusually tired, West went to his bedroom pretty early, took his nightly dose of Seroquel (a drug that treats bipolar disorder) and got in bed. Shortly after falling asleep, he was startled awake by shouting.
“Ma Dukes came running upstairs into my room, cursing me, saying she wanted all these MFers out of my house,” recalls West. “I came to like, What’s going on? I was already on my Seroquel trip. A few of my cats had found some stuff in the studio and they were living the whole gangsta life thing—guns in the air and this and that,” continues West. “And I said, ‘Oh my God. What the fuck are y’all doin’ in here? Y’all got to go. Momma ain’t on that. Kids are running around upstairs. It’s time to go.’”
Gassed up from the commotion, West decided it would be prudent for him to relocate the guns to an empty house he owned nearby. So, with his other vehicles blocked in by guests’ cars, and expecting it to be a short trip, he haphazardly loaded up his Can-Am and placed the weapons in a Velcro-type of bag—“not a desperado, hardcase, gun-shooting-out-the-side type case”—and set off.
“I’m on the Beltway, cruisin’,” West says, voice high, emotional and inimitable. “Soon I start realizing I’m dozing in and out. I open my eyes and I went from this lane to that. I’m swervin’, and by the time I wake up, I’m about three exits past my exit.
“There’s this truck flying beside me—” West pauses; this next part is crucial—“and I’m scared to death. So I seen an officer coming up and I try to flag him down. I pull up next to him. He slows down and I get up in front of him. I tell the officer I’m not functioning well and I’m transporting weapons… The rest of the story is what it is.
“I’m not proud of it,” concludes West, “but it looks way worse than it was.”
While Delonte has learned to ignore or laugh off the infamy that’s come with the incident, Rufus “Rudy” Addison, his uncle, still takes umbrage with the way the incident is portrayed. “You haven’t heard of him shooting or stabbing nobody,” Uncle Rudy says. “If you want to permanently mark him for what he did, all you have to do is look at your own. He’s not the first and won’t be the last to make a mistake.”
Once celebrated for his deft jumper and defense, from that ill-fated night on, West has been known more for his guns—and illness.
For as long as he can remember, West has known he suffers from bipolar disorder. He just didn’t think it had to be public knowledge until he was arrested and had to share the information to defend himself in court.
Bipolar disorder is a complex mood disorder that affects people in varying ways. But West breaks down his condition like he would a defense. “Sadness is a normal human emotion,” begins West. “And there’s a mechanism that kicks in and lets you know it’s time to stop being sad. With bipolar, that mechanism is out, so you don’t even know when you’re sad.”
People used to wonder why Delonte would sometimes look catatonic on the bench. People used to wonder why Delonte wouldn’t smile after a good game or big win. Delonte, himself, would also wonder.
“After we win a game, and I hit the winner and everyone is screaming my name I should feel good, but I might be down in the slums,” says West. “I might have to go to the bathroom and say to myself, D, snap out of it. Come on baby! Smile. Life’s good.”
When news of West’s condition broke, then-coach Mike Brown handled the player and the situation well. A lot of fans didn’t, though. The starting guard became a stigma and an excuse for things that went wrong with the team. “They put it all in one sentence,” West says without a trace of bitterness. “Delonte’s riding a motorcycle, he’s bipolar and that’s why he missed that shot, period.”
This monsoon of criticism exacerbated his problems, which partly explains why he missed games and shunned the media during his final season on the Cavs. Now, though, after seeking guidance from a circle of doctors and lawyers, West is ready to own his condition.
“We’re going through the process of looking at different bipolar foundations to see which one will be the perfect fit,” Fassett says. “This is gonna make a major impact for other people suffering from it. It’s gonna remind people that we’re all still human beings.”
While publicizing his illness hasn’t necessarily helped his career—the Cavs let the former first-round pick go after the ’09-10 season and only the Celtics showed real interest, albeit with a lot of contractual stipulations—but, and this is important to West, it’s helped people dealing with similar conditions.
Says Delonte: “Parents come to me and say, ‘Thank you. My son’s bipolar and nobody understands him, and it just means so much for you to speak on it.’ I hear that so much from people, it’s unreal.”
Hours before the afternoon visit to the Lincoln Memorial, our SUV drops us off at a day camp. The counselors are antsy because we’re running late, and I’m anxious because Delonte has no idea what he’s going to say to the campers.
After a brief but captivating introduction, West opens the floor to questions. One of the smallest boys in the room raises his hand and, after being called on, shyly asks, “Do you know any other basketball players?”
“I know too many basketball players,” West says, walking toward the camper. “Do you play?” The boy, Andrew, nods meekly. “Well,” West answers, “now I know one more.”
As the little man smiles and as the counselors clap and the campers cheer, West takes the boy’s hand in his and says, “See this hand here? This hand has shook with Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett…and now it’s shaken yours, too.” Andrew’s face couldn’t contain his pride at that moment.
“Delonte would do anything for a random child,” Uncle Rudy says later. “Delonte will be the last one to the bus if he has autographs to sign. He’ll wait ’til the very last kid is content.”
A self-described pitbull on the court, West is anything but off of it, especially when it comes to his people. Listening to those who know him speak and watching him finesse three different crowds of kids in one day, as he’s done multiple days this summer, West’s reputation as a crazy, gun-wielding, mother-fucking (“Who knows where that rumor came from? Who knows who really started it,” is what he’ll say on the topic of Gloria James) basketball player couldn’t seem further from the truth.
“At the end of the day, Delonte would take his life for you,” says Danielle West, Delonte’s younger sister, who just graduated college thanks to her tuiton-paying older brother.
As the sun begins to set, Delonte tells everyone to follow him to his backyard and then down a short path that leads to a bank of the Potomac River. As we sit there, studying the water, studying his life, West says he can see the tides turning. He doesn’t really care if anyone else sees them, though.
“Print this: I ain’t lookin’ for no nipple to cry on. I’m just saying what it is. Hopefully, one day people won’t look at me as the boogieman.”
Currently a free agent, West has a plan for his post-lockout future—sign a multi-year deal that grants him financial security. Off the court, he knows he can’t expunge his record, but he hopes his work with the bipolar community becomes the reason that he’s talked about.
Finished for the moment, with the sun casting a calming reflection on the river behind him and his village chaotically milling about all around him, West turns toward the photographer’s camera and offers up a wide smile. Freedom has never felt so good.