by Adam Figman | @afigman
It’s a cool early January night at Boston’s TD Garden, and while masses of fans decked in green jerseys and heavy winter jackets flood the arena and saunter to their seats, the night’s biggest star is sitting in front of his locker, holding court with an overanxious media horde. The questions are coming one after the next after the next, most of which broach a similar topic, and a tired one at that. But the superstar has no complaints; this is what superstars deal with, a small price to pay in exchange for the money and the power and the fame.
David West is less than accustomed to this hoopla, because he doesn’t have nearly as much of the aforementioned assets as the League’s other superstars do, because, really, he isn’t a superstar. He’s played in two All-Star Games and spent eight seasons with a Hornets franchise that reached the postseason during a few of them, but West’s name doesn’t sell out tickets or inflate TV ratings. The 6-9 power forward is a strong player on a budding team, but one who’s traditionally provided little in the way of off-the-court narrative, and he rarely commands attention like this as he travels from city to city, arena to arena.
Tonight’s added interest spawns from a few strange events that took place during the altogether strange offseason of 2011. West, then a free agent, was evaluating his next move, and he and his agent had early discussions about his future with a few organizations, including the Boston Celtics. Word of this leaked—the Cs reportedly offered a three-year, $24 million deal—some false information was tossed around, and the next thing you know, he was seated on his living room couch alongside a friend at his home in Raleigh, NC, when he saw it scroll across the screen: David West signs with the Boston Celtics.
Of course, West hadn’t signed with the Celtics, and days later he inked a two-year, $20 million deal with the Indiana Pacers. “[The Celtics report] caught me off guard like it did everybody else,” he says now, standing in the visitor’s locker room in Boston. “I don’t know if it was as close as everybody speculated it was.”
That piece of information never became common knowledge until it was too late, and the inevitable backlash continued on schedule. Boston guard Ray Allen most notably criticized West’s decision, though he’d later say his comments were taken out of context. But to the fans filling TD Garden on this brisk night, context is meaningless. Public Enemy No. 1 is the Jersey-born big man with the steady mid-range jumpshot and well-kept goatee, and the fans plan to let him know it.
This isn’t exactly LeBron’s return to Cleveland, but a palpable dislike of West occupies the building’s air during the game’s onset. A few possessions in, when the ball first finds its way into his hands, boos rain down from all angles; on the subsequent play, when West picks up his first foul, the crowd cheers wildly.
Back in the locker room before tip-off, after the media mob passes on, West is happy to sit down and discuss something other than the “strange”—his word—free-agency confusion. And to talk to David West is to interact with one of the League’s most intriguing individuals. He’s a great interview, constantly using the phrase “in terms of,” as in: “When something needs to be said, I’ll say it,” he says, delving into the Pacers’ locker room dynamics. “I always give my perspective, in terms of what I’ve learned over these nine years, just the opportunity to help some of these younger guys. And not just with the basketball stuff—it’s a lot of other things, too. Being a responsible person, things like that.” West makes a point, provides a background, gives an example. He doesn’t always have a crowd of journalists huddling around his locker before and after games, but when he does, he’s sure to supply the kind of insightful commentary coveted by any reporter worth his weight in ink.
Not long ago, West found a valuable platform for his insightful commentary. He joined Twitter (@D_West30) in late 2010, and his timeline is a dynamic source of all things David West. The Xavier University graduate doesn’t tweet too much, but he retweets a lot, pushing words and messages via everyone from politicians to athletes to news outlets into the digital world. It’s a timeline that represents a man whose life spans well beyond the borders of a 94 x 50 basketball court. “There’s a time and place for everything,” he says. “Life is so much larger than [sports]. I think sometimes we just get caught up on that. I had to deal early on with people that were like, ‘What the hell are you doing? You’re not talking about sports.’ My mind is a lot larger than sports. I’m a voter. I live in America. I pay taxes. I have an opinion, in terms of what’s going on here. My kids are in school, my wife’s a consumer, I’m a consumer. We eat at restaurants, so we’re interested in what the FDA’s regulating and not regulating. Stuff I believe everybody should have a nose for.”
He’s also reasonable enough to understand that children will ingest his messages simply because of his profession. “There are young people that follow you on this social atmosphere,” he says, “and [you have] the opportunity to give them something that’s not so cookie-cutter, like Read to Achieve or Reading is Fundamental. I use it as an opportunity to give them—especially because I know they’re going to pay attention, solely on the fact that I’m a basketball player—an opportunity to get something else. Not just the latest Jordans or whatever.”
These aren’t empty words—West fulfills the actions to support the talk. He dropped $1.3 million to save a YMCA in Garner, NC, a center near his home in Raleigh, and mentored many of the players from the Garner Road AAU program during the lockout. (His older brother, Dwayne, coaches the team.) Once upon a time, West himself was a skinny, uptight kid at Garner High with plans to quit basketball and presumably get into some trouble, until a history teacher-slash-basketball coach named Eddie Gray got him on track. So who better than West, who’s been through turmoil only to be pushed down the correct path, to assist high school students looking for that same kind of guidance?
His other off-season hobby was rehab. West missed the 2011 Playoffs after a torn ACL in his left knee late in the regular season required surgery. The months-long fight back was tough but successful. “I had one of the best doctors in the freakin’ world, and I was a good patient,” he says. “What he asked of me, I did. It worked. Every couple days I feel like I’m getting better to what I was, in terms of my old self.” As of this writing, West hasn’t returned entirely to his pre-surgery level of play—his shooting and scoring numbers are as low as they’ve been since ’04-05—but he’s still working himself back into shape, having been cleared for full-contact play only a few weeks before the season tipped off.
And besides, statistics fail to describe more than a very minor portion of West’s influence. In past years, the Pacers have struggled with maturity issues, consistently lacking the focus and drive needed to progress from a middling squad with a scattered group of talent to a legitimate Playoff contender. Indiana now appears well on its way to doing just that—the squad was sitting at third in the East as we went to press—and around the locker room, a majority of the credit for the change in attitude is pointed in one direction.
“Bringing DWest here was amazing because he is one player that you just can’t draft,” Danny Granger says. “You want to trade for a guy like that who has a desire and experience to win the game. He brings so many intangibles to what it is we are trying to do.”
“He’s probably one of the best silent leaders I’ve ever seen,” Indiana guard-forward Dahntay Jones says. “He doesn’t talk much, but when he talks, everybody listens. And he usually has great things to say.”
The Pacers would go on to defeat the Celtics in Boston that night, leading for the majority of the tilt during a slow offensive struggle. Afterward, many of the younger team members were excited; they had just taken down one of the Eastern powerhouses, demanding respect in “We here now!” fashion. But West wasn’t having it. “We’re young,” says third-year starting point guard Darren Collison. “We were all talking about the win, but to [West], it’s just another win. We looked at that and we were like, ‘You know, it is just another win. We just gotta go to the next game.’”
Something strange, if expected, took place during that victory. In the first half, the crowd continued to scold West each time he checked into the game, each time he commanded the ball, each time he put up a shot. “Shoulda come to Boston!” a fan belted during the second quarter. But by the third quarter, the boos faded, and by the early fourth they were all but gone entirely. Maybe it was because the Celtics were losing and the restless crowd had its own problems to worry about. Or maybe it was because West didn’t perform very well, scoring only 2 points while shooting 1-5 from the field (though he did grab 10 boards and limit Kevin Garnett on defense).
But maybe the booing was never rooted in true hatred in the first place, and it was simply a matter of time before it proved itself unsustainable. David West is a family man, a hard worker, a mentor assisting a group of young NBA players during the season and a group of high schoolers during the offseason. This behavior should produce applauds, not boos, and perhaps even a group of bitter Celtics fans could see that much.
Photos courtesy of NBAE/Getty