David West: A man on many missions

Indianapolis StarApril 18, 2014 

  • The 411 on the 919

    There are nine former UNC players in the NBA playoffs. Duke has eight, N.C. State one. The Indiana Pacers and Washington Wizards are the only Eastern Conference teams without a former Triangle college standout, but they are led by Garner’s David West and Raleigh’s John Wall. A look at the local ties:

    Brooklyn vs. Toronto

    Mason Plumlee (Duke) never faced Tyler Hansbrough (UNC) in college, but the two backups could collide in the first round.

    Atlanta vs. Indiana

    Elton Brand (Duke) has provided the Hawks a veteran presence and occasional scoring off the bench. He could face West during the series.

    Charlotte vs. Miami

    Three Duke players will start: Gerald Henderson and Josh McRoberts for the Bobcats; two-time NBA champion Shane Battier for the Heat. UNC’s Brendan Haywood (Bobcats) has been out all year with a foot injury.

    Washington vs. Chicago

    In his first playoff series with the Wizards, Raleigh’s All-Star guard John Wall will face two NCAA champions from Duke: Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy.

    Golden State vs. L.A. Clippers

    Harrison Barnes (Warriors) and Reggie Bullock (Clippers) were teammates at UNC. Now they’re in each other’s way, though Duke’s J.J. Redick (career-high 15.2 ppg) will have more impact for the Clippers.

    Dallas vs. San Antonio

    It’s a Tar Heels reunion, Texas style. Vince Carter and Brandan Wright have combined to average 20 points off Dallas’ bench, where they are joined by Wayne Ellington. Danny Green was a playoff hero last year for the Spurs.

    Memphis vs. Oklahoma City

    Ed Davis, who left UNC after his sophomore year in 2010, has found a spot in Memphis’ rotation.

    Portland vs. Houston

    The Rockets added Josh Powell (N.C. State) just in time for the playoffs. He last played in the NBA in 2011.

— Everything about David West depends on perspective.

To a second-year player still learning the NBA, the 33-year-old veteran power forward from Garner who “knows weird stuff” was someone to avoid.

To a reporter who called him “well spoken” without realizing what a slap to the face that is, he was intimidating.

And to those teammates who met him on his first day with the Indiana Pacers in 2011, his expression as serious as a drill sergeant and his cold gaze daring the brave ones to make eye contact, he was distant and aloof.

But in reality, David West is candid and passionate.

Just ask him about how he sees the world and his role in it. Ask him about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. Listen while his voice quickens and even breaks.

West, whose top-seeded Pacers open the playoffs Saturday against Atlanta, will tell you there was a time when he felt like a foreigner in the sometimes-superficial world called the NBA. The locker room isn’t always a breeding ground for free thinkers and the team plane may not necessarily be the place to read a book of essays written by a Folsom State prisoner. West was disconnected and it affected him on the court.

Then, West gained perspective. He started living life, as he describes it, the right way.

His way.

“I’m just not going to be the typical NBA guy,” West said. “I’m just not going to let myself become a part of that. I’m always going to stand up and I’m always going to stand apart of this group that I don’t necessarily feel like I identify with wholly.”

West follows family’s lead

His way is no nonsense, and it has worked.

In 11 years in the NBA, West has career averages of 15.9 points, 7.2 rebounds and two All-Star Game appearances. He plays like a throwback post player — all butt and body, bruising opponents on the block — and when it’s on, his jump shot from the elbow can be counted for two points as soon as it leaves his hand.

Shaped out of experiences in Teaneck, N.J., West found this way in his own bloodline.

Amos West never made more than $30,000 a year while delivering letters throughout Bergen County. Yet he and wife Harriett provided the example of what hard work looked like to their four children. She also was employed at the post office and if she had to open every canned food in the house to feed the kids, she would. He was the postal supervisor, in the Army Reserve, a deacon, a Sunday school superintendent, a radio DJ. And anytime the family visited their folks in North Carolina, the next morning he was up at dawn to cut the grass, put up a basketball goal and hunt rabbits for supper.

“People in the South eat rabbits,” West confirmed, laughing.

In 1986 when a young man up the block was shot in the back by a police officer, Mr. Amos, as the neighborhood kids called him, marched in the rally protesting the shooting – and brought young David along with him.

“I’m 6 years old!” West said. “And so my whole sort of seriousness of life was right there in my face at a very young age.”

Dwayne West was 16 and already an established hoops standout when David was born.

“Me dragging him along to my games,” Dwayne remembers, “and having him cry on the sideline. I couldn’t play in peace because he wanted to go to the bathroom, or he’s ready to go.”

After Dwayne returned home from captaining then-Jersey City State College to its first NCAA Division III Final Four, he instilled a playbook in David. Every time Dwayne yelled “One!” that meant drop step. “Two,” drop step and half hook. “Three,” drop step, fake and shot. And there wasn’t a number for this, but always go to that jumper. That was established early when Mr. Amos put up a backboard and rim in the backyard driveway that had the most space where the left elbow of a free throw line would be on a real court.

That sweet midrange jumper stayed with West when the family moved to Raleigh before his junior year of high school. He wasn’t heavily recruited out of Garner High, a slight that was never more evident than the time West and a friend sneaked into the N.C. State gym for a pickup game and ran into an overzealous NBA player.

After beating the pro’s team in the first game, West and his five rolled through the competition until the player – one year removed from winning an NBA title – came back on and punished the teenager like he was still playing in those Finals. After the throttling, West asked the NBA player for some tips, but the veteran wanted to know one thing: Are you going to State? When the kid answered honestly, the pro, according to West, said, “Well, I can’t (bleep) with you,” and turned his back. West, just 16, fumed in the car ride back, then sought his true hero and made a vow.

“I called my brother and told him, ‘If I ever make it, I would never, never do that to a young player,’” West said. “You don’t know how impactful your words can be to young people.”

So while West was becoming Xavier’s second all-time leading scorer and first player to have his jersey retired while still playing, he visited juvenile detention centers and battered women’s shelters, looking into the eyes of the children stuck there and encouraging them.

But there came a time when West had to prepare for the NBA draft and, naturally, his world shifted to center on himself. He lost sight of the greater purpose of life. Then, the Hornets drafted West.

Nothing could prepare him for the shock of New Orleans.

Katrina changed his outlook on life

West had a hard time reconciling his status as a highly paid professional basketball player with the city in which he made his wealth. Any sense of ego or self that emerged out of draft night in 2003 was shattered once he landed in New Orleans.

West learned that chain gangs were still very real, filled with men who looked like himself and his Hornets teammates. When he visited juvenile detention centers, he met boys who were charged with felonies but should’ve been in the third grade. Those who weren’t locked up might be attending parish elementary schools where the lunchroom has a dirt floor and the books in the library are 20 years out of date.

“You go to certain parts of New Orleans and (if) you had a blindfold on and someone took the blindfold off, you would think you weren’t in America,” West said. “And I was having a difficult time getting paid a million or so dollars — and when I got into the NBA, I realized that I was on my own in feeling like that.

“ ‘Yo! Nobody else sees that there’s something wrong here?’ 

With this war waging in his mind, West found the locker room to be a lonely place. So as not to alienate himself, West subtly conformed. He recalled a time when a teammate passed by his seat on the plane and noticed that he was reading “Soul on Ice” by Eldridge Cleaver.

“Man, you’re always reading something crazy!” the teammate said, so West thought to himself that maybe he shouldn’t break out his books in front of everyone.

“I learned this my first couple of years: A locker room can be an uncomfortable environment,” West said. “And in that environment, it was hard for me to find a balance. It was hard, literally, for me being a thinker; every single day my mind is just running. At times, I’m not focused on basketball.”

Then on his 25th birthday, West got a punch to his gut.

The scenes on T.V. were hard to imagine, levees folding under the might of Hurricane Katrina and entire portions of an American city underwater.

“That sort of hit me,” West said, punching his right first into his left palm, “I realized how far behind not only New Orleans was, but how far behind we were as black people.”

West, the gruff in his baritone easing into an impassioned monologue, continued.

“With all the money and the fame and the acclaim and the advancement that we claimed we made, we really (have) not made any big steps because Katrina was the biggest smack for me,” West said. “It just illustrated how dependent we are as people on other people. The majority of the people affected by Hurricane Katrina were African-American people, and with all the celebrity that we have, all the money that we have, all of this fame and fortune, we’re so disbanded that when our people are literally on TV in need of help, we got nothing to bring them.

“Katrina really altered how I was going to look at (and) how I was going to approach this NBA thing.”

Keeping life, NBA in perspective

So West went back to living his way. The words “My Life” and “My Way” already were inked on his upper left arm before his senior season at Xavier. Now West tattooed it to every decision he made.

He began sponsoring families in New Orleans. He still counts many of those families as friends.

West found his balance, and teammates noticed the change.

“He became much more involved in going places and speaking,” said Pacers forward Rasual Butler, who joined the Hornets in 2005. “Just speaking out his perspective, his outlook on life and trying to inspire people to do things to help themselves. He visited prisons and … schools, talking to the youth and just trying to give them some hope, some inspiration.”

When West signed a two-year deal as a free agent in 2011, picking the upstart Pacers over the more established Boston Celtics, some of the reason was that he saw a title window opening in Indiana.

“The second he got here, you got the feeling that this guy was going to be the one to really change this whole locker room, change this whole team,” teammate Paul George said. “He just brought an edge and a toughness, real leadership the second he got here.”

The Pacers are chasing their first NBA championship; this is the fuel that runs through West. But after this season, like every other summer, he’ll return to Southeast Raleigh and re-enter society for his life’s work – training and teaching young people on the AAU basketball team that he and his older brother operate. Some of the kids start in the program without knowing the tall guy plays in the NBA; that’s because he doesn’t carry the Association everywhere he goes. He just wants to be David West, a man apart.

“If you’re living and you’re not doing things for other people, then you’re wasting your time. You’re wasting your life,” West said. “’Keep myself in reality,’ is what I like to call it. I think a lot of times in the NBA, you can get caught in this lifestyle and what the NBA has to offer. It’s an ego-driven, self-driven, I, me deal and we all have to have some of that in order to get here, but … you can’t let that consume you and become a part of who you are.

“So I try to keep it cool. I try to keep everything in perspective.”

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