Everyone around Delonte West knew he needed special attention. They knew he endured a difficult childhood in Prince George’s County, Md. They knew his heart was sincere and he needed structure.
That’s what he received at Saint Joseph’s University and the early part of his NBA career with the Celtics. Everybody knew West had mental challenges, that he had heard his share of insults about his skin complexion, his speech impediment, and his shy demeanor.
Everybody knew he needed attention.
For those who know West and who covered him during his career, the viral video of him being beaten in the middle of a Maryland highway and then explaining incoherently the circumstances while handcuffed was a nightmare.
We all worried what would happen to West when the basketball stopped bouncing, when the opportunities to be a defensive ace and backup point guard ended. And that was about seven years ago. He has descended into a transient, hustling on the streets and trying to survive in a world that has no sympathy for his bipolar disorder and his insecurities.
It’s heartbreaking. I first covered West when the Seattle SuperSonics (never heard of them? Google it) acquired him in the Ray Allen trade in June 2007. He was the nicest dude, sincerely answered questions, played with a mean streak, wanted to be accepted and embraced and he freely admitted and discussed his insecurities.
There was one instance that concerned me during the half season West was with the Sonics. He played well in a difficult loss to the Spurs but made a key turnover and missed two free throws down the stretch. After the game, as his teammates casually dressed and prepared to board the bus for a road trip, West sat sullen at his locker in full uniform.
He felt as if he blew the game. The Sonics fell to 2-12 and West believed he was blowing his opportunity for major minutes. He needed to be uplifted. Instead, his teammates dressed around as team officials implored the players to dress quickly to catch the bus. That hardly mattered to West, who mourned as if he had blown the state championship.
Finally, he snapped out of his malaise. Still in his drenched game uniform, West opted to skip his shower and started putting on his dress clothes for the bus. We waited for West to talk to the media, and he began speaking as he dressed without showering. He was apologetic and regretful about his mistakes.
West needed emotional support, but he didn’t receive any, not on this professional level where there is little sympathy for millionaires who lose difficult games. Wally Szczerbiak, a Sonics teammate who came over to Seattle from Boston, looked at me and said, “You see what the [berating] coaching does to him?”
Nearly 13 years later, the NBA community has become more aware and compassionate about mental health. It is more sensitive toward players who have admitted mental issues. West was diagnosed as bipolar in 2008, and the general reaction was, “oh, so that’s why he’s a little crazy.”
West is no longer in the NBA. He’s trying to survive in the real world, which does not carry such compassion for mental health. Those who retweeted and mocked West for his reaction to being pummeled on a freeway onramp were unsympathetic toward his issues, his insecurities, his inability to flourish without proper medication.
They didn’t care he was relentlessly ridiculed as a child for being biracial, for being undiagnosed bipolar, for being less than perfect.
West spent a brief 24-game stint with the Celtics in 2010 and appeared to be in a better place after his bizarre 2009 arrest for gun possession while with the Cleveland Cavaliers. But then he got into a practice fight with teammate Von Wafer and he had outstayed his welcome in Boston.
We last talked six years ago, when he was seeking another NBA chance after being waived by the Dallas Mavericks. It was obvious he had acknowledged his weaknesses and was ready to take a positive step.
But any setback can derail all those good intentions for a normal happy life when you don’t focus on good health, on taking your medication, when you’re just trying to survive in a world that would rather laugh at your failures and ridicule your stumbles instead of offering assistance and support.
“My game is not of league minimum, but that’s OK, though,” he said in 2013. “It’s not about the money. I’m trying to break free from that stigma but it’s hanging over my head. I decided that I ain’t worried about the laughter. I’m not giving nobody no more ammunition to laugh at me. No more self-loathing. I’m here to play basketball and show people who Delonte West is.”
Hopefully, West has cried loud enough now to be heard. Hopefully he’ll embrace and accept help and realize that this doesn’t have to be his reality. It’s going to take his acknowledgement that his mental health needs daily attention and that people in his condition, living on the streets, trying to make it through the next day, those who are sick and addicted, are not to be discarded.
West can be saved.