It won't get the buzz that landing Lamar Odom or Vince Carter will, but last night the Mavericks made what will easily be their most interesting move of this abridged off-season, signing guard Delonte West to a one-year deal.
ESPN summed West up as "a tenacious defender," which is a little like calling Ken Kesey a bus driver. West is so, so much more: a leader, a sneaky scorer, a comic stylist, a rapper, a depressive, a gun-toting biker, a furniture salesman and the man at the center of the almost-definitely-false rumor that swallowed up a championship-level Cavaliers team -- a team, by the way, that two years ago won 66 games with West as a starter.
He will play for the veteran's minimum. For the reasons I'm about to outline, he is worth much, much more. At least to the city's bloggers.
West, 28, began his career in Boston after starring at St. Joseph's alongside Jameer Nelson in what was considered one of the best college back courts in the country. Early on in his NBA career, he seemed just a bit of a goof, willing to give the glazed-over beat scrum something a little extra as they toiled toward deadline:
West got traded to Cleveland in 2008, and found himself starting at shooting guard, a linchpin on the league's best regular-season team. He was, throughout that regular season and into the playoffs, a joy to watch, finding improbable ways to get to the basket when the Cavs' offense inevitably devolved into the pound-and-panic routine that Mike Brown and LeBron James so perfected together. And his defense? Tough, annoying, relentless. It was his calling card, and it stood out even on a truly great defensive team.
He apparently brought that same relentlessness to meetings, where, if you believe Shaquille O'Neal's memoir, West stood up to James when even Brown wouldn't. (H/T Cleveland Scene.)
I remember one day in a film session LeBron didn't get back on defense after a missed shot. Mike Brown didn't say anything about it. He went to the next clip and it was Mo Williams not getting back and Mike was saying, "Yo, Mo, we can't have that. You've got to hustle a little more." So Delonte West is sitting there and he's seen enough and he stands up and says, "Hold up, now. You can't be pussyfooting around like that. Everyone has to be accountable for what they do, not just some us." Mike Brown said, "I know, Delonte. I know." Mike knew Delonte was right. ...
It was actually before O'Neal's arrival, though, that West's life, which often seemed to be riding perilously on the rails, finally jumped the track. A basketball-less Delonte West is, by most accounts, a somewhat troubled Delonte West, and he cemented that reputation when he was pulled over on a Washington, D.C.-area highway before the 2009 season. Police had noticed his three-wheeled motorcycle swerving erratically. They pulled him over, at which point he informed them that he had with him some notable cargo: a 9mm Beretta pistol, .357 Magnum and a Remington 870, all stashed in a guitar case.
West pleaded guilty to misdemeanor weapons charges, and all signs pointed to him helping the Cavs make another run. But the signs, as they often are with people suffering from mental illness, were all fucked up. Scott Raab, the Esquire writer who chronicled LeBron James' departure in his gut-punching book The Whore of Akron, has wrestled with West's demons more than any journalist, in the book and for Deadspin. Raab was in Cleveland as that season got under way.
On the Cavs' Media Day a few weeks later, West sloughed off the arrest as no big thing. Not long after that, in the locker room before a preseason game, he verbally assaulted a reporter after the reporter asked him how he was doing. "Step the fuck off," he snarled. "Motherfucking faggot. Fuck you." The team's media relations people cleared the room and denied that any such incident had occurred. The journalists covering the team agreed among themselves to ignore what had happened.
What had happened was no mystery. West had revealed the season before that he suffers from severe bipolar disorder. And now he was off his meds.
West never really made it back that season; his minutes dropped, his points dropped, his presence dropped. As the Cavs quit their way out of the playoffs, rumors swirled that the team had been derailed by West's dalliance with James' mom -- a rumor that Raab has reported may have actually been started by James' management team, as a sad little effort to deflect attention from James' playoff meltdown. (Sorry, LeBron: Ball don't lie -- is that the saying?)
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Whatever, though: West was done in Cleveland, back in Boston for an injury-plagued 2010-2011, then back into the free-agency ether this summer.
Luckily for basketball fans -- and, let's be honest, for society at large -- West is back on the job he was born to do. And no, we're not talking about rapping. Although, yes, he does that too: