The fall and rise of Delonte West

"It took me a long time to forgive myself," Delone West says of how his basketball career unraveled. Photo for The Washington Post by Michael Mulvey)

FRISCO, Texas — Amid the mayhem inside Dr Pepper Arena, Delonte West is the calmest person in the building. Just beyond one end of the basketball court, kids twirl hula hoops, hop on pogo sticks, bounce giant exercise balls and spring off trampolines. The opposite end is filled with inflatable play equipment and more screaming, laughing and playing.

In between, a basketball game inconspicuously takes place between the Texas Legends and the Idaho Stampede of the NBA Development League. Wearing a suit and no tie, West, 31, sits on the bench between coaches and players. After a big play, he offers a soft clap, careful not to disturb the injured wrist that derailed his latest comeback attempt.

West’s Legends team, eliminated from playoff contention, is playing one of its final games. Days later most players will leave Texas and go their separate ways. Not West. He will stay in the Dallas area, convinced more than ever that everything is about to turn.

The fall and rise of Delonte West looks like this: mistakes, guns, mood disorders, money woes; second, third and fourth chances; stints in China and Venezuela; unwavering confidence that despite a nearly three-year absence from the NBA, he’ll soon be back.

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One night after the Legends game, West sat down at a Cheesecake Factory and, diving into his appetizer, tried to explain how he can feel so upbeat when the deck seems stacked against him. “I’m enjoying life,” he said. “Ain’t nobody going to take that from me no more. Yeah, I had that mistake. But that was five years ago. We gonna talk about it every time someone wants to talk to me? We trying to have Tex-Mex eggrolls here. ‘Take me back to that fateful day. . .’ Man, I’m having eggrolls!”

West knows he has to keep explaining. Initially, he had to understand for himself how he got here, how someone who played eight NBA seasons and earned more than $16 million and who played alongside LeBron James now sleeps on a fold-out bed in the two-bedroom home of a family member. “It took me a long time to forgive myself,” he said.

But West also knows that even though he’s finally comfortable with who he is, the real key to returning to the NBA is convincing everyone else to be comfortable with who he is, too.

“You feel like you’re on eggshells all the time,” he said, “trying to prove over and over that you’re a good person.”

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As he’s always been, West is colorful, open and verbose. Each question takes him to unexpected places, and his meandering answers are like connecting dots, the full picture not revealed until every last dot has been reached.

“I’ve never shared this like this,” he said, “but I used to try to kill myself all the time.”

He’s trying to explain his mental state and goes back to his childhood growing up in Prince George’s County, Maryland. He had light skin and red hair and was an easy target for grade-school taunts. For years all he could hear was the sound of other kids laughing at him.

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“I took all that and put everything into basketball,” he said. “You can’t laugh at this on the court.”

Growing up, he lived off just about every exit off the Beltway, as his family — “happy-poor,” he describes it — bounced from home to home. In the eighth grade he hurt his leg and when he couldn’t play basketball, he says, he stopped going to school. His mother sent him to live with his father in rural Louisa County, Virginia, and that’s where West says he first “kind of spiraled downhill.”

He said he began cutting himself and swallowing pills with names he couldn’t pronounce. He found himself in and out of children’s hospitals, surrounded by other adolescents who’d tried hurting themselves. The smallest things sent him into a stupor: couldn’t afford a trip with his AAU basketball team, didn’t see enough of his father, wanted the latest Jordans.

“I mean, I was basically crying for attention,” he said. “Maybe 17 or 18, you tell the story differently. ‘Man, I tried to kill myself.’ At 31, you say, ‘What the hell was I doing?’ Looking back now, you just think, ‘I was a spoiled brat.’ “

But he’s also certain that he made it to the NBA because of one of those long nights in a children’s hospital in Cumberland, Maryland. “I’d made up my mind, I was really gonna do it this time,” he said. “Tonight was my night — I was dead serious — I was gonna kill myself tonight, by any means, in my room.”

Instead, he dropped to his knees and prayed, brokering a deal with God: You help me survive this and someday play pro basketball and I’ll make sure I glorify your name. He made it through the night and left the facility about a month later. Everything seemed to fall into place. He enrolled at Eleanor Roosevelt High in Greenbelt, Maryland, as a sophomore, and would eventually became the Washington Post’s All-Met Player of the Year.

“I remember his first game playing JV,” said Glenn Farello, West’s high school coach. “I was upset, just going off on the team, letting them know how disappointed and frustrated I was. He raises his hand, this little quiet sophomore. ‘Delonte, you have something to say?’ He looks at his teammates and says, ‘Coach, I’d like to apologize to you and all of my teammates. I feel I didn’t play to my capabilities tonight, and it’ll never happen again.’ I’m thinking to myself, ‘You’re the only one I’m happy with right now.’ But that’s Delonte — always harder on himself than anyone could be.”

West went to Saint Joseph’s University, where he averaged 18.9 points and 4.7 assists as a junior, helping the Hawks to a 30-2 record and an appearance in the Elite Eight round of the NCAA tournament. He left school early, and the Boston Celtics picked him in the first round of the 2004 NBA draft. By 2008-09, he was playing alongside James for a Cleveland Cavaliers team that posted the best regular-season record before losing in the NBA Eastern Conference finals.

He was certain he had a long career ahead of him.

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West said he was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder following a preseason game in 2008. He had exploded on an official in that game, and realized he needed a break.

He left the Cavs for two weeks and returned to the Washington area, where he sought counseling and began taking medication. He’d separated from his first wife just weeks after getting married, and felt consumed by heartache.

“The ugly head started to show itself again,” West, then 25, told reporters when he returned to Cleveland. “It’s been haunting me my whole life, self-destructive behavior.”

His openness about his disorder was met with considerable sympathy and understanding, and that season he averaged 11.7 points.

Shortly after Cleveland collapsed in the playoffs, someone started an unfounded — but well-circulated — rumor that the Cavs had lost because James had discovered West was romantically involved with the superstar’s mother. West has repeatedly denied the story.

Then, on the night of Sept. 17, 2009, West was pulled over for an improper lane change as he rode his three-wheeled Can-Am Spyder motorcycle on Route 214, not far from his Fort Washington, Maryland, home. He told the officer he had a handgun in his waistband. A subsequent search found three guns — a Beretta 9mm in West’s waistband, a Ruger .357 magnum strapped to his leg and a shotgun in a guitar case slung over his back. Each gun was loaded.

West pled guilty to two of the eight charges he faced and was sentenced to eight months of home detention, two months of probation and 40 hours of community service.

The incident — and much of West’s career that followed — was viewed through the prism of mental illness. He blew through money. During the 2011 NBA lockout he applied for a job at a Home Depot and worked briefly at a Brandywine furniture store. And he cracked weird jokes on Twitter. “Broke down in the ATM line,” he tweeted one day. “25 cars behind me and I already reached my daily limit… I’m broke n my cars broke. Where’s my therapist???”

Just like when he was younger, West felt reduced to all the things he felt didn’t really define him. “I heard the laughter again,” is how he explains it now.

The Dallas Mavericks were the last NBA team to give him a try, a stint that lasted less than a year. He was suspended twice in October 2012 for conduct detrimental to the team, then waived. At the time, he was renting an apartment in the 28-story Cirque building in Dallas with a balcony that overlooked American Airlines Arena. He sat up there in the days following his release and watched fans file into the arena. He would still be catatonic 2


hours later when they left.

“I couldn’t move. I sulked, I cried every day, stopped eating,” he said. “I felt I was so close. There was this perception of me because of one bad decision I made a few years back in Cleveland — I felt I was on the cusp of people letting it go.”

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It was in those dark days that West met Caressa Madden at a mutual friend’s house. They hit it off and were soon inseparable, returning together to West’s home in Fort Washington, waiting out basketball unemployment.

The $1 million, eight-bedroom house has a swimming pool and beautiful view of the Potomac. But inside the home that winter, the situation was dire. The furnace was out and West couldn’t afford a new hot-water heater. He filled the rooms with portable space heaters — four alone in the master bedroom. West remembers heating water on the stove so Caressa, newly pregnant at the time, could take a warm bath. He proposed to her by cutting a snippet off a jump rope he found in the garage and wrapping it around her finger.

“It’s all I can afford, baby,” he recalled telling her. “I’m broke, heat ain’t working, brain ain’t working right, but I love you.”

He painted the basement black, and he’d spend his days down there conjuring up construction projects, thinking which of his possessions he could sell, what he could do to earn a quick dollar or pass away the afternoon. “I never had no shame in my game. Look, I’m liquidation sale, baby,” he recalled thinking. “Everything must go.”

His family wanted him to display some of his basketball paraphernalia in the home. West had other plans. “Anything I could find, I threw it away,” he said. “Trophies, pictures, anything. I was just hurting. I feel like I was spiraling down a self-destructive road again.”

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West chuckles at the idea that the past few years have humbled him. Someone who doesn’t grow up with much never forgets that feeling. But the period did offer him a fresh perspective on people, mostly himself.

“I took one step back to take a hundred steps forward in life,” he said. “That’s what I needed. I needed time to get over everything. It wasn’t everyone else holding onto what happened in Cleveland — it might’ve just been me. I needed to let that go, I needed to grow up.”

West was surprised when the phone rang in January 2013 with an offer to play professional basketball again in Dallas. There was confusion, though, and he says now he didn’t understand the relationship between the D-League Legends and the Mavericks when he signed the contract. The D-League is the NBA’s official minor league organization, and the Legends are affiliated with the Mavericks.

He didn’t report for several weeks, and when he did show up he wasn’t physically or mentally ready. He weighed just 170 pounds and felt resentment and anger boiling inside. After 45 minutes of a one-on-one workout, he became emotional and walked off the court. It took coaches more than 15 minutes to coax him back out. But what they saw, they liked.

“The talent was there. There was no denying that,” said Travis Blakeley, the team’s director of player personnel who was an assistant coach at the time.

West began to accept that a multi-year NBA deal wasn’t imminent, and that he’d have to work his way back. He had an infant son — named Cash — and a wife who counted on him. He began bouncing around in search of paychecks and exposure.

This season alone, he has played summer league in Las Vegas with the Los Angeles Clippers, had brief stints in China and Venezuela and considered offers in Turkey and Puerto Rico before finishing the year with the Legends, with whom he appeared in three games before a hairline fracture was discovered in his left hand, ending his season.

People in the Legends organization say West is different from his first stint with the team two years ago. He’s playing comfortably at 195 pounds. He’s also in the gym every day, even while injured, they say, helping younger players. They say he’s no longer consumed by negative energy.

“It’s amazing to see him now,” said Fred House, a Legends assistant coach and West’s former teammate. “He’s brought a different attitude. He’s more hungry, more driven to be here.”

West is convinced he’s just as aggressive on defense, just as quick with the ball, as his early NBA years, and that he’s a smarter player now.

“He’s NBA — that’s where he belongs,” Blakeley said. “Unfortunately, misconceptions and out of sight, out of mind has relegated him to our level. He hasn’t been able to show people that this isn’t where he belongs.”

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While talent evaluators might be able to appreciate what West adds to a roster, an NBA team owner and general manager have to ask bigger questions. They want to know which version of West they’re getting, as do their fans.

“They still want to talk about Lebron James’s mom. They still want to talk about the motorcycle and the suitcase with guns. They still want to talk about the mental side of things — how many personalities does he have?” Blakeley said. “None of that really exists right now. For an NBA GM, maybe it has to because he has to consider public backlash. But for Delonte, it certainly doesn’t.”

“The reality and perception are so different with Delonte, especially now,” said Farello, his high school coach. “We have to allow people to grow. There’s nothing fake to who Delonte is today — he’s not trying to cover anything up, spin anything. This is who he is now.”

West has decided that the bipolar diagnosis was somewhat overblown, and he’s not currently taking medication to treat the disorder. Tragic, life-changing events — teen-age suicide attempts, divorce, unemployment — and the associated mood swings weren’t necessarily connected, he now says, even though both West and his therapists have said otherwise in the past.

“I am bipolar — just like the rest of us in the world,” he said. “So bipolar is defined as something sad happens, you’re sad. Something happy happens, you’re happy. I think pretty much everyone in the world is like that. Now there’s different levels. How long do you stay sad? How does it affect your behavior, how do you handle these emotions?”

He’s still working on these things but says having children and a family has shifted the emotional center of his universe. He and Caressa had a second son last year.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban connected West with a financial adviser last summer who helped stabilize his finances and limited his spending. He’ll spend the offseason working out in Texas, and his injured shooting hand should be healed by the end of the month. The Legends will retain his rights through the offseason, but West is eager to play summer league with an NBA team, then attend a training camp and make a regular-season roster.

Basketball still feels relatively easy and natural. But he knows his biggest work takes place away from the court, challenging perceptions. He’s off Twitter and is surrounded by either basketball or his wife and two young boys. He says he has a new appreciation of what’s expected of him.

“Think of any office where you’re required to wear a tie,” he said. “This office — because I’m a loose-collar type of guy, you could get fired. Even if you’re a great worker, you gotta abide by the tie rule. I can wear a tie now. People will see that.”