Trying to Stay Afloat: Delonte West’s Strange Departure From the NBA

“Poking holes in my own boat.” 

That’s what he referred to it as. It was one year ago, after the Dallas Mavericks lost a preseason game to the Phoenix Suns on October 17th, 2012. Delonte West was referring to his past. A past that featured arrests, gun charges, NBA suspensions, altercations, Twitter rants, misunderstandings and malicious rumors. These things were behind him.

But the Dallas Mavericks would waive West 12 days later for “conduct detrimental to the team.” It was the last time that he was under contract with an NBA team.

I waited for the rest of the media to finish speaking with West, preparing myself for the Delonte West I was led to believe existed. I had heard the stories: some true, some outlandishly fictional. I had seen the Youtube videos of him freestyle rapping in the parking lot of a KFC. 

I was preparing to speak with the legend of Delonte West, a tenacious competitor on the court and a wildly unpredictable character off it. He is a man who has gotten into verbal altercations with coaches and teammates. He is a man who was arrested for driving a motorcycle while impaired with illegal firearms stashed in a guitar case. He is a man who has been implicated in rumors that he slept with the mother of Lebron James resulting in James’ departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers. He is a man who once stuck his finger in the ear of Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward in the middle of a game to seemingly gain a mental advantage. With this sort of history, nothing West could say would surprise me.

 Or so I thought. The man I spoke with on October 17th, 2012 was calm, patient, thoughtful and engaging. So much so that shortly into our brief conversation, I found myself oddly nervous. Not the sort of nerves I get around attractive women and potential employers, but the type of nerves one gets when faced with an unfamiliar situation.

 I found myself with a shake in my voice when confronted with a professional athlete speaking with such sincerity about a legitimately personal subject. That subject was bipolar disorder, namely West’s bipolar disorder.

 West seemed very unlike the caricature he has been depicted as and more like a human fighting through a very real issue. It was hard not to look at the events of his past and, perhaps not excuse them, but at least empathize with him.

 However, the series of events that surrounded this October 17th, night in 2012  turned out to be nearly as inexplicable and peculiar as the rest of West’s career.

 “Since being diagnosed, I’m always in battles with myself,” West told me.

 Those battles contributed to the rocky path West had taken in the NBA. Unwise decisions, an untimely divorce, legal troubles and an unwillingness to say no to his extended family put him in a desolate financial situation before he signed with the Mavericks. During the 2011 NBA lockout West was working at a Maryland furniture store. After signing with the Mavericks, he spent his first few weeks sleeping in either the Dallas locker room or in his car.

 His perseverance and toughness on the basketball court began to turn things around for West. His attitude and relentlessness earned him the good graces and support of coach Rick Carlisle and owner Mark Cuban as well as the respect of the Dallas fans and his teammates.

 While the Mavericks had a disappointing title defense in 2012, West had by all accounts earned his keep and mostly refrained from being a distraction to the team.

 The Mavericks’ 2012-2013 season was supposed to include West as well. He showed up for camp ready to compete as he did every year. That is when the timeline of West’s eventual departure becomes shaky.

 On October 15th, 2012 West was suspended for an alleged “outburst” in the locker room after a preseason win over the Houston Rockets. Few details were released about the suspension and it was lifted one day later after West reportedly sat down with Cuban and Carlisle.

 Just two days later West returned from the suspension to compete in a 100-94 loss to the Phoenix Suns. West entered the game to a loud sentiment of cheering from the Dallas crowd and scored seven points off of 3-5 shooting and collected four assists in 18 minutes of play.

Everything seemed to be settled between West and the Mavericks organization. 

 After the game West talked to me about his bipolar disorder.

 “I couldn’t explain it,” West said. “I didn’t know how to express myself to the people around me. But as I grew, reading and learning about the disorder, communication was the biggest thing, just communicating to friends, family and teammates.”

 Just over a week later, on October 25th, West was suspended indefinitely for “conduct detrimental to the team.” The details of the suspension were never released.

 Later that day, West went on a Twitter rant that implied that his time in Dallas was finished and that he had been unfairly treated:

 “Just ask u to talk to me…I’m a grown man…that’s not above logic and reason…Before u go to the papers wit false information.”

 “If I’m not what u lookin 4…That’s fine…Just don’t kick my ass the way out the door…I didn’t do anything to deserve that.”

 “I love the city of Dallas…I love playin in the NBA…no I’m not off my meds…no I ain’t on no bipolar trip…this real people lives”

 “And it just ain’t right…imma leave it at that…no ill will towards no one…I’m just sittin here across from the arena wit tears in my eyes.”

 The following day, when asked about the West situation Carlisle claimed, “If I’ve learned one thing: don’t leave your best leaders at home.”

 Carlisle would not elaborate on his statement, but just prior to the suspension the Mavericks went on a preseason road trip to Oklahoma City in which veterans Shawn Marion and Vince Carter did not travel as they nursed nagging injuries. The timeline would suggest that whatever incident took place resulting in West’s suspension happened during this road trip.

 Carlisle, who had been an advocate of West, added, “My feelings on Delonte are no secret.”

 Cuban responded to the situation by saying, “we’re not going to be in a situation like we were with a player last year.” He later followed that up by saying that many people told him the previous season that he was “too forgiving when everybody told me not to be… so I learned my lesson.”

 While Cuban did not name any names, the assumption is that he was referring to Lamar Odom whom the Mavericks had traded for the previous season. Odom, who was facing personal issues of his own, never bothered to get into game shape, rarely expressed dedication to the team and was eventually asked to leave the team indefinitely while still being allowed to collect an $8 million check.

 The veiled comparison of West and Odom made sense on the surface, but was odd because of West’s on-court commitment compared to the lackadaisical attitude that Odom maintained. You might argue that West was the anti-Odom, a man diagnosed with a legitimate medical issue who still played his heart out under a minimum contract while Odom came across as unhappy with the cards he was dealt and ignored his professional responsibilities.

 On October 29th, 2012 the Dallas Mavericks officially waived West.

 Just one day after the move became official the Dallas Mavericks Tweeted and Instagramed a picture of a box of cupcakes sent to the Mavericks’ offices with the words “From Delonte” written on the box. The picture is captioned with the claim that West is a “cool dude.”

West went the rest of the season without an NBA gig. At one point, he campaigned for himself on Twitter by posting career accomplishments and Youtube highlights.

On January 25th he signed a contract with the NBDL Texas Legends, but did not report to the team until March 16th, only playing in seven games, not nearly enough to impress an NBA team.

Ironically, West’s position of point guard was a huge weakness for the Mavericks last season who eventually settled on bringing the 37-year old Mike James out of retirement. Likewise, a number of teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Houston Rockets could have used a player of West’s caliber. 

But no one would touch him. Perhaps because of his reputation. Perhaps because of his bipolar disorder.

Last season, Houston Rockets rookie Royce White made headlines by feuding with the organization and sitting out the entire season due to his extreme anxiety and fear of flying. The story was covered and debated by media outlets. Meanwhile, West’s issues were treated as personality flaws. The stigma of bipolar disorder is strong and it is especially difficult to draw the line between symptom and reckless behavior. 

Sadly, many of us throw around the term “bipolar” when poking fun of someone who becomes very angry over something. But the reality is that people who suffer from bipolar disorder often suffer from stages of severe depression and anxiety. They can have manic episodes that cause them extreme stress and worry. It can have huge effects on their ability to sleep resulting in more erratic behavior.

But it’s easier to avoid thinking about that sometimes and treat Delonte West like a character. It’s easier to ignore the 2011 SLAM profile of West that explained that his impairment when arrested on a motorcycle was due to sleeping medication and that he was not pulled over, but voluntarily found a police officer and told him that he was unable to drive and that he was taking the guns away from his mother’s house because he felt his friends were irresponsibly handling them. It’s just as easy to laugh at the ridiculous and unfounded rumor about West and Gloria James and ignore the ridicule that takes place at his expense every time he goes out in public.

This month, West reportedly signed a one-year deal to play overseas in China for Fujuan Xunxing. As an NBA journeyman, it is a smart decision, as many NBA veterans have earned NBA roster spots by proving they can still compete in China. The season will end in February allowing West to sign with an interested NBA team mid-season. But as a person struggling with bipolar disorder, the move comes with serious risk. Traveling to a foreign country with different customs and a language barrier will certainly disrupt the stable envorment that is recommended to someone suffering through his condition.

Regardless of West’s disorder, he is absolutely right that he has “poked holes in his own boat.” His irresponsible behavior cannot be excused easily. But hopefully, one of those holes that he poked is not his openness about being bipolar. 

That same openness has inspired many other victims of the disorder as he has spoken publicly in attempts to help those people live normal lives. His advice to people who suffer from the same disorder?

“Let everybody know what you’re going through and how they can help you. When I started doing that, things became a lot easier for me. Some days are worse than others. Guys already know what’s going on. They know when to give you space and when to get in your space and they can pull you along.”

Hopefully, his admission to mental issues will not ultimately cost him his NBA career. Because the man I spoke to one year ago, wanted to prove something. He wanted to prove that the disorder would not hold him back from succeeding in the NBA, not just for himself, but for people like him. Unfortunately, one year later, he is a long way away from being given the chance to prove that.  

-Jonny Auping

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