Mystery Man The strange case of Delonte West resists unraveling

Posted: May 09, 2010

BOSTON — The Cleveland Cavaliers were working out in Suffolk University's basement gym Friday when Delonte West, not yet in sneakers and with his gray T-shirt pulled up to his eyes, slowly dragged a folding chair onto the court.

As his teammates shot, shouted, and swirled around him, West sat there stoically amid the shootaround storm, as if he were lost in prayer or thought or pain.

The bizarre scene wouldn't have surprised the former St. Joseph's star's old friends and coaches, who describe him variously as "a heavy thinker," "mysterious," "enigmatic," "wacky," "crazy," "a deep dude."

Few were stunned when, after a tumultuous 2009 summer that included a weapons arrest in Maryland and several missed practices, West revealed that he was taking medication for a bipolar disorder.

"It kind of all fits together, retrospectively," said St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli. "But Delonte has always worked hard at being mysterious."

Beth Dunbar, who was West's English teacher in high school and remains close, said she was glad to learn about the disorder.

"It explains some things," she said. "Mood swings and things like that."

Quiet, introspective, mysterious, - no one, with the possible exception of his mother, Delphina, really knows West. It was, however, a lot easier to try to explain him before Sept. 17.

That muggy night, like some urban cowboy, West raced along the Washington Beltway on a three-wheeled motorcycle, a guitar case slung over his shoulder.

He'd been stopped on the highways of his native Prince George's County before. But this was different.

According to a police account, West had cut off a police cruiser with his Can-Am Spyder. When he was searched, officers found a Ruger .357 Magnum handgun strapped to one leg, a 9mm Beretta handgun stuck in his waistband, and a shotgun in the guitar case.

The heavy weaponry he was packing puzzled some of those who know him best.

"Was I surprised that he had three guns on him?" said Delton Fuller, who was an assistant coach when West starred for Eleanor Roosevelt High in Greenbelt, Md. "Yes. That amazed me."

Martelli said that while he couldn't say the news "shocked" him, he was "fearful" of what might be happening to his onetime star.

"We all have flaws," Martelli said. "But I worry about the money and the free time and the people constantly coming at him."

Dunbar suggested her former student might have felt the guns were necessary for protection.

"I've been out in public with him," she said, "and people are weird. He probably felt like it was something he needed."

Much to the delight of the Cavaliers, who are enmeshed in an Eastern Conference semifinal with the Celtics, West's trial has been postponed until July 21, after the season.

"He's done a terrific job dealing with the stuff he's got going on," Cavaliers coach Mike Brown, for whom West has been an extremely valuable reserve, said on Friday. "And I'm sure he'll have to continue to deal with that, probably for the rest of his life."

Brown, whose team finished with the NBA's best regular-season record (61-21), was referring to the medication West now takes for his disorder, medication that apparently hasn't affected his play.

No longer a starter, the 6-foot-3 guard saw his per-game minutes, points, and rebounds decline this season. But Brown has used him at critical times, when he needs his defense to shut down an opposing guard or his offense to take the pressure off LeBron James with a long-range jumper.

"[On the court] he's had a solid season for us," Brown added. "He's done a terrific job accepting his role. Done a terrific job helping us win some games off the bench, whether it's defensively or offensively."

Off the court, though, dogged by his legal and medical demons, by a competitive spirit that chafes on the bench, and by his own odd nature, the mercurial West has become more of a mystery than ever: the arrest, the missed camp practices, the kind of behavior he exhibited at Friday's shoot-around.

Yet Harold Rasul, a former St. Joe's player who lives in Cleveland and sees West often, claims the medication has helped his friend.

"He's better. But even so, Delonte is hard to get a grip on," Rasul said. "He's a deep thinker. He's eccentric. He's a deep dude."

West, 26, has not talked publicly about his condition, his medication, his arrest, or anything else. He has not spoken with the media this season, though Cavs officials insist that the decision had "nothing to do with his legal troubles," and that an end to the self-imposed silence might be near.

His lawyer and his agent did not return phone calls for this article. And because the case is pending, they could have said little about the weapons arrest anyway.

According to Rasul, West was moving his weapons out of his Maryland home before leaving for training camp.

"He bought his mom a place in Maryland," said Rasul. "Delonte has a house there. His uncle, too. I think he was taking one gun to his mom's, one to his uncle's, and one he was going to bring to his house. But I must admit when I heard it, I was like, 'Damn!' "

The speeding was less of a surprise. In two previous summers, according to Prince George's County police records, West was stopped while driving there.

In 2006, he was arrested for speeding and for having more than one driver's license and an expired registration. And in 2007, he was found to be driving with a suspended license.

Competitive enigma

Those stops all took place on highways near Eleanor Roosevelt High, the Greenbelt school where West's talents were first identified.

His mother raised Delonte, an older brother, and a younger sister in an apartment just down the street from the sprawling school of 3,000-plus students.

When West was a ninth grader, an assistant basketball coach noticed the little red-haired kid playing on a court behind the school and invited him to try out for the team.

West did. But the following year academic difficulties kept him off the varsity until the second semester.

Dunbar helped him bring his grades up, and by his senior season, West and teammate Eddie Basden, who played briefly with the Chicago Bulls, led Roosevelt to the Maryland state championship game, which they lost in an upset.

Dunbar described him as an often-disinterested student, but one who occasionally displayed remarkable insights, as if that different drummer he marched to sometimes whispered in his ear.

"He could be pretty insightful," she said. "I feel like he can see things that other people might not see. He looks at things from a different point of view. He has kind of a sixth sense."

As his high school reputation grew, his demeanor didn't change. While Basden clearly enjoyed being a basketball star and talked frequently about playing in the NBA, West remained reserved.

"Delonte never talked about going to the league," said Dunbar. "Ball is his passion and it's what kept him motivated, grounded, everything. He was smart enough to know it was an opportunity for him."

There were two West characteristics that people at Roosevelt still talk about with wonder - his basketball work ethic and his competitiveness.

It wasn't unusual for the youngster to shoot 1,000 or more jumpers from the same spot on the floor day after day or to practice on a snow-covered court. After they drafted him in 2004, a Celtics assistant phoned Martelli and asked if he could get his former player to stop practicing so hard.

One night two summers ago, when West spoke to Roosevelt's varsity, he told them he had to leave to drive to Cleveland. He wanted to get in 3,000 shots before training camp opened the next morning.

"If he's crazy," said Roosevelt coach Brendan O'Connell, "when it comes to practice, he's crazy in a good way."

The competitiveness - that same Celtics assistant told Martelli it tested off the charts - was on display when a player on Roosevelt's junior varsity challenged the then-college star to one-on-one.

"He asked me to open the gym," recalled Fuller, "and I'm thinking Delonte's going to take it easy on the kid. Delonte didn't take it easy on him. Delonte played like it was the Final Four."

Upon arriving at St. Joe's, West completed his academic requirements and decided to major in fine arts, a decision, according to Martelli, that has since led other Hawk basketballers to do the same.

It wasn't just an easy out. He began doing delicate sketches of nude women, of himself, of others, works that he presented to the basketball staff at the school when he departed for the NBA after his junior year.

"His professors told me that he's really gifted," said Martelli. "You wonder where this artistic vision comes from. But he's got a spiritual vent that rises up every so often."

Once the legal process concludes, West, finishing off a two-year deal that pays him $4.2 million annually - the Cavs have an option for 2010-11 - will almost certainly be suspended by the NBA.

And then?

Will someone as willful and competitive as West return to a bench role with the Cavs? Will he go to Europe as he threatened to do two seasons ago? Will he finish his work and get his degree at St. Joe's? Or will the mystery grow?

"With a guy like Delonte, you can't predict anything," said Rasul. "Nobody knows. But he's a top-shelf guy. He might have a quick temper, but he's also a teddy bear."

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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