LAS VEGAS – As undrafted rookie Tyler Johnson left the arena Monday, he shouted out to the guy he’d spent most of the night chasing around, and vice versa, in the clash of Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers summer league squads. “All right, Delonte,” Johnson, a 22-year-old from Fresno State, said.
Delonte West interrupted a conversation to get him back. “Good game, young fella,” said West, in that moment transporting himself back a decade.
“When I was a young guy,” said West, “and an older guy would say, ‘Aw man, I saw you play at St. Joe’s,’ I’d be like, ‘Appreciate, appreciate.’ I’d go home and text [friends], ‘Paul Pierce used to watch me in college?!’ “
That’s time, y’know, and it passes quickly. One moment you’re the rookie looking to impress and hoping to get noticed, the next you’re a veteran of eight NBA seasons and five teams trying to revive that career. It’s gone fast and it’s been bumpy for West, who will turn 31 on July 26 and whose travels and most recently two-year absence from the league had little to do with his basketball skills and everything to do with off-court issues and the bipolar disorder from which he suffers.
West’s bouts of mental health problems spoiled his three-year run in Cleveland, where he played with LeBron James but got enmeshed in scurrilous rumors related to James’ mother Gloria. He also was arrested in 2009 for riding a motorcycle while carrying a large number of firearms.
His disorder clouded a second chance in 2010-11 with Boston, the team that had drafted him No. 24 overall in 2004, and it finally put him out of the league after getting sideways with the Dallas Mavericks in October 2012.
West gathered himself enough to spend a year in China, playing for the Fujian Sturgeons in the Chinese Basketball Association. He played well and added facets to his game. Last summer, he and his wife Caressa became parents to an infant son. That was another step in West’s maturation and new found stability.
“That’s a part of the game,” West said. “The life game for me. It was great going out there, going and growing up. Put the toys behind me. Being grown up and being a man, sometimes there’s things you have to do… take the trash out. But that’s what going away for me did.”
In his eight NBA seasons, West played in 432 games, scored 4,198 points, made 58 playoff appearances and, according to basketball-reference.com, earned about $16.2 million. Whether it was the game, the paydays, a shot at redemption or some combination of all three, West reached out to Clippers coach Doc Rivers for this latest, perhaps last chance.
“It wasn’t hard. He called me and I said yes,” Rivers said, watching as a spectator as the Clippers squad beat Miami, 91-85. “Literally, that’s how it happened.
“I think we all knew he could play. But it’s good for people to see it again. He’s in a great place in his life. A new baby… And because his life is doing well, his basketball’s good.”
West played well against Johnson and the Heat, scoring 12 points with eight rebounds and five assists. While all the young guys were running around at 100 mph, trying to do everything at once, the 6-foot-3, something-less-than-180-pound West was a stabilizing influence, orchestrating and letting the ball find him.
Except for plays such as this: Just before halftime, West leaped for a defensive rebound, then dribbled through a swarm of three Miami defenders. Clearing the pack, he found Amath M’Baye for an alley-ooped and-1. It stuck out as an NBA pearl among, let’s face it, more than a few swine in raggedy summer-league action.
More of the same and West might land the training-camp invitation he’s seeking.
“The next step is teams, including us, are looking at him, and he’ll get a lot of interest,” Rivers said. “I was sitting over there with Thibs and Flip [Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau and Minnesota president/coach Flip Saunders]. Delonte scores three buckets in a row and you can hear them talking about him. ‘Damn, he can still play.’ That’s good.”
Said Thibodeau: “To me, that’s the beauty of summer league. There’s something for everybody. Like a guy comes out of college, maybe he wasn’t drafted, so he goes overseas or plays in the D-League and he gets better. You see him three years later and he’s a lot better. There are guys trying to revive their careers. So the picture of him is not from three or four years ago, it’s where he is now.”
West these days is in a good place. He’s grateful for the chance Rivers has given him. He spoke at length about the relationship he forged in Dallas with Mavs owner Mark Cuban, even as he spiraled out of the league. He even mentioned the NBA per diem he got and the steak he ate Sunday, helping him get back to proper playing weight.
Generally, West sounds like a man with no expectations now, appreciating what he has and what he survived to reach this point.
“It’s already been a success,” West said of this summer-league stint. “I got an opportunity to put a jersey on and be back in the fraternity. The chance to get up there and get some NBA bump, hey, anytime you’ve got a jersey on – it don’t matter who you’re playing for – you’re there. You’ve got a Clippers jersey on.
“This is big for me and my family. We’re going to celebrate. It’s one step to more steps.”