For reasons that we may never fully understand, Delonte West was spending one of his last days of summer vacation cruising around his home state of Maryland on a three-wheel motorcycle. In his possession was one loaded firearm for each wheel.
As stories of crime and contrition go in sports, this one pretty much followed the script. West showed up at the Cleveland Cavaliers media day on Monday and read all the standard lines.
|Delonte West says he 'got away from' a routine that worked for him last season. (Getty Images)|
"We've got to respect the legal process."
"I want to focus on this team and playing basketball."
Then came a quote that represented a departure from the norm, one that made it clear that this was no standard example of a knucklehead athlete acting like a fool.
"I'm back to taking my meds and I'm focused on basketball," West said. "I feel good. I feel great. I'm dealing with some issues a lot of you are familiar with [from] the past. I get highs and get lows. But all last year I've been consistent with being in a nice routine. I was in a routine that I kind of got out of this summer. I kind of got away from it. Just driving into Cleveland last night, I was getting a breath of fresh air."
Twenty-four hours later, West had once again slipped out of routine, skipping both practices on the Cavs' first day of training camp. The absence, which continued Wednesday, was unexcused, but not inexcusable.
Clearly, Delonte West needs help -- not scorn or mockery.
He needs empathy and compassion -- not name-calling or stereotyping.
Mental illness is not an excuse for skipping practice, and it's certainly not a free pass to ride around on a motorcycle armed for a shootout with barbarians at the gates of Hell. But mental illness is a reality and a stigma, a serious issue in sports that is rarely spoken about.
It is rarely spoken about because athletes are supposed to be pillars of strength who are too proud to admit weakness. It is taboo because no athlete wants to be labeled as mentally weak, lest that affect his ability to compete or sign his next contract.
To his credit, West has publicly acknowledged and discussed his lengthy battle with depression and mood disorders. He went there freely Monday, just 24 hours before apparently deciding to stay in his Cleveland apartment all day instead of participating in the first day of training camp.
"When he's feeling better for one day, he really believes that he's better," said Dr. Richard Lustberg, a Long Island, N.Y.-based psychologist whose website is a guidebook for the mental side of sports. "He's not trying to get over on you. He is believing what he's saying. The only problem is, he doesn't know well enough to know that he doesn't feel well."
To their credit, the Cavs have shown compassion and understanding for West's issues, granting him a leave of absence in training camp last year to deal with them. But an NBA team is not meant to be, nor is it capable of being, a depression treatment center. If West needs additional help that cannot be provided within the confines of his employment, then he must seek it.
"Bipolar disorder, I can't [emphasize] how serious that is," Lustberg said. "At this stage of the game, Delonte West needs to be in treatment weekly, regardless of where he is. He needs to be speaking to a psychologist on a regular basis, and blood work needs to be taken on a regular basis."
Though Lustberg has not treated West, he has treated numerous athletes with mood disorders and knows the common triggers and symptoms. West's comments Monday about being "back to taking my meds" rang true with Lustberg's assessment that an interruption in medication often causes episodes like this one.
"I can tell you right now he does not feel well," Lustberg said. "I don't know how to say it any other way."
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One problem, Lustberg said, is that the common medications prescribed for depression and mood disorders have side effects that are crippling to athletes. They make you feel sluggish, slow you down, and often cause weight gain, he said.
"You know as well as I do," Lustberg said, "that one step [lost] in the NBA is one step out the door."
Indeed, the Cavs have a business to run, not to mention a basketball team. When healthy -- physically and mentally -- West was regarded as the Cavs' most reliable clutch player after LeBron James. Under the crushing weight of the need to produce a title for James, lest he bolt for New York, Brooklyn, or parts unknown next July, Cavs GM Danny Ferry traded for aging warrior Shaquille O'Neal this summer. Ferry also acquired a perfectly capable, if less talented shooting guard, Anthony Parker. In other words, it is possible and sometimes necessary to protect your team's interests while also showing compassion.
If Lustberg were advising the Cavs, he'd recommend hiring someone to travel with West and monitor him closely. He said there's no substitute for constant communication between West, his personal doctor, his family and the Cavs medical staff. How much time off West needs depends on how he responds to the renewed medication and how well he understands his illness.
"You really want to kind of keep an open line of communication," Lustberg said. "Something broke down here."
Nobody but West knows why he was riding around alone with so much firepower. The law will speak on that; according to reports, West could face as little as a fine and as much as three years in prison. His father, Dmitri West, told the Washington Post that his son was "looking behind his back and protecting himself." Whether West was legally bearing arms as a means of protection is a matter for constitutional scholars.
But this story is a far more complicated and serious than that. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, nearly 21 million American adults suffer from a mood disorder. Of those, 5.7 million -- or 2.6 percent of the U.S. adult population -- have bipolar disorder, which is believed to afflict West. This is the same illness that caused former Oakland Raiders center Barret Robbins to skip the most important athletic event of his life -- the Super Bowl -- and go on a drinking binge in Tijuana, Mexico, in 2003.
Pro Football Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw has opened up about his battle with depression. So has Shawn Andrews, the Philadelphia Eagles' Pro Bowl offensive lineman who is on injured reserve with a season-ending back injury. The list of athletes who have battled depression is a lengthy one -- former NBA player Kendall Gill, former NHL player Pat LaFontaine, NFL player Ricky Williams, former major leaguer Russ Johnson, former U.S. Olympians Picabo Street and Jim Shea, to name a few. Just this summer, Miami Heat forward Michael Beasley entered rehab, though it is unclear how much of his problem was depression and how much was substance abuse. Often, they go hand in hand.
This doesn't even begin to touch the list of athletes who have left our TV screens and sports pages without explanation and without ever being diagnosed. In that regard, West is ahead of the game. He knows his demons, and it's important you do, too.
In Cleveland, who gets West's minutes and how long it takes him to return to the court are important issues. This is understandable, and even OK -- as long as you don't save your rooting for Delonte West until he suits up and hits a 3-pointer in a playoff game. He needs you to start rooting now.