BOSTON -- Delonte West moves easily from the Celtics locker room to the training room and back, making small talk along the way. He is among the several hundred grown men on Earth who, on any given night from autumn to spring, are privileged to be getting ready to play in an NBA game.
Few are more fortunate than he is, and West knows it.
It could have been over. The smooth handle, fearless approach to big shots, and toughness that can only be learned on the outdoor courts of Washington, D.C., could've seen the inside of an NBA arena -- the noise, the bright lights -- for the last time.
He got another chance. The team that drafted him in 2004, the Boston Celtics, are counting on West to put his troubled past behind him and become a reliable member of a team with nothing less than championship aspirations. And West doesn't intend to disappoint them. He knows he's lucky to be playing, and he also knows something else: When you suffer from bipolar disorder, nothing is guaranteed.
|West's hard-nosed game was enough for the Celtics to bring him back. (Getty Images)|
On what he perceived as an innocent ride on a three-wheel motorcycle in September 2009 -- carrying multiple firearms, an 8-inch bowie knife and more than 100 rounds of shotgun ammunition -- West's career and life spun out of control. His battle with depression and bipolar disorder sent him in and out of the Cleveland Cavaliers' control for several months, and his public silence and grim-faced approach did nothing to quell concerns about not only his basketball career, but also his well-being.
"When you're thinking about, 'Am I going to go to jail after the season?' and going through a tough divorce during the season, those things can weigh on you sometimes," West said. "When you're a professional athlete, you've got to be a robot sometimes. You've got to check your emotions at the door. But we're humans. You can't say, 'OK, I'm not going to think about this,' when it's something to really think about. ... When things are up in the air and all people can say to you, the courts and the lawyers, is, 'You've got to wait and see,' there's a lot of nights when you're not sleeping."
Insomnia -- a result of being terrified of prison, and also a classic symptom of bipolar disorder -- was nothing new to West. But he claims now that he was merely transporting the weapons from his mother's house to his own, and that the incident was not the result of a bipolar episode.
"It was a bad decision," West said. "It had nothing to do with being in the right place or not."
But why? Didn't he ask himself why?
"Any man, after a bad decision, you find yourself sitting in jail and you realize, 'That wasn't the best idea,'" West said. "And you go from there."
In July, West pleaded guilty to two weapons counts and avoided jail when he was sentenced by a Maryland judge to eight months home detention, two months probation and 40 hours community service. If he does everything right, the legal system will leave him alone. But with depression, there is no such timetable -- no such penance. It doesn't go away; it just loosens its grip from time to time.
"One thing I learned is," West said, "you've got to think when it's time to think and feel when it's time to feel."
When the Celtics took a chance on West, signing him to a fully non-guaranteed, one-year contract, it was time for West to get his life straightened out as best he could. There's no risk to the Celtics, other than the fact that they really can use someone of West's skills to contend with Miami and Orlando on their way to what they hope will be another trip to the NBA Finals. If it doesn't work out, life in New England will go on. West's basketball career might not.
"You cheer for guys like that," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who worked extensively with West when both were in Seattle. "You cheer for him because you want him to do well. You want him to be successful."
Other than Celtics coach Doc Rivers, no one in the NBA is rooting harder for West than Brooks. During West's brief time with the SuperSonics before he was traded to Cleveland in 2008, Brooks was the assistant coach on P.J. Carlesimo's staff assigned to work with him. And work they did. West used to ride his bike to the arena, then pedal over to the Sonics practice facility after the game and put up hundreds of shots -- especially if he'd played poorly.
And as Brooks pointed out, this wasn't the kind of bike West was pulled over on in Maryland.
"No, bi-cyc-le," Brooks said, sounding it out. "A 10-speed. And it does rain in Seattle, but he didn't care. He didn't have an umbrella."
Brooks, a gym rat himself, just assumed that West was dedicated and maybe a little too hard on himself. If he'd missed a shot he should've made in the game, West would stay in the locker room for more than an hour afterward, quietly seething. Then, to the gym with Brooks to put up shots until 1 or 1:30 a.m. -- sometimes later.
"All he'd have were his shorts and his shoes," Brooks said. "His shirt would be off. The good thing about it was, he would make a lot of the shots, so I didn't have to do a lot of rebounding. I just took it out of the net. ... That's what makes him click. That's how he's wired."
West knows now that something wasn't right about that. And Friday night, his second game back from the 10-game suspension that resulted from his guilty plea to the firearms charges, West experienced something that felt like progress.
When Rajon Rondo limped off the floor with a strained hamstring with less than five minutes left in a close game against Oklahoma City -- technically, West's former team -- Rivers put the ball in West's hands. When the Celtics couldn't get it to Ray Allen with 13.4 seconds left, trailing 87-84, they swung it around to the corner for West, who missed a 3-pointer. Yet an hour after the game, there was West at his locker, apologizing to reporters for not being there sooner.
"When I was younger and I didn't have the proper care and medicine, I would've been in here all day," West said. "The guys would've had to come get me and say, 'It's only one game, man. We've got another game.' But to me, it would've been like I just lost a Game 7."
Extreme highs, extreme lows -- and now, a step in the right direction. Toward the middle.
"I want him to do well because that's what he's really good at," Brooks said. "And he deserves the success because he puts the time into it."
Rivers is sure he can trust West in November, but the next step will be trusting him in May and June. This is something West has thought about during some of those sleepless nights, and he already has an idea of how this second chance is going to end.
"There's only one way it's going to play out," West said. "I want it to play out that way and it's going to play out that way. And that's holding the trophy at the end of June. Man, that'd be a strong chapter in the book or the movie I'm going to write one day."
One page at a time.