By Rich Levine
Back in January of 2007, I spent an afternoon playing video games with Delonte West for a magazine story I was writing at the time.
We played NBA Live 07 for PlayStation 2. He was the Celtics. I was the Magic. He kind of kicked my ass.
I really dont like to talk about it.
But as youd expect, I left Waltham that day with enough Delonte West stories to last a lifetime or at least the extent of the Cs impending 18-game losing streak.
There was his in-depth break down of where they hide all the secret rings in Sonic the Hedgehog. (Turns out they dont exist.)
There was him telling me all about how hed learned to play video games while working in the coal mines with my Daddy. (He didnt.)
There was the minute span where he answered every one of my questions with: Because Im soooo funky . . . yes, I am. (He actually was funky.)
And as youd expect, despite my public humiliation, it was a pretty amazing time. But really, at that point in Wests career, everything was pretty amazing.
As a rookie, he played in only 39 games for the Atlantic Division champs, but by the playoffs, had solidified his spot in the rotation averaging 16 minutes a game in the Cs seven-game series with the Pacers.
Bostons win total went from 45 to 33 in that second season, but Wests game went in the opposite direction. He started 71 games at point guard, and averaged 11.8 points, 4.6 assists, 4.1 rebounds and a still-career-high 34.1 minutes a night. It was clear now that the Celtics had themselves a player which is something thats often overlooked these days when people talk about Delonte.
Now, when you think about West, you think about the KFC video, the crazy quotes, the rumored relationship with LeBrons mom and all the other extra-curricular activities that have turned him into an NBA cult figure. But the truth is, West would have been a fan favorite in Boston without ever opening his mouth. Celtics fans loved the player way before they did the personality. The player was enough. He cared more than anyone else. He played harder than anyone else. And he was seriously talented. Maybe you expect that from a first round pick, but in a league where so many guys especially those drafted in the mid-20s flake out, Delonte was a success story. And that had nothing to do with personality.
But before Wests skills reached their prime, in that second season, the personality took over. The first thing I remember is the Valentines Day column he did for Page 2 within which his description of the perfect Valentines Day date featured a scene where his girlfriends eaten by Jaws.
And that wasnt even the craziest part.
There had never been anyone like this guy. Not only did he have one of the quickest and most creative minds in NBA history, but he had zero filter. It was an amazing combination.
Fans loved to watch Delonte play. They loved to hear Delonte talk. And heading into that third season, they just straight up loved Delonte. It was impossible not too.
That third season, of course, turned into a train wreck, but in early January, as Delonte kicked my ass in NBA Live, things werent THAT bad. The Cs were only 10-16 on New Years Day, which was nothing to brag about, but wasnt unsalvageable.
The young guys were getting better, Paul Pierces injury wasnt supposed to derail his season, and the Eastern Conference sucked. There was hope, and especially for West, who was still cruising along on his ascension toward local stardom.
Behind the scenes, some of the behavior that would later create so much trouble started to show, but he still came across as just a kooky, fun-loving and immensely talented guy.
He played 69 games that season, and averaged 12.2 points, 4.4 assists and three rebounds a game. He shot 86 percent from the line and averaged 32.2 minutes a night.
He had the commercial with cardboard Lucky (Cant shoot without the ball now!), the commercial when he talks about whooping time (Wiyah Hangah!), he had the clip of his take on the new NBA ball (Im a player, Greg!) and a legendary appearance on the Sports Tonight set:
He wasnt as good as Pierce, and his ceiling wasnt as high as Al Jeffersons, but West was the man.
Anyway, less than a week after our meeting, the Celtics became the laughing stock of the NBA, and nothing would ever be the same for West or the organization.
Starting on January 7, Boston lost 18 games in a row. Pierce came back briefly before being shut down to help improve the Cs lottery chances. And it did improve their chances, but didnt help the results.
When they drew the No. 5 pick, Danny Ainge had no choice. It wasnt about the long term anymore; it was about the right now guys like West, Jefferson, Gomes and Green were no longer the future, they were bargaining chips.
On draft night, the Cs traded West, Wally Szczerbiak and the No. 5 pick to Seattle for Ray Allen and Glen Davis. Fans were upset to see him go, but the displeasure could only go so far. Its not like Boston traded him for Allen Ray, we were talking about Ray Allen. A future Hall of Famer; an all-time great. He made the Celtics an instant playoff team, which at the time, was far more exciting than wed probably like to admit now.
A month later, the rest of the young guys (except Perk and Rondo) were shipped out for KG, the 06-07 season became a punch line almost like a bad dream and everyone moved on.
But Boston never stopped rooting for Delonte.
Or at least I never did.
(I realize that rooting for specific players somehow goes against the rules of sports journalism. So Im very sorry.)
I rooted for him on the Sonics as much as I had when he was on the Cs. Same for when he was traded to the rival Cavs later that year. I have two college friends from Cleveland who Id call every once and a while to hear about what West was doing behind the scenes. And those guys loved talking abut it as much as I did hearing. Hed cast his spell on another city of basketball fans.
He was really coming into his own on the court in Cleveland, too. He fit in seamlessly with the Cavs; he was a perfect complement to LeBron. He was great in the 2008 playoffs and followed that up by starting 64 games and averaging 11.7 points for a 66-win team. Hed realized his dream of NBA stardom. OK, maybe he wasnt an All-Star, but he was certified; he was going to have a serious career one that, alongside LeBron, would probably include a handful of hardware.
But off the court, things were happening that were far bigger than basketball. The quirkiness and unpredictability had taken a dark turn, and it got out of hand. Everyone knows what happened. We dont have to re-hash it. And Im not only talking about the incident that led to his suspension. There was a lot that went on over the two-and-a-half years in Cleveland that forced us to alter out perception of Delonte West. We still laughed at the jokes and wacky one-liners, but it didnt always feel right to laugh when you knew how much he was going through, and how much help he needed.
Thats not to say that we thought any less of him; its not like we stopped rooting for him. In fact, it made us root harder, because there was so much more on the line. Rooting wasnt just about wanting him to succeed anymore, but also about being afraid of what might happen if he failed.
Which is what happened in last years playoffs, which led to the Cavs trading him to the hapless Timberwolves who couldnt be bothered, and straight up cut him.
Shortly afterward, rumors circulated that the Celtics might be interested
And I think everyone in Boston had the same reaction:
No (bleeping) way.
Id always thought about West returning to the Celtics, but never in a realistic way. I mean, even when the C's were making their run to Banner 17 and there was literally nothing to complain about, I remember thinking to myself (or anyone who would listen) on multiple occasions: Damn, Delonte would look great on this team right now. Or You know what? I think Delonte could really help these guys.
He was a great player; a hard-nosed, ultra-competitive guy who any contender would be lucky to have. But up until this summer, West had priced himself out of Boston. As long as the Big 3 (and Rondo) was around, West couldnt be. How often does a player return to a team that trades, anyway? We just assumed West was gone.
But when he hit rock bottom this summer, there was only one place he could turn. Or, more accurately, there was only place which turned to him; one place that wanted to give him another chance.
And that chance finally, and officially starts tonight.
Its been almost four years now since West and I squared off in our PlayStation beat down. And since then, the young, optimistic and carefree 23-years-old I met that day has been through more than I could ever imagine; certainly more than I can do justice within this paragraph.
Back then, I had hopes that Boston would be the place where West built his career.
Now, Ill settle for it being the place where he saves it.