Mario West Feature Story
Mario West continues to play the game relentlessly, the only way he knows how.
By Jon Cooper
You don't earn the nickname "Truck" by being soft.
West earned that moniker in this year's Hawks training camp, by displaying the same passion, energy and intensity that he showed the previous four years at Georgia Tech.
He also earned a spot on the Atlanta Hawks.
"I've been around this league a long time and I don't think I've ever seen a guy play as hard as Mario plays," said Hawks Head Coach Mike Woodson. "He pushes guys in practice to play hard and if you don't play hard he embarrasses you in terms of just knocking the hell out of you. He is contagious, he wants to do right, he wants to learn, he's coachable. That's a guy you want on your basketball team."
Woodson certainly wanted West on his team.
In making the Hawks as an undrafted free agent, the 6-5, 210-pound native of Huntsville, Ala., who went to high school in nearby Douglasville, Ga., continued his penchant for crashing the party.
He was honorable mention all-state and Douglas County Player of the Year as a senior at Douglas County High School, but had to walk on at Georgia Tech. After red-shirting, he earned a scholarship, and came off the bench as the Yellow Jackets reached the NCAA Tournament Final in 2004. By his senior year he was team captain.
A tenacious defender, West showed he had some skills, winning the State Farm Slam Dunk Contest held at Georgia State during Final Four week last year. It wasn't enough to get him drafted by an NBA team, but did earn him recognition, by the Harlem Globetrotters, who selected him in their inaugural draft.
"It was an honor to even be mentioned in the same breath as the Harlem Globetrotters," said West. "But it was something that I never really had a chance to look into because I knew I had a tryout for the Hawks for the summer league. That was my main focus."
That focus translated into a solid performance at the Rocky Mountain Revue, where he averaged 3.3 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.2 steals, while shooting .400 from the field and .533 from the line.
The Revue was a precursor for the exhibition season, where West shot .636 from the field (7-for-11), and pulled down 10 offensive rebounds (tied with Josh Childress for fifth on the club), in only 12. 9 minutes per game. He also found training camp to be a perfect learning environment.
"All these guys have done a lot for me in just taking me under their wing," he said. "I can say every guy has pulled me to the side and told me some things here and there when I was messing up and some positive feedback as well. I thank them for opening their arms and accepting me as part of this team."
West has shown his gratitude to his teammates by being a thorn in their side and pushing them hard in practice.
"You can ask anybody in this locker room, Mario's the hardest worker on the team," said Law. "You have to be at practice to see him. His motor never stops.
"It's inspiration to me to see a guy who never takes a play off, he isn't afraid to guard anybody and he takes pride in getting stops," Law continued. "He's important to this team because of the energy he brings. When you give Joe [Johnson] a rest, he can come in and shut somebody down."
West showed that in a brief stint against the Phoenix Suns at Philips Arena on Nov. 7. Late in the third quarter, he entered the game and matched up with the Suns' Grant Hill. Despite surrendering three inches, 15 pounds and 13 years of NBA experience, West didn't back down. He grabbed an important offensive rebound and later denied an entry pass to the posting Hill down on the blocks, coming from behind and ferociously slapping the ball out of bounds. West clapped his hands with exhilaration after the play.
After that play, Johnson re-entered the game, but in that 59-second burst West showed the niche he has carved for himself.
"Providing energy or a spark whenever I get into the game or whether it's in practice in pushing these guys," he said. "I've been a defensive catalyst. I'm just doing whatever I can."
West's ability to fit into a role makes him a vital -- albeit understated -- piece of the Hawks puzzle.
"Right now I have a set rotation. Could he slip into that rotation? Sure he could," said Woodson. "If I need a guy to go out there and change the course of the game defensively I can put him in the game and feel good about doing it. We've just got to pick our spots when we play him."
While West waits, he's treating every day in the NBA as a gift.
"This is like a fairytale," he said. "I grew up watching the Hawks and grew up watching Georgia Tech. To go to Georgia Tech and graduate from there (West got his degree in Management in May -- he was Dean's list -- and is taking classes for a second degree in Economics) also to start my pro career in my hometown, for my home team is just a great feeling. This is something everybody dreams of and I'm very fortunate to have this opportunity."
Woodson believes there's a lesson to be learned from watching West's career path.
"That's sending a message to a lot of young players that think it's easy going," said Woodson. "That young man worked his butt off to get to this point in his career and it's paid off for him."
Jon Cooper is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.