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David West: It's How You Finish (Part I)

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

January 15, 2012

This is Part One of a two-part feature on Pacers forward David West. Read Part Two »

David West had decided to give up on basketball, and who could blame him? His sophomore season at that high school in Teaneck, N.J. had not gone well, due to an onset of growth-spurt awkwardness, and now that his family had moved to North Carolina he wasn't going to endure another unhappy season among strangers.

The coaches at Garner High School, however, had taken notice of the tall, gangly kid who had suddenly appeared in their hallways, and like bloodhounds in search of oversized prey, went looking for him. He engaged them in a game of hide-and-seek, ignoring their notes to his homeroom teacher, avoiding their classroom areas whenever possible, and rushing onto the bus at the end of the day to avoid any hallway confrontations. Eventually, a junior varsity coach cornered him and asked if he intended to come out for basketball.

West said no.

The head coach, a short, fiery man named Eddie Gray, wasn't having that. He finally met the matter head-on, walking into a classroom where West couldn't hide and, in his authoritative southern drawl, issued a command.

"Son, get out in this hallway for a minute!"

There, the 5-foot-8 coach told the 6-foot-5 kid in terms far from uncertain that it would be a very good idea for him to continue playing basketball. He was in the South now, and the world wasn't as harsh as it had been out East. They would work with him, and help him get better. Would he try?

Feeling as if he had no choice, West said yes. David West Photo Gallery

That was in 1996. All these years later, as a college graduate with three retired jersey numbers, a 10-year NBA veteran, a two-time NBA All-Star and the acknowledged leader of a resurgent Pacers team, West looks back on that interception as a turning point in his life. Who knows where he would be today had he been allowed to flounder in the shadows? Who knows where he would be if he hadn't been willing to listen to the adults willing to redirect his path? For that matter, who knows where the Pacers would be, without the adult in the locker room?

"I've always been fortunate to have people butt in," he says.

Careers are made and lives are altered from such interference. Mel Daniels, the former Pacers player who was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame last September, had never touched a basketball until his sophomore year in high school, when he was ordered into the gym by his Detroit high school coach, Will Robinson. West at least had played the game, but, man, it had gotten ugly back in Teaneck. He shot up from about 5-10 to nearly 6-5 over the course of the summer before his sophomore year, with just 135 pounds to keep him from disappearing behind flag poles. He wore a size-17 shoe, too, which boded well for his continued growth but at the moment had him clumsily tripping over foul lines.

"It hit me off-guard," he says of his sudden elevation. “I was just terrible. Just terrible.”

West laughs when he says that now, but it wasn't funny then. Try being an awkward kid in a tough town like Teaneck, and try having basketball virtually stolen from you by your own genetic code. West had been playing the game for a handful of years, on playgrounds and in all the opportunities for organized games, but was assigned to the JV team that season. He rode it out on the bench, a moping stick figure. He didn't have the kind of relationship with his coaches that would have brought insight into his temporary plight, or given him hope for brighter days. Disheartened by basketball, his grades slipped. He became a "knucklehead," walking the hallways without his books, present in his classes in only a literal sense.

All in all the year was a disaster, so when his father retired from the postal service and the family moved to North Carolina to be closer to aging relatives, he was glad to be gone. And happy to hide in a new place, where he could avoid further frustrations and, perhaps, concentrate on getting his grades back in order without the distraction of basketball.

The thing is, West's body had matured some by the time he enrolled at Garner. When he got into the gym with his new coaches, he wasn't bad at all. Gray was impressed with his raw athleticism, his soft hands, and most of all, his work ethic. “You're only going to be blessed with so many kids with a work ethic,” says Gray, who's nearing the end of his 36th year at Garner.

West started on the varsity as a junior but was the new kid in school, so Gray told him not to worry about having a limited role in the offense. He scored most of his points on put-backs that season.

Still, it was enough to re-energize his enthusiasm for the game. His body was still growing, his coordination and strength improving. He began flexing his work ethic over the following summer, playing at every opportunity. On some days, Gray would lock all six doors to the gymnasium and leave him alone for a couple of hours to work on his skills and conditioning. Sometimes he would join him for late-night workouts, passing the ball back to him over and over again, just the two of them, until finally the coach begged off. He did, after all, have a family at home.

By the time West's senior season rolled around, he was the hub of Garner's team in every way possible. Unlike so many taller players who want to show off their perimeter skills, West actually enjoyed hanging and banging around the basket. The offense ran through him, and West dominated it, then as he does now, with fundamentals and hard work.

Drew Cook, who is Garner High's principal today, was a first-year, 23-year-old assistant coach during West's senior season. A former player himself, and 6-foot-6, he practiced against West early on to give him a big body to lean on before realizing he wasn't up to the daily pounding. The bruises have faded, but the impression remains.

"I thought everybody was going to work like David West the rest of my career," Cook said. "I got kind of spoiled.

"I've never seen anybody with a motor that runs like his. He was a happy, good-natured guy off the court, but he was a leader. He'd come by the bench during games and say to take so-and-so out out of the game, or to get on him."

Garner lost just one regular season game that season, a game played on a day when West had sprained his ankle in physical education class. By the end of the season he was, in Gray's opinion, the best high school player in North Carolina. He led Garner to the regionals of the state tournament and scored about 40 points in the final game, according to Gray, but Garner lost by three points to a hot-shooting team.

There was a problem, though. Hardly anybody had noticed. Garner is a suburb of Raleigh, N.C., just six miles from the North Carolina State campus, and barely more than 30 miles from Duke and North Carolina, but proximity couldn't overcome the realities of recruiting.

West had not played in AAU competition in the summers, going instead with a regional league in which he was able to compete against older players in a less frenzied environment. That kept him out of the national recruiting rankings, in which stars are arbitrarily assigned to still-developing kids by men who might or might not know what they're doing. West also had arrived late onto the scene, relatively speaking. Most major programs fill their recruiting classes two and sometimes three years out, and don't have room to add a late blooming senior.

But even if they had noticed him soon enough, even if they did have room for him, recruiters might not have wanted him. He didn't fit the mold.

"I didn't play like a lot of other guys, the way guys were trending,” he said. “I wasn't a high flier. I wasn't a very outspoken player. I didn't walk around with a lot of bravado, a lot of machismo. I was one of those guys who slid under the radar.”

There was an academic issue, too. West's grades had slipped so badly in Teaneck that he was playing from behind academically throughout his two years at Garner, like a team down 20 at the half. He wound up in the unusual position of having a qualifying SAT score but lacking the necessary grade point average. It's often the opposite with star athletes. They're given the grades that keep them eligible but fail to qualify on their test score.

David West Photo Gallery »

West could have gone to a junior college, or perhaps a Division II school, but Gray didn't want him wasting a couple of seasons in the hinterlands when he was good enough to play at a major university. The best option, Gray thought, was to send him to Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia to allow him to continue catching up academically and play basketball for another season, and still have four years of collegiate eligibility remaining.

To do that, however, West had to fail to graduate from Garner. And for that to happen he was going to have to fail an English class in which he was holding a B average. Gray went to West's teacher and made a most unusual request: “You're not going to believe what I'm going to ask you to do, but you're going to have to fail David.”

Once he calmed her down, Gray explained that it was the best long-term strategy for West's future. So, West was allowed to bail on the class the rest of the semester and spend the period instead with Gray. Together, everyone conspired to make sure the kid failed, as a pathway to success.

Enrolling at Hargrave in the fall of 1998, West collided with a foreign culture. The regimented military discipline was nearly suffocating at first. There was no choice but to study, no breaks for the major holidays, no chance to stray. Early to bed, early to rise, everything by the book. His year there would serve him well, one of the reasons being that he met another adult willing to butt into his life, an academic adviser named Miss Blair, who recognized his poor reading skills. She had him report to her office and, behind closed doors, read to her – from kids books at first – to catch up.

"I was completely floored and brought down to earth," he said.

West shed his childhood at Hargrave, and shed his anonymity on the basketball court as well. With his academic qualifications seemingly assured, Marshall offered a Division I scholarship in the fall. He made a verbal commitment, but his father refused to sign the letter of intent in case better offers trickled in. During the Charlie Weber tournament in College Park, Md. that fall a Xavier assistant coach, Jeff Battle, discovered him, but only after being directed to the court on which West was playing by a fan who had been wowed by his dunks. West signed with Xavier in the Spring.

With the head-start provided by his year at Hargrave, West was finally ahead of the game when he enrolled in college. He possessed more maturity and discipline than the other freshmen – or upperclassmen, for that matter. He started immediately, and went on to become one of the most decorated players in school history. Four-year starter … three-time Atlantic 10 Conference Player of the Year … second all-time in school history in scoring and rebounding, and first in blocked shots … a couple of national player of the year honors, too.

West's number at Xavier (30) was retired before his finished his career there. (He later would have the same number retired by Garner and Hargrave,) His popularity went well beyond the basketball court, though. He blended comfortably with the student body on campus, displaying no celebrity ego. Ask anyone who took a class with him (my nephew and his wife, for example) and they'll tell you he carried himself like any other student, a friend to all. There's no better proof of West's exalted status among Xavier fans than the fact more than 100 of them took advantage of a special ticket offer and drove to Indianapolis to meet with him before the game against Milwaukee on Jan. 5. West was taken aback when he went out for his early warmup routine. He knew they were coming, but he didn't expect so many of them. After all, it's been 10 years since he played there.

This is Part One of a two-part feature on Pacers forward David West. Read Part Two »

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