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

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

January 16, 2012

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

Seize the Day

David West's first coach at Xavier was Skip Prosser, who left for Wake Forest after West's sophomore season and was replaced by Thad Matta. Prosser, known as a Renaissance man within coaching circles, gathered his players before every practice to talk about things other than basketball – current events, philosophy, anything. Upon the conclusion of the chat he would send the players into the basketball segment of the afternoon with the words “carpe diem” – Latin for “seize the day.” Prosser offered the ultimate endorsement of that doctrine when he died of a sudden heart attack in the summer of 2007. West had those words tattooed on the back of his calves, carpe on the left and diem on the right, as a tribute to his coach.

That's indelible evidence of West's softer, thoughtful side. There are other more fleeting examples, too. Growing up, he clipped photos out of magazines and made collages of NBA players such as Reggie Miller, Shaquille O'Neal and Stephon Marbury, to hang on his bedroom wall. When he recorded an episode for my One on One radio program last Spring, he asked for a Norah Jones tune, Don't Know Why, for his theme song. Follow him on Twitter and you'll see few posts related to basketball. More likely you'll get links to news events or political or social commentary, such as a quote from James Baldwin: “The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.”

West views himself as an educator, too. When he meets with youths during the summer, many of them via the AAU program he sponsors, he tells them of his poor reading skills when he was their age, and encourages them to catch up as he did. Reading, he tells them, might be a quiet activity, but it's an aggressive action. They need to learn to engage one another in non-violent ways, and reading helps inspire a thought process and a vocabulary that enables them to do so.

In other words, he butts in the best he can.

West's brand of leadership is less aggressive within Bankers Life Fieldhouse, of course, but his worldly, business-like approach has been apparent throughout. When he was introduced to his new Pacer teammates by coach Frank Vogel at the start of the training camp last season, having signed as a free agent in the 2011 off-season, West stood next to the coach, erect and stone-faced. It was as if he were sizing up his new teammates, trying to get a feel for who they were and what they had. An awkward silence ensued. Nobody said a word.

David West Photo Gallery

He was coming off knee surgery then, having torn the ACL in his left knee in the final seconds of a late-season game against Utah the previous spring. It took time for him to be able to assert himself on the court, and therefore in the locker room, but eventually nature took its course. When veteran Jeff Foster was forced into retirement in March after 13 seasons, he unofficially passed the leadership baton.

“To have a guy like David West in that locker room makes it a lot easier for myself,” Foster said at his farewell press conference.

By the playoffs, his was obviously the team's dominant voice.

When some of his teammates celebrated too long and too loudly following the Pacers' Game 2 second-round win at Miami, it was West who shouted and waved at them to get off the court. There were more games to be played.

After the Pacers defeated the Heat in Game 3 back in Indianapolis, a game in which Dwayne Wade and coach Eric Spoelstra had a nationally-televised spat during a timeout, Vogel planned to give the team the following day off from practice. West, however, mindful that Miami would get together and regroup, walked into Vogel's office and begged to differ.

“He came in and said, 'Coach, we've got to come in tomorrow,'” assistant coach Dan Burke recalled. “They're going to be practicing tomorrow. We've got to come in and practice tomorrow.'

“So we practiced.”

Mostly, West's leadership shows up more subtly. Although at 32 he's at least three years older than anyone else on the roster, and 10 years older than some, his teammates do not tease him about his age or his old-school style of play. He's a goatee'd guru, lending an ear and a quiet voice of reason with a raspy, baritone timbre that commands respect almost regardless of what he's saying. He makes it a point not to preach, preferring instead to speak from experience and common sense.

Such players are vital to successful teams. NBA players are adults and can not be intimidated or fooled by a coach, therefore the most effective leadership comes from within the locker room. Good luck to the team that doesn't have a responsible older brother doing the talking.

“If you've got a coach-coached team, you're only going to go so far,” Vogel said in the preseason. “If you've got a player-coached team you've got a real chance to be something special.

David West Photo Gallery »

“He's one of the few guys on our team that can – with every guy on the team – kick a guy in the ass without offending him.”

One of those guys is Paul George, who at 22 has emerged as an All-Star caliber player this season. George grew up with two older sisters, so he's accustomed to being led. He drew from Kobe Bryant and LeBron James while playing for the U.S.A. Basketball Select team that worked out with the Olympic team last summer. He draws from West while with the Pacers.

“He's an intelligent dude,” George said. “For myself, being a young player, he coaches me through everything. What's going on in the news, what's going on in other sports, stocks … he just speaks knowledge all day.

“When I'm on the court, he just tells me to slow down, play my game. That's easy to say, but that really sticks out a lot. You watch him play, he takes his time. He's not the most athletic guy, but he gets his job done. When he tells me that, to be patient and play your game, that's what's got me confident right now.”

West plays his game, too, an altogether different game than what the likes of George play. It's all fundamental stuff, really, power moves, mostly. Nothing fancier than a step-back jumper. It's a game that fits his upbringing and his personality. This is a guy, after all, who grew up in the shadows of New York City in the early-to-mid-nineties when the Knicks were threatening to win titles, but felt a stronger connection to the San Antonio Spurs of David Robinson and Sean Elliot. His favorite college player at the time was Tim Duncan, and when Duncan joined the Spurs in 1997, following West's junior year in high school, West hung the “Twin Towers” poster of Robinson and Duncan on his bedroom wall.

Perhaps he saw a bit of his own style in Duncan's game. That simple, controlled approach has enabled him to lead the Pacers in scoring most of the season, although George has lately crept into the lead. West, averaging 16.6 points with a team-high 47 percent field goal percentage, has been a model of consistency, scoring in double figures in all but three games this season. He has been the team's primary go-to guy down the stretch, probably its best clutch player. He hits jumpers off of pick-and-rolls, scores off of post-ups and bullies his way to the basket on drives with either hand.

When George sat out last Saturday's game with Charlotte, West took command with a triple-double – 14 points, 12 rebounds and a career-high 10 assists. The following night in Brooklyn, as the Pacers played their fourth game in six nights and most of his teammates struggled through what would turn out to be a loss to the Nets, he scored 27 points on 11-of-19 shooting. Afterward, when it was suggested that the Pacers might have a legitimate complaint about the officiating given the fact Brooklyn attempted 19 more foul shots, West laid down his own bottom line.

“We had opportunities, we just lost our composure and did not get it done down the stretch,” he said.

Donnie Walsh wasn't with the Pacers last season, but he had been a general manager or team president for 25 years when he rejoined the franchise over the summer. It didn't take him long to see something special in West.

“He's a great pro; a really great pro,” Walsh said. “He's very dependable. You know exactly what his game is and he delivers it every night.

“Just his presence on the floor gives our team a confidence. He's a man, there's no doubt about that. He carries himself like that. He plays like that.”

Ask around, and West draws a variety of comparisons to other NBA players.

“I see a lot of Dirk Nowitzki in him, minus the three-point shot,” Vogel said. “He's got that pick-and-pop game down as well as Dirk does, he's probably a better low-post player, and a better one-on-one player.

“We make the comparison all the time, with how Dirk led them to the championship, taking over games late. I think David's getting closer to doing that.”

Walsh is reminded of a former Pacer.

“Dale Davis,” he said. “When we went out there, the guys had real confidence that Dale would do his job.”

(West, it should be noted, brings the added bonus of being able to hit a jump shot.)

Burke is reminded of a more prominent ex-Pacer.

“He's a quiet leader like Reggie was,” he said.

“You trust him. There's something there that you trust. He's kind of our soul. There's an essence there. A purity. He's all about respecting the game and how things are supposed to be done. He's salt-of-the-earth.”

West's maturity and sense of purpose go on display throughout the Fieldhouse in ways big and small. After the win over Washington on Jan. 2, he was getting dressed when an eager reporter in need of radio sound bites approached, microphone extended, and began firing questions.

“Hey, let him get his pants on!” Roy Hibbert shouted from a couple of locker stalls away.

West didn't complain. He looked the reporter in the eye and provided a thorough answer to every question as he hiked up his pants.

Still Hungry After All These Years

West is beyond established. He's played in the NBA for a decade now, and has been an All-Star twice. He's earning $10 million with the Pacers this season, and will command another major contract when he becomes a free agent after this season.

Deep inside, though, he still carries the memories of the high school sophomore who sat at the end of the JV bench, the high school junior who had to be talked into going out for the team again, the high school senior who was overlooked by the major college recruiters, even the college senior who dropped to 18th in the first round of the NBA draft. West thought he was the fifth-best player in that draft, behind James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, but wound up going 18th – one spot behind Zarko Cabarkapa, who lasted three seasons and averaged 4.6 points.

He was listed at 6-8 at Xavier, but closer to 6-9 in his shoes, but he remembers one draft analyst, ESPN's Chad Ford, claiming he was probably closer to 6-6. One team's general manager said he would need to gain 40 pounds to play power forward in the NBA. The consensus opinion on West: marginal bench player.

West hasn't forgotten. When he's dragging physically, as he surely was Saturday at Brooklyn, he can relight a spark by conjuring up the memory of the slights and the doubts. It's better this way, really, because they've ingrained a nothing-for-granted work ethic that has carried him beyond anyone else's expectation and an appreciation for where he is.

“There's a lot of guys who were in a better position than I was, they were better players than I was, and it probably burns them up, having the success I've had,” West said.

"But it's not about how you jump out and start this thing. It's about how you finish this thing."

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

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