West Returning to Site of His Education
The tattooed X on David West's left bicep, just below the shoulder, has a double meaning. One that tells you just about all you need to know about him.
It represents his college, Xavier, where he became a first-team All-American on the court and a local hero off of it. And, it represents the place in which his god-brother, Manuel Taylor, was shot in an incident in a Jacksonville, Fla. mall in 1993. Acting as a peacemaker, Taylor – a decorated Army veteran of the Gulf War – was struck by a bullet in that spot. It passed through to his heart, killing him.
“If you get hit in the shoulder the right way, you'll die,” West said. “It's a direct line to your heart.”
West will travel a direct line to one place in his heart Wednesday, when the Pacers play Cleveland in a pre-season game in Cincinnati. It will be his first game back at Xavier, other than off-season pickup games, and give a sold-out crowd at the Cintas Center another opportunity to express their admiration.
It's a home game for the Cavs, and most of the fans will be most excited to see LeBron James, who might sit out the game. James Posey, another former Xavier player, is an assistant coach with the Cavs. But the strongest feelings, at least among the older fans, will be for West, who established a niche during a playing career that ended in 2003 but remains solidly intact.
More than 100 Xavier fans have made an annual tradition of going to Bankers Life Fieldhouse once each season to watch him play, one they began when he played for New Orleans. Fans don't go to that much trouble merely to see a good player. There has to be a more personal connection, and West made plenty of those in his four seasons on campus. He must have, or else the university wouldn't have decided to retire his jersey number (30) on Senior Day, the only time they're retired the number of a player before the end of his career.
Tom Eiser is entering his 29th season as the university's sports information director, and considers West his favorite of all the players he has worked with. Xavier promoted West for the Wooden Award his senior season, which meant Eiser requested him to cooperate on a lot of media interviews and personal appearances. West never sought out attention for himself, but always did as he was asked – for the good of the university and for the sake of being a team player.
He didn't win. Texas point guard T.J. Ford did. Still, West was voted a first-team All-American by the Associated Press, the United States Basketball Writers Association and Basketball Times. And all the interactions he made along the way turned out to be a significant part of his college education.
“Part of the deal is to be a whole person, not just be an athlete,” he said. “That's one of the things I learned there.”
For an admittedly introverted person, West has a knack for making an impact. The Wooden Award candidates were given youth teams to coach in a tournament in Los Angeles as part of the build-up to the ceremony. West was given a rag-tag bunch that wasn't good enough to win a game, but he still left an impression. Duke Llewellyn, the award's founder and director, later told Eiser how excited the kids were to play for West, how well he had connected with them.
Eiser also recalls taking a couple of friends to see West play in Cleveland. One of them had a six-year-old son. When Eiser introduced them to West, West extended a hand to the six-year-old. “Hi, I'm David West,” he said.
“The best way I can describe David is that he gets it,” Eiser said. “He's very intelligent and very genuine. That resonates with fans. There's never anything phony about him. You can tell he cares.
“He doesn't search out the spotlight. But if he gets put in that situation, he hits a home run.”
West isn't seeking a spotlight this week, either. Asked if he's excited to be going back to Xavier for Wednesday's game, he didn't give the anticipated confirmation.
“It'll be a cool pre-season game,” he said. “I'll see some familiar faces. But other than that it's not a big deal.”
Not into sentiment, David?
“Nah,” he said, laughing sheepishly. “It's just ... you know … I mean it'll be fun. I'll get a chance to be on campus for a short while.”
West gets back to Xavier now and then, and has kept in touch with the coaching staff. The current head coach, Chris Mack, was the director of basketball operations when West played there. He's maintained the connections with as many people as possible.
Besides, West usually has more serious matters on his mind than ovations. More serious matters than basketball, for that matter. Xavier is where his coach, the late Skip Prosser, instilled a worldly mindset among his players. He would gather them for 15 minutes before each practice and talk about current events, or life, or something beyond defending a backdoor cut.
“He's the one guy who took a chance on me,” West said. “Gave me an opportunity to really develop. Put an emphasis on being a thinking a person. Not just a dumb athlete.”
After Prosser died of a heart attack in 2007, West had the words “carpe” and “diem” tattooed on the back of each calf as a tribute to him. Together they mean “seize the day,” a philosophy put forth by Robin Williams' character in the movie Dead Poets Society.
West already knew the importance seizing the day, though. Manuel Taylor's life and death reminds him of it, too. You never know when it can be taken away. You never know when a stray bullet will end the life of a war veteran acting as a peacemaker.
X marks the spot of that lesson.