David West claps his hands during a game
Scott Agness headshot

West's Positive Leadership Not Limited to Basketball

by Scott Agness

April 22, 2013

"Being an adult and a man is serious business." – David West

He didn’t have to do it.

He didn’t have to show up, remove all the items from his pockets and step out of his comfort zone. And he certainly didn’t have to open up, share moving stories of what he’s been through and get everybody thinking.

But David West did because that’s who he is. He’s more than a professional basketball player, more than the spine of the Indiana Pacers. He’s a man, and that’s something the 32-year-old doesn’t take lightly.

Earlier this month, David West visited the Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison for about 200 young men. While inside, he spoke a positive, mind-churning message, according to those that were present. It wasn’t as much a talk, though, as a conversation and a brainstorming session for these teenagers that believe they have little hope and thus ended up in the joint.

A criminal justice class while at Xavier University first sparked West’s interest in this area. That’s where he got his first taste of going into the chilling environment to communicate with incarcerated teenagers. He was fascinated by their stories and negative outlook. It's from those first few experiences that he recognized the importance of allowing them to get close to somebody with success. David West shooting the ball in the lane against the Lakers

After West was drafted in 2003 by the New Orleans Hornets, he began visiting local penitentiaries. When he came to Indiana eight years later, in 2011, those efforts continued.

"There’s something about being able to reach out and talk to guys in that particular situation, especially younger guys," West explained. "It's just a connection I think going into an environment like that and being able to connect with some of the young men and give them a different voice. For most of them, society has written them off. I try to go in and give them a message of hope and let them know that there’s opportunities to change the direction that a lot of them are headed in."

For obvious reasons, a correctional facility is quite eye opening and would put anyone on their toes. Keeping a constant scan on the surroundings is instinctive.

Walking through a metal detector is mandatory prior to entering. One must leave basically everything behind— no cell phones, no cameras, no nothing. Before moving through the next door, the previous one must shut. And, there are a number of security guards keeping watch, saying what can and can’t be done for those inside. “That’s a reality for those young men on a daily basis,” West said. “I’m used to it. It’s the mindset of the guys [in there] that you’re more concerned with.”

West admittedly has a family members and friends that have been incarcerated. He’s seen how those mistakes affects families, like his own, and what turning a teenager on to the right path can do for their future.

“We can’t just say to a young person that because they’ve made a mistake in their teenage years that it should affect them or carry with them throughout their adult life. There’s a lot of opportunity out here to change that course. That’s the message that I try to give to them when I go into places like that.”

While having everyone’s attention at the front of the room, West explained how life is full of dualities. He had them to think of nature in twos. For instance, there’s go/stop, yes/no, day/night, fire/water, and right/wrong.

West then provided a visual. He had them pretend that they were standing on a chair. Then, then he asked whether it’s easier for people to pull you down or pull you up. The obvious answer is pull you down, because it takes very little effort and can be done by all.

The point was to stay on your feet, stand strong and don’t create a ceiling for yourself. Don’t say what you can and can’t do. Don’t give in to what others believe. Keeping striving for something bigger and better.

For West, this isn’t just an act.

When asked to define West – the person, not the player – Paul George offered up: “A true leader. He leads by example.” Even further pressed, George said West is the one that is constantly pushing everybody up and keeping things positive.

Sound familiar?

Part of the issue with those at Pendleton is that they don’t grow up in quality and encouraging environments. They don’t have many examples of successful people around them so, in turn, they only know how to negatively act. As an NBA player, a physically tough one at that, West commands their attention. He provides them with an opportunity to interact with somebody that’s gushing full of positive energy.

West pressed the importance of planning ahead for a moment of distress. He suggested that they get their vision and mind right. Deciding ahead of time how to handle a confrontation or a difficult situation may have prevented many of them from being incarcerated in the first place.

“I tried to impart the idea that there’s opportunities to change this path that you’re on. Just because you’re incarcerated at 15, you don’t have to be incarcerated at 30. This does not have to be your course. It takes work, but you have to start somewhere.”

Pacers center Roy Hibbert tagged along to support his teammate outside of basketball and he, too, was moved by West’s powerful message.

“I hear what he has to say on the court, I hear what he has to say when we go to dinner and we’re on the bus. But to hang with him outside of basketball in an environment that he’s passionate about, I just wanted to support him,” Hibbert said. “He said some real, deep stuff to those kids and he actually had me thinking about stuff as well.”

Before West headed out, he asked to do two things: First, find something that you love about yourself. It could be their teeth, their smile, or the way they play the piano. He brought up the example of his father, who is an excellent spades player. Once you find one thing that you love about yourself, he believes you’ll find another, then another. Secondly, he wanted them to find one way they could contribute to society. Through that, a greater purpose would be served.

David West didn’t have to show up. But he did, and that was the choice he made. It’s now up to them – those choices that they make will determine the life they live.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Scott Agness are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.