NEWARK, N.J. – When it was time to be serious, the most immature of the Indiana Pacers clowned on the practice floor and scoured stat sheets in the locker room to tease struggling teammates over poor performances. For all the burgeoning talent in the room, the culture had been too sophomoric. For every tough-minded young player, there was someone else to play the fool a season ago.
Pacers president Larry Bird made Frank Vogel his coach and carefully chose his assistants to complement a young voice. But ultimately the guidance, the policing, works its way inside out. For everything free-agent forward David West has brought to the Pacers – a classic, refined presence – he's declared his loud, bold arrival in the most subtle of ways: performance over promise, correction over criticism, a raised eyebrow over a harsh word.
"I don't tolerate a lot of ignorance, and I think guys are starting to figure that out," West said. "I'm not a preachy guy, but I just try to represent something different in terms of who I am."
After eight seasons with the New Orleans Hornets, West comes to the Pacers with a two-year, $20 million contract, a rehabilitated left knee off ACL surgery and an unblemished, unimpeachable reputation. An eighth seed last season, the Pacers are looking to make a move into the thick of the Eastern Conference, and West can clear the path for them. He balances the floor and balances the room.
"He does a lot of one-on-one mentoring, and does it every day," Vogel said. "Just his presence – guys are going to think twice before they handle themselves the wrong way. Big brother is there. He's a good observer; he knows what the right chemistry feels like. He knows when guys need hugs, when guys need a kick in the butt."
In so many ways, the Pacers were the natural fit for West. They needed him, and he needed them. It was time to leave New Orleans, a franchise without ownership, without direction. He loved coach Monty Williams and wished Williams had come into his life sooner, but former owner George Shinn doomed that franchise to years as a lost vessel. West and Chris Paul came within a victory of the Western Conference finals in 2008, and West now says flatly, "I thought we were going to retire there together." Yet, Shinn owned an NBA team for the phony public bible-thumping and rotary-club adulation, not a deep-seeded desire to chase championships.
"For a couple years, the direction was about winning," West said. "And then all of a sudden it became cutting corners, saving money. …With no one at the top, you have no direction."
Before West signed with the Pacers, he went deep into negotiations with the Boston Celtics on a sign-and-trade deal, but three years for $24.5 million didn't work for him, nor did the possibility the Celtics could break up and start over after the 2011-12 season – and his contract could be so easily tradable. Nevertheless, West was stunned to hear Ray Allen take a shot at him for passing on the Celtics and suggest strongly that West didn't care enough about winning basketball.
"…I know he understands the type of man I am,” West said. "I just thought it was more coming from the perspective where he didn't have all the facts, all the information. I'm a very thoughtful person. I don't rush into anything. I think at my own pace. I make decisions at my own pace. This was a decision that was thought out. I examined it from top to bottom. People who know me know that I'm not going to just say, 'Well, they offered me more money, so I'm going to sign there.' That's not how I operate.
"This group has such good young pieces, I really think this is going to be one of the better teams over the next two years."
Chasing the money? Those close to West will tell you that few live so frugally and give so much. He has never bought into the NBA lifestyle, never bought into what can be an empty value system. That isn't just with players, but owners, executives and coaches, too. When the YMCA in West's adopted town of Garner, N.C., was about to be lost to the bank, it was West who paid $1.3 million to save it. It isn't only his money that he's still pouring into it, but his presence in a way that few people – not just athletes – do. He runs academic and mentoring services out of the club, and takes to the road in the summer to coach kids throughout the South.
Perhaps West could've helped the Celtics advance a round in the playoffs, but he has a chance to carve a bigger legacy with the Pacers. They wanted him badly in Boston, but the Pacers needed him. He sees it, too, and it's so much of what West gets out of basketball. After the Pacers won for the fourth time in five games on Tuesday night, there was Jeff Foster sitting in the corner of the locker room in New Jersey, nodding across the room.
There was Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert, Paul George and Darren Collison, Tyler Hansbrough and George Hill. This is a talented team, and it so desperately needed one more big brother to walk into the room. The scoring, the rebounding, the defense has come with West, but Foster is no longer the lone veteran voice. The clowning is gone, replaced with a determination that breaking off plays, going one-on-one with the ball is no longer acceptable. Everything's changing with these Pacers, and sometimes it just takes one man to walk through the door.
"The way he carries himself in the locker room, the weight room, on the court, there's such leadership," Foster said. "He speaks up when he sees something that's not right, but sometimes it's just a look. He's been a huge presence so far."
West has balanced the floor and balanced the room. So much big talk in the NBA, so many big proclamations, and sometimes the softest, surest, steadiest voice can transform a franchise. Sometimes, everyone just needs to watch a man go to work.
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