Driven West, Hornets show staying power

NEW ORLEANS – It was one of the sweetest scenes of All-Star Weekend. Hotel ballroom, NBA superstars of yesterday and today milling together between news conferences and across the room, you could see David West’s eye catch his childhood hero. He had a New Orleans Hornets official walk him over to make the introduction because it simply wasn’t West’s way to presume that David Robinson had ever heard of him.

His eyes were wide, his back straight, an All-Star reduced to that little kid in Teaneck, N.J., who never rooted for Patrick Ewing’s Knicks, nor Michael Jordan’s Bulls. He was a San Antonio Spurs fan. When the NBA was exploding, personalities and personas becoming bigger than life, it surprises no one that West gravitated toward an officer and gentleman out of the Naval Academy.

“The only Spurs fan, the only David Robinson fan, that I knew of, in Northern Jersey,” West said with a laugh late Tuesday night. He was unwrapping his knees of that ice, his back still so stiff he had to unfold himself to climb back to his feet. “He is one of those guys that I always admired, the way he played, the way he approached the game. He didn’t have to do a whole lot of talking. Naysayers or not, he just went out and got the job done. And he won.”

Why yes, Robinson knows him now. In the worst way, Tim Duncan does, too. West destroyed Duncan. Again. He had 38 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals. He had the game of his life in this 101-79 victory, the kind Boston’s Kevin Garnett still can’t find within himself in these playoffs, the kind that screams these Hornets have staying power, that Chris Paul will never be tempted to leave his side.

This was a night everyone waited for the Hornets to take bows to the New Orleans Arena, fight gallantly, lose close and make the death march back to San Antonio for the Spurs clincher. Only West and Paul, who had 22 points and 14 assists, delivered a dynasty to the brink.

“When both of those guys are playing like that, it’s going to be hard to beat us,” New Orleans coach Byron Scott said.

Before West marched down to the interview room with Paul, where these two always share the stage, always take questions together, the power forward was asked to remember what Robinson told him on All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, when it felt like a franchise was born in the Big Easy.

“Don’t be satisfied now,” West remembered Robinson telling him. “Don’t let up.”

Robinson was talking about making an All-Star team for the first time, and holding the Western Conference’s best record at midseason. As it turns out, Robinson didn’t do his old buddy, Duncan, a favor with his wisdom. In a sport where players sometimes talk so much, they never listen, West is a solemn, thoughtful star for these loud, look-at-me-times.

“He’s not trying to draw any attention,” the Hornets’ Tyson Chandler said. “He’s just trying to get the job done.”

Perhaps they never needed West so badly in Game 5. Behind the bench, there was a man yelling over and over, “This is the biggest game in franchise history!” No one had to tell these Hornets. They understood. They couldn’t give back home court, give the Spurs a chance to close them out on Thursday, and this is the reason that West barely spoke a word the past two days. He had been dreadful in Game 4, and the less that Scott heard out of him, the more certain he became that this pressure game would bring out the best of him.

They’ve been together four years now, and it took Scott until this season to truly understand the gravity, the harshness, that his perfectionist power forward has for himself.

“When he plays bad, he takes it real personal,” Scott said. “He goes within himself and really starts to think about what he has to do for the next game. I love that about him. It took me a year or so to kind of realize that from a personality standpoint, thinking about what he didn’t do, and what he has to do next.

“There were times, though, where I wondered to myself: What is he pissed off at now?”

After the Hornets’ worst loss of the season in Game 4, Scott watched West sit silently on the busses, the plane, the practice floor. He was seething. Around the nation, everyone keeps waiting for the Hornets to fade. Nice season, fellas. Now run along, leave the Western Conference to the Spurs and Lakers, the two teams that won seven of the past nine NBA championships.

Only, the Hornets keep coming and coming and coming. Yes, Paul made these Hornets, but remember something: Everything started with West. Once Paul arrived three years ago, they were fast friends, a bond born out of playing for Skip Prosser at Xavier and Wake Forest, respectively.

West was GM Jeff Bower’s draft pick five years ago, at No. 18, when West was the national player of the year out of Xavier University with what amounts to baggage in our twisted basketball culture. West had played four years of college ball, had a diploma and he had to listen to everyone tell him that meant he had no upside. How good could he be if he hadn’t left school early?

“It has never stopped driving me,” he said.

In the game of his life, with the Hornets moving within a victory of the NBA’s Final Four, West has made himself a worthy heir to the Spurs dynasty. Three months ago, David Robinson, who started it all for the Spurs, told a young All-Star to think big this season, to dream beyond his wildest dreams.

Don’t be satisfied, David Robinson told him in that hotel ballroom.

Don’t let up.

David West’s hero knows his name, and way down, he has to know his Spurs are in deep trouble.