During Cleveland Cavaliers training camp in 2009, Cavs guard Delonte West asked coach Mike Brown for permission to spend a four-day respite back at his home in Maryland, and away from the team. It probably seemed a bit odd to most to be citing burnout with the NBA season not even officially begun, but West was working through depression and stress issues and had recently been arrested on a rather frightening weapons charge after over-medicating.
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The Cavaliers permitted his stay away from the team. What happened next, and we’re not exaggerating here, may have saved West’s life.
"I was dealing with so much guilt," West said. "I wasn't processing things right. I was under the impression that I was going to do nine years minimum. Everything I've ever dreamed of, the sweat and tears of what I worked for would all be wiped away."
West walked to the locker room to gather his belongings before embarking on his four-hour road trip. But before he could head for the exit, LeBron James entered and asked if he could speak with him for a minute.
"He sat with me in the locker room for like an hour and was rapping it up with me by giving me words of encouragement," West said. "Keep in mind, practice was still going on. He left practice and sat with me for a while, just keeping me company. He later walked me down the stairs and said, 'D, I don't know where you're going or what you're about to do, but I'll be right here when you get back.'
"My spirits were so high at that point. I don't know what would have happened had I left in the condition I was in prior. It's a testament to the type of person he is."
We’re not taking a shot at the Cavaliers organization, Mike Brown, or the NBA in general when we point out that, just over five and a half years ago, the Cavs seemed fine with just letting a clearly ill Delonte West walk away from the team for a few days just to figure things out on his own. After a weapons charge, and when he’s clearly dealing with depression and stress disorders.
This is how far we have to go when it comes to understanding and treating mental health issues within professional sports. In fact, in 2009, letting West have a few days off to work things out may have seemed a little too progressive for some coaches and organizations.
It is to Cleveland’s credit, in that realm, that they permitted the time off. It is to LeBron James’ credit for realizing that, hey, maybe we shouldn’t just let this guy take off on his own.
That connection no doubt helped, but as is the case with these sorts of things, West wasn’t completely out of the woods yet. With the weapons charge (one he pleaded guilty to, after a Seroquel-addled night of poor decision-making) looming and with his role having been changed to that of a bench helper, West played most of the 2009-10 season in a bad place.
Another example was later in the season after a tough road loss. West didn't play up to standards and he was being overly critical with himself. He was also still sweating what would come of his arrest.
It reached a boiling point; he lost it at the airport.
"The bus pulled up to escort us to the plane and I just broke down crying. I felt like my career was over. I was [expletive] up. I was concerned that my nieces and nephews wouldn't look at me the same anymore. I let the team go ahead of me. I wasn't getting on."
Fortunately, he never made it out of that airport alone.
A few minutes went by and James peeked out the front door of the aircraft, looking around for somebody. He finally spotted West and went after him along with Randy Mims, a member of James' "Four Horsemen."
"Man, LeBron and Randy just fellowshipped with me and then the next thing I knew, here comes [teammate] Lorenzen Wright before, rest in peace. He came out there and grabbed me, picked me up, bear hugging me. He hugged me for like five minutes. He literally had me up and they walked me up to the plane. Lorenzen read me Bible scriptures the whole plane ride. That team was a family and LeBron was a big reason why."
(It’s possible that West might be recalling incorrectly, or that there was something lost in the interview between Delonte and Chris Haynes, as Wright was not a member of the 2009-10 Cleveland Cavaliers. This hardly matters, but it is worth pointing out.)
Sometimes symptoms of depression manifest themselves in the irrational fear that you’re letting other people down. Delonte West may have never been an All-Star, but he certainly wasn’t letting James and the Cavaliers down with the occasional 4-of-12, four-turnover night. These things, in an 82-game season, tend to happen every so often. For those suffering, however, this is a fact that is hard to compartmentalize and move on from.
James left the Cavaliers following 2009-10, and West was traded soon after LeBron's departure. He has bounced around with two different NBA teams, three different squads in the Chinese National Basketball League, and played with the D-League’s Texas Legends this season.
Whether he knew it or not at the time, LeBron James was doing exactly what you’re supposed to do in these sorts of (often, sadly, ongoing) situations. Talk, talk a little more, and then when you’re done talking, start talking again. Don’t leave anyone alone to figure it out themselves. Then talk to them again. And again.
Delonte West, in the interview, revealed that he’ll be rooting for James’ Cavaliers during the NBA Finals.
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