He was in a Jack in the Box parking lot, wearing a hospital gown and no shoes, when a fan approached him. His eyes remained closed for two pictures, after having “wander[ed] the streets of Houston” for some time. He was asked whether he was the Delonte West, the eight-year, well-known NBA alum. To that question, he responded yes, and no.
It was indeed West, whose NBA career ended about four years ago, when he and the Dallas Mavericks parted ways. You probably remember West as the Cleveland Cavalier who may or may not have had an affair with teammate LeBron James’ mother during James’ first stint in Ohio. You may remember West as the guy who was arrested after swerving his motorcycle in front of a cop car and then, upon search, found loaded with a variety of weapons. And maybe you even remember him as the guy LeBron had to talk down during practice one day, after he was going through heavy emotional turbulence when divorcing his longtime significant other.
Answering the fan’s question this week, the ex-NBA player apparently, tragically, said: "I used to be [Delonte West], but I'm not about that life anymore.” That fan went on to write about the incident on social media, joking that “bro had hospital robe on like he escaped from the psych ward or some s***. I asked wat happened and he said life.......d***!” The post has since been deleted.
But for the sake of this player, who has had his most intimate, personal trials strung out in the glaring public light for all to see and judge, for the sake of this man who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder eight years ago and, crucially, for the sake of all those other men and women suffering from disorders like West's, this incident serves as a necessary, timely reminder that there is nothing funny about mental illness or those who are afflicted by it.
West was solid in the NBA for years, especially throughout his tenure with the Cavaliers. He was the backcourt mate to LeBron right as he was peaking -- in those pre-Miami seasons when LeBron was the unblemished, irreproachable savior of all things Cleveland. West shot the three-ball with ease and was one of those gritty, never-say-no players who’d put their bodies on the line for a seemingly meaningless loose ball in a game’s opening moments.
But, somehow, things fell apart both quickly and painfully slowly for West. To put it in clichéd terms, his fall from grace was literally and figuratively like a car crash -- none of us could turn away from witnessing this man crumple before us, in the motorcycle incident, the hotel room episode or any other of the handful of pseudo-scandals that followed West as he battled his illness.
One of the worst parts was that you knew he meant well. You knew he was fighting this. As The Washington Post noted last year, a little while after leaving the NBA, he had his pregnant girlfriend move into his home -- but given his too-few paychecks and the too-high cost of utilities, the family was forced to endure an East Coast winter without a hot water heater. He prepared baths for her by heating water up on the stove. He proposed to her using a sliced-off piece of jump rope, reportedly saying, "It’s all I can afford, baby. I’m broke, heat ain’t working, brain ain’t working right, but I love you.”
This, of course, isn’t the first time a professional athlete has surfaced in the gossip columns with signs of mental distress. It isn't even the first time for West. But in a world in which oft hurtful hot takes rack up retweets and shares on social media, this sad update on Delonte West is a reminder that mental illness does not discriminate -- it sneaks its way into the heads and hearts of our friends and our heroes, those we grab lunch with every week and the idols we watch on the hardwood every weekend.
So next time you remember the Delonte West incidents of 2009, 2010 and 2016 -- all those rumors and all that gossip, all his denials and all his admittances -- remember that this was a guy who had made it. Who was one of the rare few to actually achieve his dreams -- to check off the top goal on his laundry list and play among the very best of the basketball world.
He had his life and his career before him, before it all came crashing down. His disease is, inherently, an incredibly private one -- but his position made it public. And because of that, it’s now all of our responsibility to treat him with respect, to know that such an affliction can hit any of us at any time, even when we think we have it all: even when each of us is hitting proverbial 3-pointers in our respective lives and careers. Delonte West is one of us. Delonte West could be any one of us. So when we see this man “wandering” through fast food parking lots, missing a pair of shoes and wearing that hospital gown, we need to stop laughing and start learning about what we can do to help.