Is there a place for the mentally ill in pro sports?

The stigma attached to bipolar disorder has scared NBA teams away from Delonte West -- and he's not alone

Published March 13, 2013 5:25PM (EDT)

This originally appeared on The Classical.

It’s May 13, 2010, and the working media is churning through the visitors’ locker room of Boston’s TD Garden: notepads and mics in hand, elbows flared, eyes straight ahead. LeBron James sits at his locker; his eyes vacant, his body deflated. His Cavaliers have just been eliminated from the NBA playoffs. For the second consecutive year, the team posted the best record in the league and James was awarded the MVP; for the second consecutive year, they have nothing to show for it. James, at this point, is only 26-years-old and already one of the most famous athletes on the planet; his potential is boundless. He’ll be a free agent come summer, and as of that moment, he’s the most wanted man in sports.

The Classical It’s a different story for Delonte West, who packs up his locker in the middle of the room, away from the media horde. For the last two years, he has been an integral member of the Cavaliers backcourt, adapting to whatever task was required of him on either end of the floor. He’s been dedicated to the team and they’ve been dedicated to him. He left in the middle of training camp in 2008, spending 11 days away from the team, to rejoin his battle with bipolar disorder; an affliction since childhood. When he returned, he became one of the most important players during the team's 2009 postseason run. The Cavaliers faced the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals and West played more than 45 minutes a night, a nod to his versatility. He was on the court more than wild-haired, pogo-stick power forward Anderso Varejão, more than towering 7’3’ Lithuanian centre Žydrūnas Ilgauskas, more than trigger-happy but desultory guard Mo Williams, and more even than James, their messianic leader, the man who, while still in high school, had the foresight, and pomposity, to have “Chosen 1” inked across his shoulder blades.

This year, in these 2010 playoffs, West’s minutes dropped and his production went down alongside them. An unsubstantiated rumor has been circling West, the team, the sports world, infecting the locker room and spilling onto the court—that West had slept with Gloria James, LeBron’s mother. In this moment, in this locker room, that allegation is forgotten. The only question that matters is where James will play when his contract is up. West’s departure barely rippled across the room, his future far more uncertain than his more famous and talented teammate's, but of infinitely less concern.


The teasing began when he was young. They targeted his light skin and green eyes, marks of his African American and Piscataway Native American descent. They targeted the vascular birthmark that stretched from the corner of his bottom left lip and across his chin. They targeted his temper, his mood swings. They were just kids, of course, and just being cruel for the reason kids are cruel: for the reaction, to watch him explode. West found a safe place on the basketball court, and he stayed there.

He made his adult home in Brandywine, Maryland, an inconspicuous and unincorporated part of Prince George's County without shopping malls or traffic jams or controversy; a place where the farms stretch for miles and a picket fence, three baths, four bedrooms and five thousand square feet cost about $400,000. West was just outside of town on Thursday, September 17, 2009, traveling down the 495 on his Can-Am Spyder motorcycle. It was around 10pm and West was woozy from a dose of Seroquel, an antipsychotic medicine used to treat bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. To complicate matters, he had a 9mm Beretta shoved in his waistband, a Ruger .357 strapped to his leg and a shotgun in the guitar case slung across his back. He also had 100 rounds of ammo and an eight-inch Bowie knife on his person.

West had kept those weapons tucked away in the basement of his Brandywine home, a space that he mostly kept to himself. In an interview with Slam, West said he went to bed early on the evening in question, feeling more tired than usual. His mother woke him up: his friends were in the basement, hanging out in the recording studio, and they’d found the weapons, which he’d purchased as collector’s items. She wanted them out of the house and she wanted them out now. West knew he shouldn’t have been driving but he thought he could make the short trip to an empty house he owned nearby and safely lock everything away. He was fading in and out of consciousness when he noticed a State Trooper traveling alongside him. West alleges he attempted to get the officer’s attention, so he could get help. The police report says he was pulled over for negligent driving. With both vehicles pulled off the interstate, West told the officer he wasn’t functioning well and was transporting weapons. The officer called backup, and after searching West and his bike, they found his arsenal. He pled guilty to two of the eight charges levied against him—six weapon offenses and two traffic violations—and spent the next eight months on home detention, with two months of probation and 40 hours of community service.

The teasing came back. Efforts to try and understand instead fell victim to the ease of cheap jokes. Media, fans, celebrities, random people in random places called him Desperado, dismissed him as crazy, wrote off his career and everything he had accomplished.

A month after his arrest, the Cavaliers opened their season with a loss to the Boston Celtics, the same team that would later eliminate them from the playoffs. West didn’t see the court. He made his debut four nights later, scoring 13 points on 5-7 shooting, in a 90-79 win over the Charlotte Bobcats. The team would go on to win 61 of their 82 games and, for the most part, that September night was put behind him, as best it could be. When the rumor surfaced about Gloria James, that night came back. The details of past missteps were dissected, and the narrative took another turn for the dark.

James left Cleveland and signed with the Miami Heat and West left too, shipped out in a package of players to the Minnesota Timberwolves, who immediately waived him. The Celtics, the team that drafted him out of St. Josephs University with the 24th pick in the 2004 NBA draft, offered West another chance. He signed a one-year minimum salary deal with the team for the 2010-2011 season and served as the backup to Rajon Rondo. The following year, the players and owners fought over a new collective bargaining agreement, locking out the first two months of the 2011-2012 season and leaving West without work. By this point, he’d earned around $13 million dollars in the league and had nothing left. With a criminal record in tow, his search for work led him to a job at a Regency Furniture store in Brandywine. Again, the teasing returned, and this time louder. West used Twitter to respond and with simple reasoning, he wasn’t above working any job, and he needed the money.


In an interview with the Dallas Morning News in February of last year, West talked about the effect his illness has had on his life and on his finances. "I've watched contracts go out the window, endorsements disappear, court fees, lawyer fees, divorce fees," he said. "You watch the saving account just shoop ... shoop ... shoop ... shoop.”

The lockout ended on December 8 and five days later, the defending champion Mavericks signed West to another one-year minimum contract. The instability of the one year deal means players have to be willing to relocate every season, going wherever they can find work. West attempted to rent a place in North Texas but high prices and his legal history made it difficult. In that same interview with the Morning News, he revealed that he began the season sleeping in the locker room of the American Airlines Center and in the players parking garage, in his rented truck.

Eventually, the Mavericks owner, Mark Cuban, caught word of the situation and was able to facilitate finding a home for West. He went on to post another solid season, averaging around 10 points, three assists and two rebounds a game. At the season's end, the Mavericks again offered him a one-year minimum contract, which he accepted. Prior to this season, however, he was suspended twice for conduct detrimental to the team and then waived. He’s yet to step foot on an NBA court since. The Texas Legends, the Mavericks D-League affiliate, offered West a spot on their roster, but after Cuban said the Mavericks had no interest in resigning him, West has yet to report to the team. There have been rumors that the Celtics will once again bring the fleet-footed left hander back, but the team signed former lottery pick Terrence Williams and traded for Jordan Crawford instead.

So now, with less than six weeks left in the NBA season, he waits. The self-medication of basketball, the release he learned as a child, is gone. His checkered past and failure to report to the D-League notwithstanding, West is still just 29-years-old, and arguably the best free agent on the market at the moment. His abilities on both sides of the ball would help most any team that had the space to bring him on and his contract, by NBA standards, would be nominal. But any team signing Delonte West is signing the sum of his mistakes and misfortunes just as surely as it is a well-rounded backcourt contributor.

Society’s standards for celebrity atonement have always been reflected in hierarchical rank, weighted by an individual’s ability to excel within their niche; to entertain. Athletes are commodities, human resources that are utilized to create the most successful cumulative product. It's myopic, maybe, and it's dehumanizing, but it's also business, and that’s how this business has always been done.

And so in the current accounting West, for all his talent and skill—he is one of only a few hundred people in the world that can step on an NBA court and excel—is not quite good enough. He’s not Michael Vick, Kobe Bryant or Tiger Woods. He’s not Allen Iverson, Marvin Harrison or Michael Jordan. In the business of sports and the economics of celebrity, talent trumps morals and always has. But mental illness is something different—it doesn’t fit in with our aggrandizement of an uncomplicated past, of the hard-nosed, hard-working and strong-willed; it troubles and complicates the GM’s necessarily reductive accounting of the future.

West doesn’t just fight the usual opponents, then. Beyond his own limitations and time's natural erosion and front office doubters and personal demons, West has to somehow overcome this ideological trap—he has problems that basketball players are not supposed to have, and so for the time being he is not a basketball player. His failure to land with an NBA team reflects in microcosm the extent to which a nuanced understanding of mental illness has yet to penetrate athletics, celebrity, or the national consciousness. We simply know too much, at this point, for West to be dismissed as crazy, or just overtly kook-ish or difficult to work with. He has a condition with a name, and a course of treatment; the condition fits within the context of an epidemic that we are only beginning to apprehend. We know too much to pretend not to know.


When the Houston Rockets selected Royce White from Iowa State University, they knew about his mental illness—he had been and remains outspoken about his general anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The Rockets either assumed his issues could be dismissed or mitigated or medicated, or failed to recognize their strength. White refused to join the team until protocols were written into his contract that helped him with his illness, protocols that aligned with the federal law of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The response and fallout was both telling and disappointing, and a representation of how little is known about mental illness and how far we are from having a progressive conversation about it.

White was celebrated in some quarters, but roundly chastised by many fans and columnists. He was seen as asking for too much, given that he had yet to produce on the court; a more valuable commodity, these arguments implied, would have had a better claim to protection. White hadn’t yet earned the right to have his contract reflect what is already written into federal law. This response is callous and ineffectual and point-missing, for starters, but it’s common enough.

Simply put, we know better than this. The stigma attached to West and White is a stigma that’s entrenched within public perception, but it's terribly outdated, and everyone who cares to know as much, knows as much. White is in professional limbo; it wouldn't be surprising if he never played a game in the NBA. West is waiting by the phone, and may never get another call from an NBA team. There are complicating factors behind these circumstances, because there always are. But the fundamental problem, the single simplest reason why this is the reality in which these players find themselves, is all the more heartbreaking for how simple it is—no one quite wants to say what everyone knows, or acknowledge this problem enough to embrace the task of fixing it. The future can't be this quiet.




By Sam Riches

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