David West was always a different type of guy. How many NBA players have been known to read a memoir written by the former leader of the Black Panther Party while cruising on the charter plane but also passionately engage in a team bus debate centered on the pop impact of Britney Spears?
All of which is to say, David West isn’t easily defined.
I covered West with the Indiana Pacers from 2013 to 2015, and I remember him as one of the most compelling professional athletes I’ve ever been around. A master percussionist — he once shocked his Pacers teammates by ending practice by banging out a drum solo on a set inside the arena — West walked with a bop. He stared through you at times. Yet he was the one who reporters rushed to when the locker room doors opened because he always gave honest and unfiltered thoughts on what happened in the game. No cliches. Because he wasn’t a cliche.
He was the adult in the room. When teammates around him shied away from talking about Donald Sterling’s racist comments in 2014, David West said it first — and loudest: the former Los Angeles Clippers owner had to go.
He was woke yet ratchet enough to click on the occasional WorldStarHipHop fight. He mean-mugged just about anyone yet wore a grin while passing out turkeys to underprivileged families.
West was one of the last true originals remaining in the league. Until now.
On Thursday, a day after his 38th birthday, West announced his retirement on Twitter. After 15 seasons, West says goodbye to a better-than-decent career. He played 1,034 games and made the Western Conference all-star team twice, averaged 13.6 points and 6.4 rebounds over his stops in New Orleans, Indiana, San Antonio and the Bay Area and chased his way to a pair of championship rings in his final two seasons with the Golden State Warriors (more on that later).
But West’s impact won’t show in mere numbers. His (sometimes moving) screens pummeled opponents. Over the past 15 seasons, NBA players probably feared three things: a severe injury, a crappy season during a contract year and a David West elbow.
He treated the space under the rim like the Thunderdome and got away with more after-the-play shoves than anyone I’ve ever seen. He was, as former Pacers in-game announcer Michael Grady used to bellow during the starter’s introductions, a baaaaaaad man.
If you’re a fan, he was the type of player you’d absolutely hate. But if he’s on your team, you’re stocking up on his No. 30 jerseys for your kids. And if you’re a writer, he’s the kind of guy who gets his first and last name written throughout your story even though that defies the AP Stylebook. Because David West deserved a little more weight to his name.
While in his prime years, he was a rock. In 2011, after five straights seasons in averaging at least 18 points, he picked the Pacers over more lucrative deals when no top free agents were coming to Indiana. Then-teammate Paul George summed up his arrival this way: “The second he got here, you got the feeling that this guy was going to be the one to really change this whole locker room, change this whole team. … He just brought an edge and a toughness, real leadership the second he got here.”
He was the dude giving off the don’t-mess-with-me vibes during the Pacers’ Blue Collar/Gold Swagger era. That team contested the Miami Heat for the Eastern Conference crown and darn near had it — but …LeBron. This is how then-Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey described the Pacers the year after West left: “Totally different Indiana team. … You don’t have David West kicking you and tripping you and all that stuff.”
When George broke his leg in the summer of 2014, an aging West toiled the next season as the unrivaled leader. The Pacers were going to struggle, he knew that, but West showed up ready to work. He had no plans of demanding a trade to a contender.
“I’m not going to be one of those guys that’s just out here chasing that. I’m not going to be one those guys out here sacrificing who I am, the things that make me me, to go out and get a material goal,” West told me in September 2014. “That’s just not the way I’m wired.”
At the end of the season, West opted out of his Pacers contract, walking away from $12.6 million so he could play in a more competitive basketball environment. That summer, he signed with the San Antonio Spurs for the veteran’s minimum. But something changed over time: In the summer of 2016, West joined the most loaded team in the league.
And good for him. I don’t blame West for joining the Warriors, knowing full well that was his best chance to get his chip. People evolve, and we can’t be painted with the same broad strokes from our past. We’re a complex lot. But that best describes the David West that I remember.
He could not be easily defined. He offered no apologies. He just did things his way. And his presence in the NBA will be greatly missed.