Commentary

With Pacers in town, West in spotlight

The question lingers: Why did he choose Indiana over 17-time champion Celtics?

Updated: January 6, 2012, 9:17 PM ET
By Tom Lakin | Special to ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- In early December, nearly a month ago today, free-agent power forward David West made what many around town considered a very bad decision. Freshly on the free-agent market having opted out of the final year of his New Orleans Hornets contract and with two interested teams calling -- the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers -- the big power forward chose to join the Pacers.

The contract years offered by each team were similar: two from the Pacers versus three, in a sign-and-trade, from the Celtics. The difference in money -- $20 million over two years in Indiana, roughly $29 million over three in Boston -- was, to a man who's made more than $40 million by the age of 31, negligible. The options -- just the two of them -- were clear.

Boston or Indiana.

Big city or small. The bright lights or cornfields. Seventeen championship banners hanging in the rafters or three.

West chose the latter.

"He had two good decisions [on the table]," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "He had a team that he could look at in us as a team that was trying to win it right now. And then he had a team in Indiana that's going to be in the thick of it as well, and they are young and he can grow with them. To me, he was in a win-win situation."

[+] EnlargeDavid West
Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty ImagesWould David West have fit in with the Celtics? Maybe not.

Still, West's decision came as a surprise to many, including Celtics guard Ray Allen, who told ESPN Boston's Jackie MacMullan, "I'm shocked. I don't understand it.

"[A mutual acquaintance] told me how much I would love [West], that he and I were the same kind of guy -- cognitive thinkers. He said West was interested in coming to the Celtics and would be willing to come for less.

"Once it got down to the end, I think ego kicked back in. He wanted the dollars. I guess it comes down to, 'What is a championship worth to you?'"

While other Celtics were more diplomatic -- Paul Pierce and Rivers said they found no fault with West's decision -- Allen's pointed comments clattered like dropped dishes in the charged atmosphere of a post-lockout NBA, startling many around the league, none more so than West himself.

(For his part, Allen said Friday that his comments were taken out of context, and wished West well in his decision to sign with Indiana.)

West, who is by all accounts one of the more prudent and charitable players in the NBA -- the power forward has lent time to AAU teams in Garner, N.C., where he attended high school, and when the town's YMCA risked foreclosure, he paid $1.3 million to save it -- defended his choice to reporters as a thoughtful, measured decision, not a money-grab. He called the Pacers young, deep and full of potential, a team of the future.

Yet, for many, West's verdict rang hollow. Youth and depth is one thing; three Hall of Famers and a top point guard is quite another. So some are still wondering: Why did West choose the Pacers over the 17-time champion Celtics?

Asked what it's been like to play in Boston, 2011 free agent Keyon Dooling said, "At this point in my career, I'm grateful for every second I get to play in this amazing league. But when you have a historic organization like this one, it's just a whole different ball game. I can't explain it; it's just something that I've never experienced on any level. The commitment to winning here is second to none. The history of the banners that you see, everywhere you look is history. Even in our lockers, you see former players who've worn your number. So it's just totally different in that aspect."

Why did a smart guy like West -- a Xavier University grad, an avid reader of black history and philosophy, a self-identifying intellectual -- turn his back on that?

***

It's a frosty Friday in January, and West's Indiana Pacers are in town for a 7:30 game at TD Garden. The team has just wrapped up its morning shootaround, and players are hanging out on the Garden floor. In the stale, mummified air of the arena, the question of West's decision lingers. Why Indiana and not Boston? A lull following the shootaround offers the perfect chance to ask.

As players and team officials scatter for the visitors' locker room, West sits off to one side of the parquet floor, waiting. An ice bag rests on his left knee, chilling the once-torn ligament that ended his 2010-11 season. In person, West is enormous, 31 years old, sinewy of arm and leg, an athlete who, at 6 feet 9 and 240 pounds, is roughly the size of a standard closet door. But today, sitting here, with media closing in, he seems somehow smaller. He knows what's coming. You can see it in the lines of his face.

The questions start quickly and come one after another, snapping crisply at West like a chest pass in the lane:

You decided to sign with Indiana as a free agent. Why Indiana and not somewhere else?

West I think everybody's kind of realistic about the window that the Celtics have. I think, me, looking at where I am, I think my window's a little bit wider. I'm only 31, so I figure with this young team here, in the next few seasons we have the pieces to be able to compete.

-- David West, on signing with the Pacers

"I just felt like it was the best opportunity for me right now, in terms of their team and where I was in terms of my career," he says. "The fact that they really were the main team that came after me in terms of free agency, that played a big part in it for me."

What about Boston, though? It was reportedly in the mix. How come you're not a member of the Boston Celtics?

West sighs. "Ahh. You know, I think a lot of that was more media than actual substance. I found out just like everybody else did on TV that I was close to signing."

So did the Celtics ever come to your agent and formally make an offer?

"Yeah, there were discussions, but like I said, I just don't think, in terms of the seriousness of what was going on, people didn't know honestly what was out there for me."

During the offseason, Ray Allen said you took the money instead of playing with a contender. Did that rub you the wrong way at all?

"No. Man, he just didn't know the facts, didn't know all the things that were involved in the situation. I don't get caught up in stuff like that. It's just one of those things where, when guys don't know all the information that's out there, it was kind of a situation where I think he was being more responsive in terms of just where [the Celtics] were, and some of the situations they were dealing with."

So, David, you really felt like Indiana gave you a better chance to win?

"I think everybody's kind of realistic about the window that the Celtics have. I think, me, looking at where I am, I think my window's a little bit wider. I'm only 31, so I figure with this young team here, in the next few seasons we have the pieces to be able to compete. We've talked about it -- maybe not this year, but definitely in a couple years. In terms of maturity and keeping this core together, the pieces are here to get up there."

***

Perhaps it's actually more complicated than that. Perhaps West's decision goes a bit deeper than chasing championships or collecting rings.

Call it a cliché if you'd like, a simple spouting of the party line, but the players comprising the Celtics lineup all say that playing in Boston -- with its history, mystique and handsome, snapping banners -- is, in a word, different.

Power forward Chris Wilcox has worn six jerseys in his nine-year NBA career, but of pulling on his Celtics No. 44, Wilcox says, "It means a lot. We got great history here in Boston, and all I wanted to do was just come and play hard. It's a great group of guys. When you're playing against them, you hate them, but when you're here, it's family."

Certainly, one of the driving forces behind that outside hatred is a 7-foot chest-thumper who answers to the name of Kevin.

Kevin Garnett played 12 seasons in Minnesota, averaging 20.5 points, 11.3 rebounds and nearly two blocks per game. He led the Wolves to the playoffs eight times. He played in 10 All-Star Games and was league MVP in 2003-04. With his Minnesota résumé alone, Garnett could have retired at age 31 -- the same age West is now -- a near-certain Hall of Famer. There are undoubtedly fans for whom Garnett will always be a Timberwolf, still Da Kid, still the snarling youngster who in 1995 took the NBA by storm as a first-rounder fresh out of Farragut Career Academy High School.

Yet Garnett will tell you, when asked about his time in Boston, that being on the Celtics is entirely different from playing for the Timberwolves. In Boston, a Celtic is a kind of deity, a conversation piece, public property. For basketball players in Boston, the job of being a Celtic is a round-the-clock, round-the-town gig.

"Being a Celtic is bigger than one guy. It's bigger than everybody in this locker room," Garnett said. "You're carrying on a tradition. You have to have a work ethic. You have to care about the next guy beside you. And if you can't and if you don't, then you're not here. It's just what it is. It's just the culture here."

Perhaps it's a culture that West -- AAU coach, Xavier Hall of Famer, studious fellow who doesn't yearn for the spotlight -- simply didn't want to join.

"I didn't necessarily shy away from an opportunity to play in a big market," West said. "I just think there are certain factors that people weren't aware of in terms of the situation that was actually out there.

"I'm not a big party, hangout guy. I'm not a big nightlife guy. So not being in a big city, everything like that, it's not a big deal. I don't live in a big city in the offseason, so it's not a big [thing]. Not everybody's a party guy, needing to have a night life or the spotlight all the time. It's just not in my makeup."

West, as driven and charitable as he is, is by nature reserved, more of a thinker than most NBA players, happier buried in a book than standing under a spotlight. And Boston, for all its history and allure, has one of the brightest spotlights around. Sports in this city is a calling -- a dogma for many, a cult for others, but a tangible cultural currency for nearly all. One could say that in 2011, sports makes up the very marrow of this town.

"It's the only thing," Garnett said. "It's a Doc Rivers thing; it's a Celtics thing; it's a Boston thing."

Most do know. The knife-edge pressure of the Boston sports scene is hardly a secret.

It's almost certain West knew. Perhaps that's why he made the choice he did. Perhaps that's why Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge spent December holding an unsigned contract. Perhaps that's why Friday, when the ball tips off above the Garden's polished floor and the crowd roars to life, West will be wearing blue, comfortable and at peace, out of the glare.

Tom Lakin is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.

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