Dallas Mavericks guard Delonte West is seated in front of his locker in full uniform, his jersey untucked, his size-13 feet bare. With infinite care and meticulous precision, he begins to wrap his left ankle with black medical tape, starting at the forefoot and working his way up. Finished, he lifts his right foot onto the edge of his chair and repeats the pregame ritual he's maintained for years.
"It's just like a warrior getting ready for battle," West said. "You take time to reflect on what you have to do that night for victory. It's like a Spartacus-type putting on your armor."
Since his return to action March 29 from a gruesome dislocated and fractured ring finger that required the insertion of stabilizing pins to properly heal, West has added to a routine most professional players relinquish to the head athletic trainer. West holds out his right hand, palm down, and begins the patient process of wrapping his still-swollen-stiff finger, looping the gauzy black material with his left hand around the ring and middle finger until they're flush, protected for battle.
In the second quarter against the Denver Nuggets on Feb. 15, West went for a steal. Reaching with his right hand, West's ring finger stabbed the basketball and snapped like a stick, bone barging through splintered skin, a sight so ghastly that on first glance teammate Vince Carter spun away and retracted his arms into his chest as if he had touched a hot stove.
West bent over, gripping the right hand as jagged lightning bolts surged through it, although he acted as though he was doing little more than catching his breath.
"The main thing I was thinking about was I'm not going to be able to put a full season together to show this team and show the city of Dallas that I'm committed and I want to be here," West said. "And with the way the bone was sticking out, I thought it might have been season-ending and I wasn't going to be able to show this team what I can do."
When the Mavs signed the 6-foot-3 guard for the league minimum Dec. 12, initially to back up Jason Kidd, they could be confident only in what they knew of the player: fierce competitor, intense defender, crafty mid-range shooter. As for the person, they could only go on what they were told: bipolar, intensely loyal to family, deeply caring, a convicted felon, a survivor.
The unknown part that West would arrive flat broke and sleep in the Mavs' locker room would be dumbfounding. His teammates would soon come to understand why it was not.
"He's a great person, a very caring person," Kidd said of West, who as a youngster on the playgrounds in Maryland and Washington, D.C., was called "Little Kidd" for his light skin and emulation of Kidd's game. "He's a competitor and he can play. He's a big part of our success here. Being around him this season has been great and I've learned a lot about him. He'll give you his last dollar if you need it."
His last dollar. Kidd had no idea how right he was.
Of the six players the Mavs signed to replenish their title squad, West -- who takes medication daily to control mood swings and is less than three years removed from the strange, late-night, gun-toting arrest on his three-wheeled motorcycle that would turn his career upside-down and help drain what was left of his savings -- seemed the one player in need of closest supervision.
Yet, as the Mavs move closer to the start of their title defense, West, 28, has hardly been the biggest of the Mavs' concerns in the locker room. Another emotionally weighted newcomer, last season's Sixth Man of the Year with the Los Angeles Lakers, handled that department on his own bizarre terms. Lamar Odom is no longer with the team. In many ways, the hard-edged West has proven to be the anti-Odom.
He has overcome financial troubles, two recent family deaths and personal injury to thrive in Dallas. He is entrenched as the starting shooting guard, averaging 9.7 points and 3.2 assists in 43 games, and will be relied upon in the postseason to produce as a rugged, two-way player with one good hand if the Mavs are to have a chance to advance.
The layers of black tape slowly push his middle fingers together. This is West's personal time with his music and his thoughts. West always directs his thoughts where he sends his money -- by choice, out of gratitude -- to his family: His mother Delphina Addison, who lives in the home he bought her in Maryland, who has worked two and three jobs her entire adult life, who seven years ago earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland, who works for the Navy and plans to continue toward her master's degree in social work next fall at Howard University thanks to her son; and his father, Dmitri Sr., who divorced Delphina, remarkably amicably, before West can remember but remained in his life and now lives in a home his son purchased.
West thinks about his older brother, Dmitri Jr., and his brother's wife and four children, who live in the house West bought them not far from his mother's home. The brothers talk on the phone every day. Dmitri was the first one West called after the unfortunate ear poke in Utah, the "West willy" that drew a $25,000 league fine, a stern lecture from coach Rick Carlisle and a string of easy pop-shots at West's character.
"He didn't take the situation light. He was real upset with himself," his brother said. "He was disappointed in himself after he did that. I said, 'Bro, what you doing, man?' He said, 'I know, my bad.' He apologized to me because, believe it or not, sometimes it's out of his control because you know that he's dealing sometimes with the medical issue. Sometimes you're like, 'Did he go off again? What are you doing?'"
West thinks about his younger sister, Danielle, living in the house with his mom. Danielle will soon start her career with the Washington, D.C., police department after West put her through college at the University of Central Florida, making sure she always had a place to live and a car to drive.
"I'm proud of her," West said. "She's a tough young lady, as tough as they come."
As tough as her older brother, who seemingly can live without just as long as his family is as secure as he can make them.
"Delonte don't give himself anything. He gives everything," Dmitri Jr. said. "Delonte is a giver. Delonte makes sure that everybody in the family is taken care of."
Everybody is not a loose term.
Delphina had nine siblings and gained nine more when her father remarried after her mother died when she was 10. Dmitri Sr., raised in the Virginia countryside, also came from a large family.
"I have, like, 36 nieces and nephews," Delphina said. "I got great nieces and great-great. My sister is 67, so that's older than most people's grandparents. So I'm saying that he [West] tries to help out."
West's mind wanders to his grandfather who lived down the street and passed away during the NBA lockout, and his grandmother's sister, whom West refers to as his grandmother and who died two weeks ago. West chose not to go home to attend the funeral. He remained with his basketball family instead as it fought for a precarious playoff spot.
After losing his cool at Golden State, getting hit with a technical foul and not playing well, West spoke to her through Twitter:
"Well I lost it tonight. ... I wish I could make the funeral tomorrow to touch ur hand and tell ya I'm sorry. ... Where's my medicine."
In the shifting environments of West's childhood, from home to home and school to school, aunts and great aunts became extended mothers, uncles were de facto fathers, and cousins -- even close friends who would move in -- became brothers and sisters. Asked how many siblings he has, West looked up as if it were a question he needed time to ponder and said, "Twenty? More." West said he was raised by a village. Dmitri Jr. calls his family and all its tentacles a clan.
"At the end of the day, when the world beats you up and you got nobody to turn to, your family is always going to be there," West said. "I was raised in that system. I was raised with a village. My family is like that because cousins, close friends lived with us or we lived with them for years at a time. Their families were down and out or my parents. Four or five of us slept in one bed at the time same time. We just made it work and that's how it is. When my family had nothing, all my uncles and aunts made sure we were taken care of."
Since the day the Boston Celtics drafted him with the 24th overall pick in 2004 after three seasons at St. Joseph's in Philadelphia, West has tried to help relatives in need -- from buying a stove for an apartment to a car to get to work to clothes and shoes -- at times to his detriment.
He acknowledges frivolous purchases in the early days, buying things just because he could. Just because when he was 13 on Christmas Eve, he was on a neighbor's rooftop making repairs to earn money for Christmas presents. Just because when other high school kids from his area with his talent were traveling to Las Vegas and California on the AAU circuit, he was pounding the asphalt at the park, practicing alone.
"Every single time I talked to him, and I'm not exaggerating," St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said, "so if I talked to him once every other day in the summer, he was always going to the park to shoot or he had just come back from the park to shoot. So he was a kid that was playing outdoors when kids weren't playing outdoors, and he was always practicing alone when no one was practicing."
As West finishes the delicate process of wrapping his fingers, he snaps on his headband for pregame warm-ups. He is keenly aware that his performance and behavior will determine his future earning power and his ability to help replenish the village. It's why he remains angry with himself and steadfast that he will never let something like the 2009 arrest happen again. The incident enhanced the public's bad-boy, thug-life perception of him. It landed him on house arrest and altered the course of his promising career.
On that September night, West, as he has told it, was removing guns from his home after friends staying with him found them and pulled them out of storage.
West's mother was upstairs and children were in the house. West had taken his nightly dose of Seroquel, a medication that treats bipolar disorder, and went to sleep. He was awakened by his mother, furious that his friends were romping through the house, recklessly wielding the firearms.
Impulsively, West gathered the guns -- products of living in a trailer with his father in the Virginia woods as a ninth-grade dropout, where the inner-city kid was taught to hunt and fish and to fend for himself. He hopped on his Can-Am Spyder and sped down the highway to safely store the guns in one of the other homes he owns in the area.
West was swerving wildly on the highway. The medication caused him to doze in and out until he realized he had passed his exit. A police car tailed him and, West says, he flagged them down. He pulled over, told the police he was medicated and out of sorts and carrying weapons.
"I was already in two years with a contract with Cleveland," said West, who was looking forward to a lucrative extension on a team with LeBron James that was favored to win the championship. "Then I got into the incident and no teams wanted to even deal with me. I got written off as some crazy, gun-toting terrorist or something of that sort. From there, it had nothing to do with what I do on the basketball court."
Already financially committed beyond his means -- the cost associated with the arrest, a brief marriage in divorce court and the ongoing NBA lockout cutting off paychecks -- West was wrecked. He became a punch line when he went to work driving a delivery truck for a furniture store during the lockout. He also applied for a job at Home Depot. He sold box sets of knives with his brother at a stand at Costco.
"I would get the customers, I would say, 'I'm D-West from the Celtics,' tell the people to come on back to a knife display and my brother would chop up tomatoes and stuff and show them how sharp the knives are," West said. "Anything I could do, man. At the same time, ain't no shame. Same way I'm smiling now and enjoying life, I was doing the same thing then."
Explained Dmitiri: "We were taught how to get in the grind and grind it out. That's why he's playing with his fingers taped up now."
When the lockout ended, West agreed to his second consecutive one-year, veteran-minimum contract, signing with Dallas. He arrived with raggedy high-tops and no money to rent an apartment.
"When he went to Dallas," Delphina said, "it's not like he wanted to lose his home, but we took what he had."
On the court with an hour until game time, West is shooting jumpers. His time in Dallas could be running short. Mavs owner Mark Cuban hopes to make a big splash in free agency this summer and if successful, it could limit the team's ability to re-sign West. He believes he's more than a minimum-wage guy and hopes he's proving it.
"When that time comes, it comes," West said of free agency. "I just hope what I've done over the last two years, playing for the league minimum when I know I'm worth much more than that, judging by the players around the league; my defensive ability, my ability to play offense, you can see it. It's not a league minimum, but I'm not going to fight the system."
"I just hope one day that teams judge me on what I do on the basketball court and not what happened three years ago."
Delphina hopes the Mavs are that team.
"I love the way Dallas is embracing my son," she said. "When I see my son, I see him happy, I see him, it's almost like a transformation-type thing and I love it. I love Dallas. I love what's happening with Delonte in Dallas."