Bespectacled eyes softly studying the sun-washed Lincoln Memorial in front of him, besuited back turned toward the towering Washington Monument behind him, a smile signifying freedom crosses Delonte West’s lips, and, as if contagious, spreads to all of us in his vicinity.
Supreme symbols of America, the Memorial and Monument aren’t the cause of our sense of liberation. No. We’ve felt this way since the chauffeur pulled up the gravel driveway outside his house in Fort Washington, MD, earlier this July morning and West, myself, a photographer, friends and family members piled into the back of the black Escalade ESV.
We felt this way while we were cruising the George Washington Parkway on our way to a day camp in Rockville. We felt this way when we stopped in Georgetown. And at the Monument. And, later, the Barry Farms courts and a social services office in Southeast DC.
We feel free, here in Abe Lincoln’s marble shadow, because Delonte West is finally free.
“A lot of people don’t know this, but all of last year I was on house arrest,” West says from the driver’s side passenger seat as we pull away from the National Mall and watch the city fade in the rearview. “When I wasn’t in the arena, I had an ankle bracelet monitor on. And right after the game, they’d put it right back on and I’d have to go straight back home.”
Home detention can take a few forms, ranging from a nightly curfew to semi-hourly GPS and phone monitoring. In West’s case, his eight-month detention was on the severe side of the penalty. Every two weeks throughout this past season, West had to give a detailed schedule of his upcoming activities to the probation office monitoring him. On a daily basis, he had to phone in his whereabouts four times, often in the darkest hours of the night.
“It didn’t change D, but it did help him mature some,” Mark Fassett, Delonte’s childhood friend and business manager, says. “It helped him focus his energy on what mattered.”
More than a nuisance but less than shackles and chains, home detention impacted West’s ability to play. While he was allowed to travel out of Massachusetts to Boston’s away games, it often precluded him from coming to practice early or staying late. It precluded him from attending non-sanctioned team functions, like teammates’ birthday parties, and it kept him from leaving his hotel room on the road. It was even problematic when he suffered an injury early in the season.
“When I broke my wrist they took me straight to the hospital,” says West, wrist externally covered in tattoos and internally held together with surgical pins. “I got into trouble because I didn’t call and let them know I was going to the hospital. They said, ‘If something happens on the way to the hospital, I don’t know where you’re at, so you better call in advance next time.’ That’s how they was on me.”
Physically, by mid-July, the electronic anklet is already four months removed. Mentally, though, West still often feels the weight of it. It’s no surprise, then, that the 28-year-old can get an odd sense of freedom from something as mundane as spending a day crisscrossing the nation’s capital in the backseat of an Escalade.
Nearly two years ago, in September of ’09, on a similarly quiet DC evening but in a different vehicle, a three-wheel Can-Am Spyder, West was pulled over for negligent driving. According to newspaper reports, after West admitted to having a weapon on him, the police officer requested[..]istance and proceeded to search the Can-Am and its owner. The cop discovered—again, according to reports—four weapons: a Beretta 9mm, a Ruger .357 magnum, a shotgun (in a guitar case) and a Bowie knife. Hit with eight separate charges, West plead guilty to two, leading to home detention, probation, community service and counseling.
The fallout from the incident was nuclear. The NBA eventually suspended the uniquely skilled, 6-3 southpaw for 10 games. Fans embellished the story. Musicians rhymed about it. Comedians made punchlines out of it. A character, and West definitely is one, was turned into a pistol-packing caricature. Shaken by all the negativity, West momentarily lost focus on and off the court. He eventually regrouped, but until now he’s never addressed the events of that night to a member of the media.
Delonte West is an avid outdoorsman, likes to hunt and fish in the backwoods of Virginia, but that’s not really why he owned the guns. Like many nouveau riche athletes, he had hammers because he could afford them. The same way money buys cars and clothes and comfort, it also buys guns. It’s the American way.
After the ’09 season ended with his Cavaliers getting knocked out by the Orlando Magic in the Conference Finals, West returned home to Maryland and set about finding a good place to store the weapons, which he saw more as collector’s items. He chose the recording studio.
Tucked away in his fully finished basement, West’s studio is his sanctuary. Off limits to children, the sparsely furnished wood paneled room is his home within his home. All of that’s why he thought it was the perfect stash spot. Everything was fine—the guns remained safely hidden—until, on the night of September 17, feeling unusually tired, West went to his bedroom pretty early, took his nightly dose of Seroquel (a drug that treats bipolar disorder) and got in bed. Shortly after falling asleep, he was startled awake by shouting.
“Ma Dukes came running upstairs into my room, cursing me, saying she wanted all these MFers out of my house,” recalls West. “I came to like, What’s going on? I was already on my Seroquel trip. A few of my cats had found some stuff in the studio and they were living the whole gangsta life thing—guns in the air and this and that,” continues West. “And I said, ‘Oh my God. What the !! are y’all doin’ in here? Y’all got to go. Momma ain’t on that. Kids are running around upstairs. It’s time to go.’”
Gassed up from the commotion, West decided it would be prudent for him to relocate the guns to an empty house he owned nearby. So, with his other vehicles blocked in by guests’ cars, and expecting it to be a short trip, he haphazardly loaded up his Can-Am and placed the weapons in a Velcro-type of bag—“not a desperado, hardcase, gun-shooting-out-the-side type case”—and set off.
“I’m on the Beltway, cruisin’,” West says, voice high, emotional and inimitable. “Soon I start realizing I’m dozing in and out. I open my eyes and I went from this lane to that. I’m swervin’, and by the time I wake up, I’m about three exits past my exit.
“There’s this truck flying beside me—” West pauses; this next part is crucial—“and I’m scared to [rip]. So I seen an officer coming up and I try to flag him down. I pull up next to him. He slows down and I get up in front of him. I tell the officer I’m not functioning well and I’m transporting weapons… The rest of the story is what it is.
“I’m not proud of it,” concludes West, “but it looks way worse than it was.”
While Delonte has learned to ignore or laugh off the infamy that’s come with the incident, Rufus “Rudy” Addison, his uncle, still takes umbrage with the way the incident is portrayed. “You haven’t heard of him shooting or st@bbing nobody,” Uncle Rudy says. “If you want to permanently mark him for what he did, all you have to do is look at your own. He’s not the first and won’t be the last to make a mistake.”
Once celebrated for his deft jumper and defense, from that ill-fated night on, West has been known more for his guns—and illness.