Delonte West is back, even if strictly speaking, he never arrived. His career, easily collapsed into web-friendly Cliff's Notes, has always teetered precariously between incipience and turmoil. LeBron's Cavs never looked sharper than when West got starter’s minutes in 2009; outre gun charges, attributed to an unmedicated case of manic depression, washed out his 2009-10 season. West’s absence, as much as the rumor that he porked Gloria James, put a serious dent in Cleveland's pre-"Decision" chances.
Once, there was a Boston Celtics team littered with young, idiosyncratic talent. They didn’t win much—it’s entirely possible that they were tanking but in 2006-07—but in retrospect, future Coach of the Year Doc Rivers probably imparted a thing or two on to tots like Rajon Rondo, Al Jefferson, Tony Allen, Kendrick Perkins, and West. In that former life, West was a spiky, effective sleeper who seemed to not quite believe he was a professional athlete. He was catnip for the media, and the meme-hungry maws that had begun to constitute web fandom. West told ESPN that the way to a woman's heart was Popeye’s and R. Kelly on a yacht. Even at that point, West had shown enough game that this kind of statement mattered. He was no mere clown. Gilbert Arenas stuck in our collective craw because he was both blessedly weird and a player of some consequence. West has always seemed closer to that lost Arenas than, say, DeShawn Stevenson, whom he has sort of replaced in Dallas.
Unlike Arenas, or Stevenson, however, West has a good explanation—or excuse, if preferred—for these tendencies. West is one of only a handful of professional athletes of note to acknowledge (in West's case, compelled by circumstance) a diagnosis. Gonzo gun play and locker room quarantine are signs of a man in need of psychiatric care; it's a testament to West's value as a ballplayer, an open secret in NBA circles, that he's still around. His personal challenges are a largely private matter, but West will always come across as different. Even when West is medicated and functional, he raises eyebrows.
Delonte West is not an ordinary, or normal, dude. He's what one politely calls "a character," somewhere between free spirit and an irresistible goof. West is one of those athletes whose style of play reflects his personality, and vice-versa. He’s not brazenly unorthodox, or necessarily spectacular, but his assurance allows him to proceed confidently with decisions that might seem dizzy or impractica. West doesn't gamble; he veers away from expectations as if there were no other choice. Determination is an over-used term in sports, but in West's case, it provides the metaphysical heft needed to explain how he makes his way around a basketball court.
It's this quality that lead Shaquille O'Neal to, on TNT's broadcast last Thursday, refer to him as "crazy" and for Kevin Blackistone to question whether O'Neal shouldn't maybe have checked himself. The prudent, and easy thing, to do would have been to describe West's game on the court in anything but the most technical terms—as if personality or temperament, if they existed at all, had no place here. Drained of all human drama, West’s performance would be measured in terms of success and failure, ends up as its own form of validation. Yet this doesn't just offer up an attenuated picture of West, it also denies him the right to have a personality, as if everything unusual about him were a blotch of symptomology best left unsaid.
Metta World Peace, despite his impassioned support of mental health issues, shout-outs to his therapist, and decade-and-a-half of strange or frightening behavior, has never come out and admitted a diagnosis. His game, at least the ideal version of it, is predicated on fairly traditional qualities like toughness and position. When his head pops out of joint and his play goes awry, it's a mishap, the flighty off-court Ron Ron getting the best of the faded, but still proud, player. That baseline normalcy, coupled with Metta's squirreliness about his own mental health, allow us to revel in his personality without the slightest bit of guilt. West has the opposite problem. With no cover, he forces us to accept that a person can be both sick and strange (or for that matter, hopelessly boring and in serious distress). It's almost impossible to hide from who Delonte West is, and it's not just that diagnosis, which causes some to treat him with kid gloves or watch their words. West has issues; beyond his condition, there's the self-medication that's at least partially responsible for his celebrated drive-through freestyle video. But he should have the right to be called "crazy," if the subject is basketball or actions that are of no threat to himself or others.
There's no way of knowing what Shaq was thinking, but there's something liberating in his statement. The highest form of dignity left to someone in West's position is to be called "crazy"—not for his diagnosis, but because he does things that leave others shaking their heads and laughing to themselves. That's not a problem, it's the kind of thing that keeps sports, and most spheres of public life, the least bit interesting.