- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2004

PHILADELPHIA — Delonte West can’t tell you exactly where he grew up. There was a duplex in Largo, an apartment in Oxon Hill, an aunt’s back room in Northeast, a cousin’s basement off New York Avenue and friends’ houses in Suitland and Hyattsville.

“Man, we were all over Northeast and [Prince George’s County],” says West, perhaps the hottest player on the hottest college team in America. “I’ve got friends everywhere around D.C.”

Making them wasn’t particularly easy, not when you, your mother and three siblings are constantly changing addresses. Not when you have the pale skin and hazel eyes of an interracial union — a white man’s blood in a black man’s world.

“I was always ‘white boy’ or whatever, getting beat on and chased around. Kids can be cold,” says West. “Basketball became my thing.”

Hoops gave West an outlet for his frustration and passion, and his hoops prowess eventually earned him respect. He swears he learned to play on a crate nailed to a telephone pole.

“That’s for real, man. It’s no urban legend,” says West. “We nailed it up so you could just barely dunk it. I’m sure it wasn’t 10 feet, but it still taught you to get to the basket.”

West learned the lesson well, earning 2001 Metro player of the year status as a senior at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, where he averaged 20.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, five assists and four steals.

But the Beltway’s major Division I programs apparently weren’t impressed.

“We knew about him, saw him and thought he was a pretty nice player. But we didn’t have a huge need at his position at the time,” says La Salle coach Billy Hahn, who was Gary Williams’ top assistant at Maryland at the time. “We had some pretty good players in our backcourt in Juan Dixon, Steve Blake and Drew Nicholas, and we couldn’t promise him much playing time.”

Georgetown and George Washington had no such excuses, but West harbors no grudges. He accepted a scholarship from Saint Joseph’s over offers from Manhattan and Siena. And three years after St. Joe’s and coach Phil Martelli finally gave West a home, he’s repaying the Hawks with absolute backcourt brilliance.

Times have never been better on Hawk Hill. St. Joe’s is ranked second in the nation. The Hawks are 22-0, one of only two undefeated Division I teams (joining Stanford) and well on their way to a No.1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Senior point guard Jameer Nelson (20.2 points, 5.3 assists) is the current Sports Illustrated cover boy. And West (19.0 points, 4.9 assists, 5.5 rebounds) is likely to join Nelson on nearly every All-America team.

“That’s not just the best backcourt in the country, it’s the two best guards in the country,” says Xavier coach Thad Matta, who watched incredulously as West connected on all 12 of his attempts from the field en route to a 33-point, six-rebound, five-assist, three-steal performance in the Hawks’ 81-73 victory over the Musketeers on Jan.17. “I’m not sure he would have missed if we had kept playing all weekend.”

Ironically, it was West’s questionable shooting stroke that prompted most major college programs to pass on extending him a scholarship offer. But after a freshman campaign that saw him connect on only two of 17 3-point attempts and average 5.9 points, the street-hardened slasher sequestered himself in the gym all summer and emerged from his hardcourt cocoon as a graceful jump shooter.

“It was just pure hard work on his part,” says Nelson. “He just stayed in the gym until 1 or 2a.m. all the time working on his new stroke. A lot of guys say they’re going to do that, but it never happens. They get distracted or lazy or whatever and don’t follow up on it. But Delonte is one of those guys that really did that. He’s was in there shooting thousands of shots a day. Sometimes I’d go in there, and he wouldn’t know what time it was, whether it was light or dark out. You’ve got to respect that kind of commitment.”

West shot 37.4 percent from behind the arc last season and averaged 17.3 points. This season, his 3-point percentage has spiked again (42.2), and his overall shooting percentage has risen to 52.1, a sublime number for a college perimeter player. And there’s no ceiling in sight, as West has continued to improve during the course of the Hawks’ remarkable run. In his last eight games, the 6-foot-4 junior is shooting 60 percent from the field, averaging 21.9 points, 6.0 rebounds and 6.3 assists.

“He’s a pro,” says Hahn.

Says Martelli: “Two things stood out about Delonte from day one. First, he was fierce. He was fearless, intimidated by nothing or nobody, without being reckless. And you can’t teach that. Second, he had this desire to be great, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be great.”

Perhaps that fearless drive was the product of a city that never embraced him, a community that never totally accepted him and a university system that didn’t want him.

“Maybe,” says West. “You can’t help but get tough going through so much adversity. Everything a person goes through in life contributes to what kind of person they turn out to be. That stuff taught me to stay strong and just work harder. And it’s all worked out for the best, you know? It led me to St. Joe’s, and I couldn’t ask to be at a better place in America right now.”

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