- The Washington Times - Friday, May 22, 2009

CLEVELAND | As the Cleveland Cavaliers continue their quest to end their city’s 45-year championship drought, all eyes are on LeBron James. But the league MVP deems someone else vital to the team’s success - D.C. native Delonte West.

The 6-foot-3, 180-pound guard has proved his worth to teammates, coaches and opponents as one of James’ trusty sidekicks.

“Delonte is awesome. He’s the heart of our team,” James said. “Delonte’s unbelievable. You look at Delonte, for one, and you don’t think he can play basketball. If you were walking down the street and saw Delonte, you would not think he could play basketball at all. And when you’re on the court, you do not think he’s as athletic as he is also. He’s very deceiving with his jumping ability, and his arms are very long also.”

Said Cavaliers coach Mike Brown: “He’s the guy on our team that every day we’re seeing, ‘Wow, he can do this. Oh, and he can do this!’ The toughness that he brings to the table is something you can’t give to anybody. Can’t give, can’t teach to anybody.”

West said he cultivated that toughness on the red clay of central Virginia. After his expulsion from a Prince George’s County school in 10th grade, West went to live with family in Louisa County - nearly two hours from the District and an hour outside Richmond.

“That’s where I learned my technique and the way I play basketball,” West said. “I always was a tough-minded kid, but when I moved to Virginia for two years… we grew up poor, happy. We used to play basketball, and it wasn’t like no street courts or anything. You have your basketball courts in the dirt, in your yards. You playing mud ball. I never had no clean clothes on, and it was with a flat basketball, too.

“We’d be backing each other down, dunking on each other, getting dirty. We’d do that in the mornings before we even went to school. Plus, it was country, so worrying about what you had on was the least of your worries. So it wasn’t that type of pressure like it is in the city. So we’d play like that any type of day from morning until night, dunking on each other while swatting mosquitoes.”

West often has flashbacks to those days while guarding opponents in the NBA. After joining the Cavaliers via trade with a month remaining in the 2007-08 season, he displayed a tenacity that occasionally led Brown to stick him on the opponent’s best perimeter scorer. He further proved himself as a strong defender in training camp this season, so he often earns the assignment of guarding the top opposing perimeter threat regardless of size.

In Cleveland’s first-round sweep of the Detroit Pistons, West limited 6-foot-7 Richard Hamilton to 13.3 points on 35.6 percent shooting. West then held three-time All-Star Joe Johnson - also 6-7- to 15 points and 16.7 percent shooting from 3-point range as the Cavaliers swept the Atlanta Hawks in the conference semifinals.

“I definitely have flashbacks when I’m on defense,” West said. “I always played against my older brothers and was always the one young guy at the basketball court trying to get on with the older guys. … I would be out there guarding guys who were twice my size and sometimes matching up with grown men. That’s the first thing they would try to do was take advantage of my size on the basketball court. So from matching up with those older guys on the playground courts to now I’ve got to match up with the bigger guys in the league.”

The Boston Celtics drafted West 24th overall in 2004 after he and Orlando Magic guard Jameer Nelson helped Saint Joseph’s reach the Elite Eight. But after three seasons of rebuilding and West bouncing in and out of the lineup, Boston traded him along with the No. 5 pick to Seattle for perennial All-Star guard Ray Allen. After more fluctuating playing time, West changed addresses again, this time part of a three-team, 10-player deal.

“Last year when he came here, we knew he was talented. We thought he could play the point, but we obviously didn’t know,” Brown said. “Coming from Seattle where he had quite a few [games he sat out because of coach’s decision], we kinda took a chance, saying, ‘Here, Delonte, I know we only have a month and a half in the season, we’re a playoff team, we’re going to the playoffs, but I need you to run my club.’ Then this year, when we got [point guard] Mo [Williams], we felt… that Delonte could move to the [shooting guard] because of what he showed us last year defensively.

“He’s played point guard for us, he’s playing shooting guard for us and he’s played small forward for us, and as time goes on, he will continue to play all three. His play-call list went from about an inch to about three or four inches. We now call the same plays for LeBron that we call for Delonte because of the diversity that he has on the offensive end of the floor.”

Last fall, West signed a three-year, $12.7 million contract with Cleveland, so he has finally found a stable home in the NBA. But like his mud-ball roots, he considers his early journeys vital to his growth.

“When I was in Boston, we would play Cleveland and I always said to myself that If I could ever play in Cleveland, the way I play basketball, I would be successful in their system,” West said. “I always look at it as the Lord has for you what’s for you. He’s going to take you through a trying time, and you never know where your journey ends up.”

For West, a journey that began in the mud could lead him toward hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy sooner rather than later.

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