As he arrives in the class, he heads straight for the back corner. The last row is often the hiding place of the academically challenged, but that’s not why West is there. Although many athletes clamor for center stage anywhere there’s a crowd, West’s inclination is to shy away from the spotlight. As class begins, he sits quietly, paying attention but letting others speak out and get the glory for their knowledge.
It’s hard not to notice West, though. At 6-foot-9, he stands-or, in this case, sits-head and shoulders above most of his fellow students. But he’s also hard to overlook because in the last two years he’s become an increasingly familiar presence, not just on campus, but in the country. Since arriving on campus two seasons ago, West has established himself as one of the nation’s premier basketball players. He’s now showing up on the pages of magazines, newspapers and television sets nationwide. He’s a Wooden and Naismith college player of the year candidate, an Associated Press preseason All-American and the Atlantic 10 Conference player of the year. He’s been featured in Sports Illustrated, SLAM and ESPN magazines. Most recently, he was pictured in Playboy as part of that publication’s All-American team lineup. And all of the media attention makes it hard for West not to have strangers pointing at him while he walks down the mall, or stare at him while he eats or be the focal point of a classroom discussion. It’s uncomfortable, and the seat in the back row helps.
At the same time, though, it’s understandable why others stop and stare, because from November through March, when he steps onto the floor of the Cintas Center, he is more than just another kid on campus; he’s one of the best-if not the best-player ever to pull on a Xavier uniform. And that is hard to ignore.
“Man, it’s always hot in this classroom,” West says. He’s dressed in gray sweatpants, a gray hooded sweatshirt, a white T-shirt and Nike basketball shoes, size 17. He reaches up and opens the window above his head to let in some fresh air as professor Debbie Pearce hands out a behavioral-type test known as the Thomas-Kilmann conflict mode instrument. The test assesses how an individual reacts in certain conflict situations, and West pulls off his sweatshirt and starts working his way through its 30 questions. As some of the students finish the test, Pearce begins quizzing them about their results. After a while, she spots West, whose test indicates he’s highly competitive.
“Why do you suppose that is?” Pearce asks the communications class.
“Because he’s an athlete,” someone answers.
“Of course,” she says. “You don’t go into a game trying to tie or saying, ‘Let’s share the points.’ ”
West laughs at the idea. So does his coach, Thad Matta.
“He hates to lose,” says Matta.
What makes West such a dominant force on the basketball court, though, isn’t just the results of the Thomas-Kilmann conflict mode instrument. West’s skills are no secret. He can score, averaging nearly 18 points a game last year. His 902 points through his first two seasons are second in school history only to Byron Larkin. He can rebound, averaging nearly 11 rebounds per game last year. He also blocked a school-record 61 shots and collected two assists per game-a frequently overlooked statistic, but one that reveals his unselfish willingness to pass up a scoring chance if it will help the team.
“He’s almost like a point center,” says St. Joseph coach Phil Martelli. “A lot of big guys will throw it only to the person who passed it to them, but David finds guys all over the floor.”
Xavier has seen its share of high quality big men-Tyrone Hill, Brian Grant, Derek Strong, Aaron Williams-but West appears to be the best of the group, at least so far.
“Right now, he’s head and shoulders above where Tyrone and Brian were at this point in their careers,” says Larkin, the University’s all-time leading scorer and radio analyst. “What makes him so good is his patience. Most players get the ball and want to go straight to the basket. He takes a look at the situation, analyzes it and does whatever the defender gives him.”
“The thing that impresses me is that he has a great shooting touch,” says Matta. “But he also has the ability to pass the ball and has a great knack and timing for rebounding.” Still, says Matta, he has room to improve.
“The two things we worked on over the summer were developing more of a perimeter game and his awareness on defense. He made huge gains in his defensive play.”
West nods in agreement. Each summer he identifies a part of his game that needs improvement and concentrates on that area. After his freshman year, he spent a lot of time in the weight room getting stronger. Last summer it was defense and his jump shot. A 6-foot-9 center taking 3-pointers can change the complexity of a game, and West is excited about the idea.
“There’s always something to learn,” he says. “I think I can get a lot better.”
As the class is dismissed, West pulls his sweatshirt back over his head and returns to his apartment, which is decent in size for a college student. The main room has a stove and sink on the far wall and is just large enough to hold a queen-size bed, desk, small couch and television stand filled with a myriad of stereo and video game electronics. He walks into the adjoining room, which serves as a bathroom, closet and pantry, grabs a bag of Doritos and sits down under a framed print of two African children playing basketball in a yard. The scene, he says as he crunches a couple of chips, reminds him of playing against his brother, Dwayne. The two would go head-to-head in the driveway, even though Dwayne was 15 years older and already played college basketball at Jersey City State College, a Division II program. Little David, who hadn’t started to grow yet and could still count his age on both hands with a few fingers to spare, mostly just took his lumps. Until he turned 14. Then things changed. He’s been winning ever since.
The picture is one of the few hints that the person who lives in the room has any interest in basketball. Above his bed is a framed picture of a skinny, long-armed West from his first game at Xavier, and on the desk are two basketball books, For the Love of the Game, by Michael Jordan, and 11 Lessons in Leadership, by Bill Russell. “Those are the only two basketball books I’ve read,” he says. The Russell book was given to him by assistant coach Alan Major. Otherwise, the room is atypical of what you’d expect. It’s neat, the bed is made and a Glade Plug-In fills the room with a fresh scent. Candles rest on the tables, more African art hangs on the walls, a net in the corner above the TV holds about a dozen stuffed animals.
“I love stuffed animals,” West says. “I won all of these at state fairs and carnivals.” He points to a white teddy bear sitting inside a wicker basket on the table. “That one I won by shooting baskets at a state fair, you know, where they cheat you by making the rims crooked or loose. Cost me $4, but I was determined.”
The stuffed animal collection is only overshadowed by his stereo and video game equipment-PlayStation 2, DVD player, 60-disk CD changer, 850-watt amplifier-which draws the attention of everyone, including Sister Rose Ann Fleming, the athletic academic advisor. She lives in the apartment across the hall and frequently knocks on his door requesting that he turn it down.
Having Fleming ask about the stereo, though, is better than having her ask about academics, says West. Fleming has a well-earned reputation for getting athletes to study.
“When I was a freshman,” West says, “she once left seven messages on my machine. She doesn’t need to be on me now, though. I take care of my books.”
West looks at the clock and realizes his hour of freedom is over. He rolls up the Doritos bag, grabs his keys and heads out the door for his next class, Theology 267-The Death of Jesus. When West came to Xavier, he couldn’t have imagined himself electing to take a theology class that requires papers and presentations. But times have changed. He’s much more settled now, both as a student and a person.
West wasn’t highly recruited out of high school, thanks to poor grades and matching attitude. Only the smallest colleges expressed interest. It’s not that West was a bad kid, though. The reason was rebellion.
He grew up in northern New Jersey, just 10 miles outside of New York City. He loved the city life and frequently crossed the Hudson River to play pick-up games in churches and youth centers in Manhattan. When he was a junior, though, his family moved to Garner, N.C., a tiny town just outside of Raleigh. “I hated it,” he says. “It killed me. I wanted to stay with my friends in New Jersey and kept trying to get back.”
Finally, his dad, Amos, sat him down.
“Look, son,” he said. “You’re 18 years old. There’s no playing around now. You have one last chance to make it, or else you’re going to be stuck here for the rest of your life. It’s all up to you.”
Reality set in. It wasn’t pretty.
“I wasn’t sure what I was going to do,” West says. “I figured I might as well try to make it with basketball because I was halfway good at it. I considered junior college, but coach [Eddie] Gray took a liking to me and helped me get into Hargrave.”
Hargrave Military Academy is a college preparatory school in Virginia and a frequent stepping stone for talented but academically deficient players. West grew up quickly the year he was there, and caught the attention of the Xavier coaching staff.
“My brother told me that I should go somewhere where I can compete and play,” he says. “That would be the best way for me to make a name for myself. When I came to Xavier, though, it was tough. All of a sudden I was playing against these tremendous athletes who could jump high or do all kinds of acrobatics. I didn’t do one thing extremely well, and I was having a problem with it. But my dad told me, ‘Just because a guy is taller or faster or can jump higher doesn’t mean he’s better. You can always be the hardest worker or the most diligent.’ And that’s what I try to do. What I lack in talent and in God-given ability, I try to make up for with hard work.”
As class lets out, West heads to the Cintas cafeteria. He checks out the menu and then makes the rounds. He loads his tray with two helpings of biscuits and gravy, a slice of pizza, a hamburger and fries. In 15 minutes, the food is gone. “That,” he says, “was good.” He drops off his tray and grabs a frozen yogurt and two cookies to go. “Now the work begins for me,” he says. It’s 2:00 p.m. and he has an hour to lift weights and prepare for practice.
He walks into the locker room, which is still quiet. As with his apartment, there’s nothing here that indicates his status on the team or in the collegiate game. His locker looks the same as every other, save for a few pieces of paper loosely taped to the inside. One deals with desire, another with goals. The third is from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: “First you must put yourself above the possibility of defeat. Then you may go about the task of defeating your enemy.”
It’s here, though, that West becomes a different person; the boy becomes the man. Here, he moves to the front row, leading the way, grabbing the spotlight as the team’s unquestionable leader.
“He’s very demanding on his teammates,” says Matta, “and doesn’t accept anything from them but the best. He does a good job of leading the team, too, although right now he mostly leads by example. I’m trying to get him to be a little more vocal, but that’s how David is: He’s a very polite, quiet young man who becomes a different person when he steps on the basketball court.”