Editor’s be aware: This story addresses psychological well being and habit and could also be tough to learn or emotionally upsetting. 

AVALON, N.J. — Phil Martelli eases again into his chair and sighs. He has been scrolling by his cellphone, studying textual content messages that span a two-year window. It’s a one-sided dialog, all black and white from the sender, no blue responses from him.

It’s a lovely sunny day in New Jersey and just per week in the past, Martelli and his spouse, Judy, loved an idyllic Jersey Shore weekend, their house full of youngsters and grandchildren as the children’ exuberance ricocheted off the ceilings.

However on this August afternoon it’s pin-drop quiet in the home. The children have left and the temper is heavy as Martelli pages by the texts from an individual he at all times thought of a part of his household. The messages all observe the identical sample: a determined request for assist, a urgent want for cash – to pay the dope man, the bartender, or, to get off the streets and discover security.

Martelli used to reply, even ship the cash as requested. However then counselors suggested him he wasn’t serving to; that, in truth, he was hurting. Then the messages stopped, the final one coming greater than a 12 months in the past now – in April of final 12 months. “I’m really sad” is the way it ends.

Martelli is unhappy, too. Crushed with guilt, overwhelmed with helplessness, devastated that there’s nothing he can do. The coach identified for his fast wit stops and begins throughout an hour-long dialog, struggling to search out the proper phrases the place there are actually no phrases in any respect.

Twenty years in the past, Martelli and his Saint Joseph’s Hawks captivated faculty basketball, the team from a tiny Catholic faculty rolling to a 27-0 begin and ultimately into the 2004 Elite Eight. Two gamers from that team have been drafted in the first spherical, a feat almost as unbelievable as the Hawks’ run.

One, Jameer Nelson, performed 14 years in the NBA and is now the assistant common supervisor with the Philadelphia 76ers G League team, the Delaware Blue Coats.

The opposite, Delonte West, has been, the final anybody’s heard, residing exterior of a 7-11 in Alexandria, Va. He despatched the texts to Martelli.

A bunch of individuals, folks with means and contacts — Martelli, Nelson, Mark Cuban, Jayson Williams – have tried to assist West. Save him, actually. They’re basketball folks, after all. In the enterprise of getting outcomes. It’s what coaches and athletes stay for, why team house owners purchase into the attract of sports activities — the thirst for a win, the ecstasy of victory.

Besides this one they will’t effort into success, or purchase their approach to an answer. As a substitute, they’ve discovered what too many different households already know: that the vicious storm of psychological sickness, drug habit and desperation stewing inside West cares little about work ethic or cash; it swallows every little thing and everybody complete.

“Everyone has someone going through something similar and those who have the means to help, or create a barrier to protect their loved ones, that’s what you do,” Cuban says. “I thought I could help. And I tried. I really did. We all did. It’s just, you just feel hopeless.”

Martelli rewinds the story, going all the means again to a tennis court docket at the School of New Jersey on a summer time day in 2000. Rob Kennedy ran a Hoop Group occasion there, and West and a set of teammates from suburban Maryland have been working in a sport. Most coaches went to see Eddie Basden, who ultimately would land with a scholarship to Charlotte. Martelli, admittedly, was largely interested in Basden, too.

Then he watched a child he’d by no means heard of get clipped from beneath whereas driving to the basket. Your complete crowd groaned as he banged back-first into the moveable stanchion. The child jumped up, hustled down the court docket and began enjoying protection.

Martelli advised his workers, “Forget Basden. I want Delonte West.’’ It wasn’t too much of an ask. West only had a handful of mid-major suitors – Siena, Manhattan, Towson. He once half-jokingly told a reporter that he opted for the Hawks because they were on TV the most.

During his three years on campus, West played with the same single-minded devotion that he showed on that tennis court. He did not merely devote himself to basketball; he devoured it.

Following West’s freshman season, assistant coach Matt Brady suggested he tinker with his jumper. Many nights that summer, Martelli would see the lights on in the gym as he rode down City Avenue. West, he knew, was working. As a freshman, West connected 11.8 percent from the 3-point line. By the end of his junior season, West shot 49 percent from the floor and 41 from the arc.

It’s not that he was all basketball. What started out as doodling in the margins of high school assignments blossomed into a passion. West majored in art at St. Joe’s, and if he wasn’t in the gym, he was in the art room. Martelli still has some of West’s artwork back home in Philly.

West also was savvy. He once changed out the radio in a teammate’s car for a CD player, offering to trick it out so lights flashed every time the bass bumped.

He could be funny, glib, introspective and deep all in the course of one conversation. His teammate Brian Jesiolowski used to drive West around in the summers, the two earning cash at area basketball camps. One night they passed a guy walking who was Philly famous – a long-haired, berobed preacher who traversed the city barefoot. Jesiolowski mentioned him to West as they drove past, and West insisted they go back and offer him a ride. “I mean, he’s barefoot, he probably wants a lift,” West reasoned.

The preacher naturally was reluctant at first, however they reassured him that they have been faculty college students headed again to campus, nothing sinister. The preacher hopped in the backseat and as Jesiolowski drove, West earnestly requested how he may be capable to obtain his desires — to play professional ball, assist his household. He defined that he prayed recurrently, went to church, however needed to know what else he may do. The preacher assured him that he was on the proper path. The dialogue, critical and intense, continued till they pulled as much as Larry’s Steaks throughout from campus. Just earlier than the preacher exited the again seat, West mentioned, “Man, I have one more question for you. What the f— happened to the dinosaurs?”

As he retells the story, Jesiolowski bursts out laughing. “I nearly crashed the car,” he says. “But he didn’t even crack a smile.” The 2 commemorated the evening by dashing into a close-by comfort retailer to purchase disposable cameras, every posing with the preacher. Jesiolowski nonetheless has it someplace.

“He was absolutely hilarious,” Jesiolowski says. “But he also, once you cracked the shell, he was really this very kind, profound person. Honestly, I think he was misunderstood. You see him, you think he’s just this great basketball player from a tough neighborhood who made himself great. That’s all true, but he was so much more than that.”

Upon studying that he had been chosen for the cowl of Sports activities Illustrated, Nelson had a query: May West seem alongside him? Nelson didn’t love the highlight, and spent the bulk of the Hawks’ 2003-04 season ensuring all of his teammates have been showcased.

It additionally was an acknowledgement that, with out West, Nelson would have been particular, however collectively, they have been magical. The 12 months earlier than The 12 months (West’s sophomore season), the Hawks completed 23-7, and had West not suffered a late-season stress fracture, who is aware of what might need occurred? Because it was, they misplaced to Auburn by two in additional time in the first spherical of the NCAA Event. That 12 months Nelson averaged 19.7 factors, 5.1 rebounds and 4.7 assists to West’s 17.3, 4.3 and three.2. A 12 months later, as they rolled to close perfection, they have been an extension of one another – Nelson the savvy, fast level guard and West his fearless, aggressive backcourt mate.

West opted to show professional following his junior 12 months — he memorably spent the day he declared driving round campus in a golf cart, tossing water balloons at unsuspecting classmates — and wound up a first-round choose, chosen by Boston 4 spots after Nelson went to Orlando by way of a commerce from Denver.

“Delonte made himself into a pro because of his work ethic, his determination and his will to be good,” Nelson says. “He had an amazing basketball IQ. He was unorthodox because he was left-handed, but really, he just had this grit in him. That’s what made the difference.”

Martelli recollects how West labored all hours and refused to lose at drills – even when it meant he needed to bend the guidelines a bit of bit. However he can also’t assist however rethink what he then wrote off as a fierce dedication to basketball as one thing extra, possibly an obsession greater than a ardour.

All of them do that now, rethink moments that they chalked as much as West’s extremely competitiveness and burning want to play. There was the sport in opposition to Xavier in the Atlantic 10 match. Just days earlier than, Saint Joseph’s had reached the pinnacle, the tiny faculty sitting atop the AP rankings. However that sport, it was like the Hawks’ sneakers have been caught in quicksand. The Musketeers led by 22 at halftime and received by 20. With a couple of minutes left, Martelli waved the white flag. He took Nelson out of the sport, and some minutes later, yanked West.

Besides West wouldn’t sit down. He begged the coach for just a few extra seconds, insisting he may win the sport by himself. When Martelli advised him no, that they needed to give up this one, West bowed as much as his head coach. Nelson came to visit and defused the scenario.

Or when athletic coach Invoice Lukasiewicz intervened throughout follow to are inclined to a lower on West’s hand. Itching to get again to motion, West fussed whereas Lukasiewicz put an ointment to cease the bleeding, rising so impatient that he slapped Lukasiewicz’s hand away. When Lukasiewicz continued to use the ointment, Martelli and his former gamers say West charged at him.

Or the time that Jesiolowski recollects, when West threatened to mess up his teammate who had been defending him laborious in follow, or misplaced his cool after they went out at evening. “He’d just sort of snap over something not that serious,” Jesiolowski says. “I just always thought, he’s a tough kid from a tough neighborhood.”

West went public with his diagnosis as bipolar in 2008, solely 4 years after he left Philly, and everybody who has a narrative now questions in the event that they missed a clue, if they need to have identified, may have helped or intervened.

The guilt eats in any respect of them, understanding what they now do about bipolar dysfunction; the way it can worsen over time if left untreated, or result in dangerous coping mechanisms like substance abuse. West is so younger, nonetheless solely 40 years previous. What if he had been guided towards remedy, and was open sufficient then to simply accept it? “You want to go backward,” Nelson says. “But you can’t. It’s not how it works.”

Twenty years in the past, psychological well being didn’t have a lot area inside a locker room. St. Joe’s had a sports activities psychologist, Joel Fish, however individuals who sought him out normally wanted him to navigate basketball-related questions – the best way to focus higher on their foul taking pictures; the best way to keep motivated when their enjoying time diminished.

“As athletes, we’re conditioned to be the tough guys, like superheroes almost,” Nelson says. “To say you have a problem? That you need to talk about it to someone? Nah. You can’t do that.”

But just three years after he turned professional, Nelson himself found the fragility of the line between muscling by and needing assist when he misplaced his dad, Floyd, in a drowning accident. He remembers sitting at his locker after a sport sobbing uncontrollably.

Solely at the insistence of common supervisor Otis Smith and coach Stan Van Gundy did he converse with a sports activities psychologist. He went reluctantly. “I was fortunate that I had people who saw what was going on, and I was at least open-minded enough to get the help,” Nelson says. “If not, who knows what happens to me, right? To my career? To my life? I understand how this happens. The Delonte I knew was resilient, strong-minded, but when you’re talking about mental health, it can get the best of anybody.”

Former Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli final texted with Delonte West on April 25, 2022. (Harry How / Getty Pictures)

The primary time Martelli stepped in was in 2016. West was seen panhandling on the streets in Houston, carrying a hospital robe and no footwear. There had been different scary moments — in 2009, he was arrested on a three-wheel bike for a minor site visitors violation and located to be carting three weapons and a knife.

He at all times had an clarification. He was transporting the firearms, serving to a homeless particular person, not homeless himself. By 2016, West’s NBA profession had lengthy since run its course. He’d had good years and good moments — most memorably a game-winner in a playoff sport for the Cavaliers — however he additionally had a popularity of being tough, and bounced from team to team. The final straw got here in 2012, when West was twice suspended by the Mavericks for conduct detrimental to the team. He tried to hold on, discover some run abroad and in the G League. The search led to 2015.

So when Martelli noticed the video a 12 months later, he was alarmed sufficient that he reached out to former NBA coach John Lucas, who runs a substance abuse facility for athletes. Lucas thought he may assist. Martelli was optimistic. It labored till it didn’t, starting a sample that lasted for years. West would depart remedy with large desires, normally about resuscitating his basketball profession, however no actual plan. When the dream fizzled, he’d wind up proper again the place he began.

His NBA earnings depleted — at one level, West signed a $12.8 million cope with Cleveland — he’d ask his former coach and teammates for cash, normally just just a few hundred {dollars} right here or there. In the event that they declined, he’d cease answering texts for a spell. Martelli tried to assist financially; Nelson most popular to search out him protected harbor, or see if he may assist get West medicines. It went on like that for years, forwards and backwards, West out and in of their lives.

Then in January 2020, one other viral video confirmed West badly overwhelmed after an altercation in D.C. Quietly, the NBA Gamers Affiliation tried to assist, as did Cuban. He footed the invoice to ship West to Rebound Institute, an out of doors remedy clinic created by former NBA participant Jayson Williams, who had his personal struggles with substance abuse.

Quickly Martelli, Cuban and Nelson, hell-bent on serving to West, related on convention calls, speaking to the counselors at the facility. Powerful love, the counselors preached. Let him get on his personal two toes. Don’t foot the invoice. Don’t ship the cash.

It appeared to be working. At the rehab facility, West went skydiving and canoeing, labored on a ship, acquiescing to the facility’s mantra to give up and belief. Jesiolowski received the deal with from Martelli and despatched a care bundle, together with a hoodie he’d received in a hoops match and a ebook by ultramarathoner David Goggins. He added his title and quantity however by no means heard again.

West wound up leaving the clinic. In September 2020, one other video surfaced, this time displaying West panhandling in Dallas. Cuban drove to the fuel station and picked him up, sending him once more to Rebound. A month later, he posted an image of West on horseback on Twitter. “A long, long way to go but he has taken the first steps,” Cuban wrote. West talked about getting a job at the clinic after he was accomplished along with his personal rehab. He sounded hopeful.

Lower than a 12 months after leaving the rehab facility — in October 2021 — West was arrested after banging on cops’ doorways in Florida. Throughout the arrest, he ranted about being higher than LeBron James and claimed he was each Jesus Christ and the president. Makes an attempt by The Athletic to achieve West by way of textual content message to his final identified cellular phone quantity went unanswered.

“It’s just, disappointing is what it is. Or frustrating, I guess,” Cuban says. “Delonte sabotages himself. … I don’t know what else to say. It is what it is. I tried.”

He sounds resigned and exhausted. And he’s. All of them are. After they step again from it, they see it for what it’s — a semi-famous particular person caught in the disaster that torpedoes so many households. He’s not particular or immune just as a result of he may play basketball.

“It brings me to tears,” Nelson says. “He has so many people who love him, who want to help him, but he has to want to help himself. … I am here for him. I will always be here for him. I tried, and I will continue to try if I can, but he has to meet us halfway. He has to want the help.”

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The 2003-04 Saint Joseph’s Hawks gathered at an area nation membership for a reunion. (Courtesy Phil Martelli)

The hairlines hung again a bit of, and the waistlines pushed ahead, however the tales? Not like the tales advised at most reunion gatherings, these tales — of a small Jesuit faculty, led by a Philly lifer, a diminutive level guard and an unheralded two-guard threatening to finish Indiana’s reign as the final team to go undefeated in faculty basketball — didn’t need to be embellished.

In September, the 2003-04 Saint Joseph’s Hawks gathered at an area nation membership for a reunion. Not everybody may make it, however everybody was invited. Together with West. Martelli emailed his mom, Delphina, inviting her in addition to her son.

The final time he spoke with Delphina she begged the coach to assist her discover some hope for her son. “He’s got nothing to look forward to,” he says she advised him. Martelli thought possibly the reunion may try this. Neither got here. Martelli didn’t anticipate them to; part of him frightened what would occur in the event that they did.

However West’s title got here up typically, as the tales flowed from the 4 p.m. cocktail hour and long gone the dinner service, pushing towards 11 at evening. “It felt like a piece was missing,” Jesiolowski says. “Like the whole family wasn’t there.”

Martelli final texted with West on April 25, 2022. West advised him he was residing exterior of a 7-11 in Alexandria, Va. Martelli pressed him for the deal with after which known as a training buddy in the space. He requested his buddy if he knew a cop. Perhaps they might arrest West, cost him with vagrancy and get him off the streets and into rehab. Martelli shakes his head. “Think about that,” he says. “I was going to get my own player arrested, and I thought it was a good idea.”

Six months later, West was arrested exterior of the identical comfort retailer on 4 costs: car trespassing, coming into a car, fleeing from legislation enforcement and public intoxication. Martelli fielded one other textual content, this time for a airplane ticket in order that, if the costs have been dropped, West may get to Texas, the place his two youngsters are, and attempt to discover a recent begin.

Martelli didn’t ship the cash. He hasn’t heard from West since. Neither has anybody else.

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; photographs: Harry How, Doug Pensioner / Getty Pictures)