The arrest Thursday night of Delonte West — the former Celtic and current Cleveland Cavaliers guard who was pulled over in suburban Washington, D.C., carrying three loaded firearms — is hardly an isolated event in the world of sports.
We've actually seen this story line pop up far too many times. Less than a year ago, there was Plaxico Burress, the Giants receiver who shot himself in the thigh with a gun that legally, he never should have been carrying.
Countless athletes have gotten tangled up with guns and made headlines for it. We've seen Bengals receiver Chris Henry, Warriors forward Stephen Jackson and the now-infamous Adam "Pacman" Jones in firearm-related run-ins with the law. Ohio State superstar running back Maurice Clarett ruined his career with too many guns and too much booze. West, for crying out loud, isn't even the first former Celtics guard to get busted this decade — in 2005, Sebastian Telfair was fined when he was caught with a loaded gun at Boston's Logan Airport.
But the problem just keeps getting worse. And every time another star makes headlines, he's always the villain. The focus is always on what the athlete did wrong and how he'll be punished. Seldom do we see the other side of the story.
Few will ever understand what it means to be an athlete in America today. It's the sharpest of double-edged swords — having athletic talent like Delonte West can bring fortune and fame, but fortune and fame often result in having a bull's eye on your back.
Celtics captain Paul Pierce knows it. On Sept. 25, 2000, Pierce was attacked in a nightclub by an angry mob of 20 assailants — he was stabbed eight times and had a bottle shattered over his face. He maintains to this day, nine years later, that he was attacked just for being popular.
On Nov. 26, 2007, Redskins safety Sean Taylor was shot and killed by an armed intruder in his Florida home. On New Year's Eve nearly three years ago, the Broncos' Darrent Williams was shot and killed outside a nightclub in Denver. Former All-Star outfielder Ivan Calderon died instantly in 2003 when he was shot between five and seven times in the head at a bar in his native Puerto Rico.
These things happen all the time. And we wonder why athletes carry guns?
Many athletes view carrying a firearm as a necessity. Shaquille O'Neal, Vince Carter, Marvin Harrison, Daunte Culpepper and Carl Pavano are all licensed to carry guns. These athletes are simply human beings doing whatever they can to protect themselves — because being rich and famous has made them into targets. They don't want to be harrassed, attacked or robbed, so they take the necessary precautions to be ready for the worst. You could argue that it's the responsible thing to do.
On Saturday, Delonte West's father Dmitri told the Washington Post that "all I can say is Delonte was looking behind his back and protecting himself." Dmitri West declined to say who specifically was out there targeting his multimillionaire son — but, he insisted, "bottom line is there's a lot of not-too-nice people out here."
The man's right. The world can be a cruel place, and far too many of the not-too-nice people out there are looking for rich, successful, famous targets. That's why Delonte West and a great many athletes like him decide to carry guns.
West, in particular, is a complex figure. On Saturday, the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Brian Windhorst wrote an in-depth feature on the struggles West faces as a high-profile athlete battling bipolar disorder. West is a good basketball player on a great team, but more importantly, he's a man of strong character who's fought through a lot to make it to where he is today. He's an inspiration to a great many fans, and it's saddening to see that reputation ripped away from him amid news of police reports and court dates.
"Some games West would sit in his uniform at his locker for an hour after the game staring into space," Windhorst writes. "Sometimes he would refuse to talk to anyone. Other times he would be his jovial self, cracking up the locker room and fitting into the team's pregame 'family photos.'"
We're talking about a man who appears to lack the self-assured, confident nature with which most pro athletes are blessed. On the court, Delonte West is a steady presence at shooting guard, a reliable player in any situation. Off it, he's lived a life of inconsistency, instability and confusion.
Doesn't sound like the kind of guy you can trust with a loaded weapon. But at the same time, that doesn't mean West is the bad guy here. Perhaps instead of vilifying one man for his clashes with the law, we should be looking for a long-term solution to a deeply rooted problem in sports.
That won't be easy, but ultimately it has to be done. Today, it's Delonte West — next, it could be anyone. It's hard to fathom the burden that comes with being rich and famous in America today.