Gracious, for a while there, at the top of its story about Delonte West, the former Cleveland Cavalier, it appeared as though Slam was going to fall into every celebrity-profile trap known. The headline and subhed does the story no favors, first off. “The Real Mr. West: Spend a day with Delonte West in his native Washington, D.C., and it becomes clear that the caricature so often presented of him has little in common with what he’s actually like.” That sounds like dummy text left on a story budget from 20 minutes after the story was assigned. In fact, you can play a Mad Libs version of this headline on any profile ever written: “The Real (Honorific) (Surname of Story Subject): Spend a day with (Full Name of Story Subject) in (Possessive Pronoun) (Subject’s Home Town) and it becomes clear that the caricature” etc.
There’s a reason that the celebrity profile is considered a zombie journalistic form; whereas writers used to spend months crawling around in their subjects’ lives, these days time and publicity-handlers confine scribes to quick-hit ginned-up media encounters, and the result usually feels like an overwrought account of a blind date chaperoned by the subject’s stepmother. The top of Tzvi Twersky’s story has that feel of too much reach, not enough grab. We’re in an Escalade, cruising around the District, and West is shaking the specter of an unfortunate 2009 traffic stop that turned up a small arsenal in his Spyder. The author catches an instant case of Stockholm Syndrome, comparing West’s sentence of home detention and constant court monitoring with … well …
We feel free, here in Abe Lincoln’s marble shadow, because Delonte West is finally free.
But once the rhapsodizing dribbles out, we get to the candy center: A rich account of how West, tripping one night on the Seroquel that treats his bipolar disorder, decided to load up three guns, including a shotgun in a guitar case, and hit the freeway barely able to stay awake — and then flag down a police car. “I tell the officer I’m not functioning well and I’m transporting weapons,” West tells Twersky. In hindsight, better decisions could have been made.
But here we have a great subtext emerging, and one that could have been explored more deeply. I haven’t seen the police report, but let’s take West at his word here, because the story he told doesn’t exactly make him sound like a genius. If West is suffering from a diagnosed mental illness, and is on prescribed medication for said illness, and approaches an agent of the law to explain that he’s having trouble driving — then what the hell good is arresting him? West wouldn’t be the first person to be picked on for having a mental health condition, and certainly not the first to be picked up for the same. But it’s worth noting that, despite harming precisely no one, West likely became another example of the criminalization of mental illness in America. Now he’s stigmatized as not just sick, but criminal. More than the usual ego-strokejob, this is, surprise, a worthwhile story, once it outgrows its celebrity-profileness.
Also, you gotta love this tantalizing non-denial denial quietly tucked between parentheses near the end:
Listening to those who know him speak and watching him finesse three different crowds of kids in one day, as he’s done multiple days this summer, West’s reputation as a crazy, gun-wielding, mother-fucking (“Who knows where that rumor came from? Who knows who really started it,” is what he’ll say on the topic of Gloria James) basketball player couldn’t seem further from the truth.