From a distance, it’s hard to tell whether the man on the ground is alive. It just looks like a limp figure in a pair of light-wash jeans, shuddering on the pavement with every body blow his attacker throws. He remains still as a boot comes down on his neck, in two short stomps.
It’s hard, too, to tell what’s more shocking — the sheer violence of the encounter, or the fact that the beaten man is former NBA star Delonte West.
The attack happened in Prince George’s County in West’s home state of Maryland, and local police confirmed both his identity and the fact that it wasn’t a random attack, but a fight between two acquaintances. One witness suggested West started the fight by throwing a bottle. Neither man wanted to press charges, but West did unleash a barely intelligible tirade while sitting on the sidewalk in cuffs, in a video that was leaked by one of the responding officers. He claimed someone had come at him with a gun, before responding to police questions by screaming, “I don’t give a fuck!” and declaring, “I’m the real president.”
It’s a sad turn for the 36-year-old, who just a half-decade ago was happily married to his second wife, raising a son and finding stability while searching for new basketball opportunities. Now it looks more like West is homeless and more erratic than ever.
It can be hard to imagine how a person who had both wealth and status could be found bleeding on a sidewalk years later, with no one by his side to pick him up. But few things can derail a life like severe mental illness, and in West, we witness how people are left with few options for care, regardless of the resources they might have.
West was a shining star as a young player, getting drafted by the Boston Celtics as the 24th overall pick in 2004. Over eight years, he showed off his prodigious talents as a clutch shooter; he also got minutes at point guard, working alongside superstars like LeBron James (with the Cleveland Cavaliers) and Dirk Nowitzki (of the Dallas Mavericks). But his lifelong struggle with mental illness also came out during this time, too. In a 2015 profile, West detailed how his childhood was full of suicidal ideation, cutting and depressive cycles. It was only in 2008, after an outburst against a ref during a game, that he sought counseling and received a bipolar diagnosis.
He already had a reputation for causing trouble with his mouth and personality, but this appeared to be a turning point for his image. Instead, things just got worse in September 2009, when he was pulled over and arrested in Cleveland for driving erratically on a three-wheeled motorcycle. West was clearly impaired. He also had two pistols on his person and a shotgun inside the guitar case on his back.
It was enough to make him a league pariah, and the mockery didn’t end when West revealed the impairment was the fault of new medication for bipolar disorder, or that he was merely moving the guns out of his house to a safer location. He became the butt of jokes — jokes that stoked the very real suspicions of front offices in need of a new guard. In the years after his arrest, he puttered around the NBA’s minor league system and had a short stint in Chinese basketball before returning to the U.S. to try out for NBA teams again.
“The talent was there. There was no denying that. He’s NBA — that’s where he belongs,” Travis Blakeley, an assistant coach with the D-League Dallas Legends, said in 2015. “Unfortunately, misconceptions and out of sight, out of mind has relegated him to our level. He hasn’t been able to show people that this isn’t where he belongs.”
While West tried to move on, the constant references to his failures dragged him down.
“If I wasn’t smilin’ today on the court, they’d say, ‘Oh, he didn’t take his meds today, he’s crazy.’ Of course it affected my earnings. I was making $4, $5 million a year and then after that incident, I could barely get a league minimum contract. I had to talk to the team therapist everywhere I went,” he said in a revealing 2014 interview with Vice.
The last decade has seen a sea change in how the general public talks about mental health, but Reef Karim, a psychiatrist with more than two decades of clinical experience, observes that both a stigma and misunderstanding persist around the questions of who suffers and why. “Status doesn’t come with any kind of immunity to mental illness. I’ve treated all-star athletes, A-list celebrities, literal royalty, and their brain is no different at its core than the person you see living on the street,” Karim explains. “Sometimes, people with status have an even harder time getting help than the average person, because the assumption is that they’re just eccentric. Not that they’re struggling.”
So you have to wonder what fans, old teammates, coaches and family thought as they witnessed West’s decline after his gun arrest. In recent years, he was spotted wandering around barefoot at night outside of a Jack in the Box in Houston. A year later, he was standing on a median amid traffic, asking for money. Just last summer, West was seen again on the street, looking gaunt but smiling with a blunt in hand. Some of it might have to do with the fact that West quit his bipolar medication in 2015. Then again, maybe not.
The response to the viral videos from fellow athletes and old friends was rapid and thick with emotion. Many either pledged to support West or demanded that people close to him reach out and get him off the street. Fans started tweeting at the Boston Celtics and even Mark Cuban, owner of the Mavs. A chorus of voices called for compassion, rather than gawking stares.
The problem is that getting real help for someone like West can be a much harder, more confusing path than most realize. It’s a situation Karim calls “No Man’s Land” — when someone is struggling but likely unwilling to commit to intensive treatment. While state laws differ, generally, a person has to be an immediate danger to themselves or others, or fit the criteria of the “gravely disabled,” in order to be put into involuntary mental health care. Being homeless and getting into fights doesn’t meet the mark. Neither does having loved ones in their corner advocating for care without consent. In other words, unless West verbally agrees to go into a hospital (and do things like take medication), there’s little leeway to get him there.
For much of the 20th century, it was actually pretty easy to get someone committed into a mental health facility in the U.S. as long as there was documented evidence from doctors and people who knew the subject. Decades of abuse and negligence of patients, however, led to sweeping changes in the 1960s that dismantled federal support of treatment centers and instead put the budget and planning into the hands of state governments. But without proper funding, many communities saw resources simply disappear — and with it, an avenue to get some people in temporary emergency care.
“If they’re gravely disabled or a danger to themselves, you can get them into the system, and that unlocks a series of services to potentially keep treating that person. But if they’re not that type of severe, you can’t force it, even if their symptoms are debilitating enough that they’re not functioning properly,” says Karim. “So you see situations where someone is clearly in trouble and not themselves, but they can’t make the call for help, and no one can do that for them. That’s when it’s hard.”
It’s especially hard when working with people who don’t have a home and are prone to wander, as West has been. Mental illness can certainly lead people into poverty and homelessness, but the reverse is true, too, as homelessness actively causes trauma and can trigger substance abuse as a coping mechanism. Experts estimate up to a quarter of homeless people are struggling with mental disorders. And while people worry about erratic behavior being a red flag for violent actions, those with mental illness are disproportionately the victims of violence.
The dim silver lining here is that a person’s rock bottom is the best time to reach out and convince them to agree to treatment, which is why it may be critical for someone to actually find and talk to West right now. Karim speculates that it’s likely a number of different people have attempted to motivate West into long-term care in the past, again and again, to no avail. “It’s when they’re truly vulnerable that they’re open. When they’re not that way, it’s easy to talk themselves out of treatment and show they’re actually okay,” he adds.
A lot of things have changed for West since he joined the NBA as a fresh-faced baller with a shock of red hair. He couldn’t have predicted that he would carry the burden of knowing that people have always doubted and laughed at him for struggling with the scariest, longest fight in his life. But a decade ago, after his bipolar diagnosis, it felt like redemption was just around the corner for this feisty, talented athlete. Given he’s just 36, it’s still right within reach — as long as he can get the care he needs.
“I want to enjoy being in the NBA. I want to enjoy being successful. I want to enjoy my life,” he told reporters in 2008. “I don’t care if anyone laughs at me. All that matters is how I feel about myself.”