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West may be going in a new direction

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By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / September 28, 2010

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WALTHAM — His Celtics homecoming seemed to bring some peace to Delonte West, so much so that yesterday during media day he was smiling, which was a rarity last season in Cleveland. Reporters were told only to ask questions pertaining to basketball, squeezing much of the anticipation from West’s first interview in more than a year.

But then a reporter from a local radio station asked West the question that basketball fans, entertainment buffs, gossip columnists, and the entire Northeast Ohio region had been wondering about since the Cavaliers were eliminated from the NBA playoffs last May.

Did West have an intimate relationship with Gloria James, the mother of two-time Most Valuable Player and former teammate LeBron James?

Before a frantic team official could intervene, undoubtedly fearing West might react with four-letter words, or perhaps clam up altogether, as he did last season, West took a deep breath, stared the reporter in the eye, and addressed whether the rumors were true.

“Not at all,’’ he said. “I come from an era where you don’t say nothing bad about someone’s parent, so not at all.’’

West is back in Boston with a Samsonite outlet store full of baggage. He will serve a 10-game suspension beginning Oct. 26 after pleading guilty to carrying three guns and two knifes while on a motorcycle in suburban Washington, D.C.

And if that wasn’t enough to deal with, he has been dogged by speculation about his strained relationship with LeBron James, and also questions about his mental capacity. So not hiding behind a team spokesman and making a statement may have been his biggest statement of all.

West didn’t appear unnerved about the sudden shift in questioning, and then continued with the basketball-only questions.

There has been a lot happening on the court, too, with West having been traded to Minnesota, then waived by the Timberwolves only to sign a make-good deal with the Celtics.

Perhaps it all has created some humility in West. For the first time in his career, he is not playing under a guaranteed deal. The Celtics can release him any time before Jan. 10 without being responsible for a penny more than what he already would have earned. He is on NBA probation, per se, having to prove to the Celtics and the league that he is worthy of remaining.

Talent never has been an issue with West. What has hindered a once-promising career is the series of off-court issues.

West also has admitted to having had bouts of depression. Some sports fans tend to believe that money eliminates problems, and that professional athletes aren’t allowed to have mental health issues. That’s a pretty harsh way to be judged, regardless of one’s salary.

West showed yesterday that he is indeed like many of us in some ways, having to deal with criticism and speculation while trying to build the maturity to face his detractors without allowing it to affect his livelihood.

That’s a challenge lots of people struggle with daily, trying to avoid letting personal issues affect the workplace. Yesterday, West was tossed a personal grenade, and without flinching he quickly dived on it.

“It’s a great compliment being picked up by a team that’s coming off a [Finals] Game 7 and got the eyes set on a championship,’’ he said with a bright smile. “To be called to render my services to help this team put up another banner, that’s an amazing feeling. There’s a lot more maturity going on around here from the last time I was here. You can just sense it in the air, guys want to win.

“I walk through the locker room and everyone here has that gold trophy in their pupils and you can see it and you can feel it. There’s a lot of excitement here.’’

Yesterday, West took his first public step toward reforming his image. Of course, he never will be confused with Ray Allen or Grant Hill, but at 27 years old, West is still young enough to capitalize on being given another opportunity. Teammates have viewed him as skilled, but at times misunderstood and confused, a kind man who occasionally yields to his personal demons, an energetic spirit who has succumbed to the pain of a difficult childhood.

West has made few enemies during his years at St. Joseph’s and in the NBA, only supporters.

“That’s my partner,’’ said center Kendrick Perkins, who played three seasons with West (2004-05 to 2006-07). “Been my friend for a long time. When he saw me he instantly smiled, I instantly smiled. He’s a great pickup. [Team president] Danny Ainge asked me if he should give Delonte another try. I said you can’t question his heart. His heart is there. He’s going to go out there and compete every night and he’s going to give us something.’’

The doubters are still shaking their heads, waiting for West’s next misstep, the one that knocks him out of the NBA permanently. But if he displays the focus and concentration he did yesterday, he should make great strides in reshaping his reputation and healing a damaged soul.

And that’s far more important than basketball.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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