Friday, July 19

‘You just feel hopeless’: Twenty years after St. Joe’s historic hoops run, an absence haunts the team

Editor’s note: This story addresses mental health and addiction and may be difficult to read or emotionally upsetting. 

AVALON, N.J. — Phil Martelli eases back into his chair and sighs. He has been scrolling through his phone, reading text messages that span a two-year window. It is a one-sided conversation, all black and white from the sender, no blue responses from him.

It is a beautiful sunny day in New Jersey and just a week ago, Martelli and his wife, Judy, enjoyed an idyllic Jersey Shore weekend, their home stuffed with children and grandchildren as the kids’ exuberance ricocheted off the ceilings.

But on this August afternoon it is pin-drop quiet in the house. The kids have left and the mood is heavy as Martelli pages through the texts from a person he always considered part of his family. The messages all follow the same pattern: a desperate request for help, a pressing need for money – to pay the dope man, the bartender, or, to get off the streets and find safety.

Martelli used to answer, even send the money as requested. But then counselors advised him he wasn’t helping; that, in fact, he was hurting. Then the messages stopped, the last one coming more than a year ago now – in April of last year. “I’m really sad” is how it ends.

Martelli is sad, too. Crushed with guilt, overwhelmed with helplessness, devastated that there is nothing he can do. The coach known for his quick wit stops and starts during an hour-long conversation, struggling to find the right words where there are really no words at all.

Twenty years ago, Martelli and his Saint Joseph’s Hawks captivated college basketball, the team from a tiny Catholic school rolling to a 27-0 start and eventually into the 2004 Elite Eight. Two players from that team were drafted in the first round, a feat nearly as improbable as the Hawks’ run.

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

The other, Delonte West, has been, the last anyone’s heard, living outside of a 7-11 in Alexandria, Va. He sent the texts to Martelli.

A host of people, people with means and contacts — Martelli, Nelson, Mark Cuban, Jayson Williams – have tried to help West. Save him, really. They are basketball people, after all. In the business of getting results. It is what coaches and athletes live for, why team owners buy into the allure of sports — the thirst for a win, the ecstasy of victory.

Except this one they can’t effort into success, or buy their way to a solution. Instead, they have found what too many other families already know: that the vicious storm of mental illness, drug addiction and desperation stewing inside West cares little about work ethic or money; it swallows everything and everyone whole.

“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 way back to a tennis court at the College of New Jersey on a summer day in 2000. Rob Kennedy ran a Hoop Group event there, and West and a collection of teammates from suburban Maryland were running in a game. Most coaches went to see Eddie Basden, who eventually would land with a scholarship to Charlotte. Martelli, admittedly, was mostly curious about Basden, too.

Then he watched a kid he’d never heard of get clipped from underneath while driving to the basket. The entire crowd groaned as he banged back-first into the portable stanchion. The kid jumped up, hustled down the court and started playing defense.

Martelli told his staff, “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, but they reassured him that they were college students headed back to campus, nothing sinister. The preacher hopped in the backseat and as Jesiolowski drove, West earnestly asked how he might be able to achieve his dreams — to play pro ball, help his family. He explained that he prayed regularly, went to church, but wanted to know what else he could do. The preacher assured him that he was on the right path. The dialogue, serious and intense, continued until they pulled up to Larry’s Steaks across from campus. Just before the preacher exited the back seat, West said, “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 two commemorated the night by dashing into a nearby convenience store to buy disposable cameras, each posing with the preacher. Jesiolowski still has it somewhere.

“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 learning that he had been chosen for the cover of Sports Illustrated, Nelson had a question: Could West appear alongside him? Nelson didn’t love the spotlight, and spent the bulk of the Hawks’ 2003-04 season making sure all of his teammates were showcased.

It also was an acknowledgement that, without West, Nelson would have been special, but together, they were magical. The year before The Year (West’s sophomore season), the Hawks finished 23-7, and had West not suffered a late-season stress fracture, who knows what might have happened? As it was, they lost to Auburn by two in overtime in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. That year Nelson averaged 19.7 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.7 assists to West’s 17.3, 4.3 and 3.2. A year later, as they rolled to near perfection, they were an extension of each other – Nelson the savvy, quick point guard and West his fearless, aggressive backcourt mate.

West opted to turn pro following his junior year — he memorably spent the day he declared riding around campus in a golf cart, tossing water balloons at unsuspecting classmates — and wound up a first-round pick, selected by Boston four spots after Nelson went to Orlando via a trade 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 recalls how West worked all hours and refused to lose at drills – even if it meant he had to bend the rules a little bit. But he also can’t help but reconsider what he then wrote off as a fierce commitment to basketball as something more, maybe an obsession more than a passion.

They all do this now, reconsider moments that they chalked up to West’s ultra competitiveness and burning desire to play. There was the game against Xavier in the Atlantic 10 tournament. Just days before, Saint Joseph’s had reached the pinnacle, the tiny school sitting atop the AP rankings. But that game, it was like the Hawks’ sneakers were stuck in quicksand. The Musketeers led by 22 at halftime and won by 20. With a few minutes left, Martelli waved the white flag. He took Nelson out of the game, and a few minutes later, yanked West.

Except West wouldn’t sit down. He begged the coach for a few more seconds, insisting he could win the game by himself. When Martelli told him no, that they had to surrender this one, West bowed up to his head coach. Nelson came over and defused the situation.

Or when athletic trainer Bill Lukasiewicz intervened during practice to tend to a cut on West’s hand. Itching to get back to action, West fussed while Lukasiewicz put an ointment to stop the bleeding, growing so impatient that he slapped Lukasiewicz’s hand away. When Lukasiewicz continued to apply the ointment, Martelli and his former players say West charged at him.

Or the time that Jesiolowski recalls, when West threatened to mess up his teammate who had been defending him hard in practice, or lost his cool when they went out at night. “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, only four years after he left Philly, and everyone who has a story now questions if they missed a clue, if they should have known, could have helped or intervened.

The guilt eats at all of them, knowing what they now do about bipolar disorder; how it can worsen over time if left untreated, or lead to harmful coping mechanisms like substance abuse. West is so young, still only 40 years old. What if he had been guided toward treatment, and was open enough then to accept it? “You want to go backward,” Nelson says. “But you can’t. It’s not how it works.”

Twenty years ago, mental health didn’t have much space inside of a locker room. St. Joe’s had a sports psychologist, Joel Fish, but people who sought him out usually needed him to navigate basketball-related questions – how to focus better on their foul shooting; how to stay motivated when their playing 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.”

Yet just three years after he turned pro, Nelson himself discovered the fragility of the line between muscling through and needing help when he lost his dad, Floyd, in a drowning accident. He remembers sitting at his locker after a game sobbing uncontrollably.

Only at the insistence of general manager Otis Smith and coach Stan Van Gundy did he speak with a sports 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 last texted with Delonte West on April 25, 2022. (Harry How / Getty Images)

The first time Martelli stepped in was in 2016. West was seen panhandling on the streets in Houston, wearing a hospital gown and no shoes. There had been other scary moments — in 2009, he was arrested on a three-wheel motorcycle for a minor traffic violation and found to be carting three guns and a knife.

He always had an explanation. He was transporting the firearms, helping a homeless person, not homeless himself. By 2016, West’s NBA career had long since run its course. He’d had good years and good moments — most memorably a game-winner in a playoff game for the Cavaliers — but he also had a reputation of being difficult, and bounced from team to team. The last straw came in 2012, when West was twice suspended by the Mavericks for conduct detrimental to the team. He tried to hang on, find some run overseas and in the G League. The search ended in 2015.

So when Martelli saw the video a year later, he was alarmed enough that he reached out to former NBA coach John Lucas, who runs a substance abuse facility for athletes. Lucas thought he could help. Martelli was optimistic. It worked until it didn’t, beginning a pattern that lasted for years. West would leave treatment with big dreams, usually about resuscitating his basketball career, but no real plan. When the dream fizzled, he’d wind up right back where he started.

His NBA earnings depleted — at one point, West signed a $12.8 million deal with Cleveland — he’d ask his former coach and teammates for money, usually just a few hundred dollars here or there. If they declined, he’d stop answering texts for a spell. Martelli tried to help financially; Nelson preferred to find him safe harbor, or see if he could help get West medications. It went on like that for years, back and forth, West in and out of their lives.

Then in January 2020, another viral video showed West badly beaten after an altercation in D.C. Quietly, the NBA Players Association tried to help, as did Cuban. He footed the bill to send West to Rebound Institute, an outdoor therapy clinic created by former NBA player Jayson Williams, who had his own struggles with substance abuse.

Soon Martelli, Cuban and Nelson, hell-bent on helping West, connected on conference calls, talking to the counselors at the facility. Tough love, the counselors preached. Let him get on his own two feet. Don’t foot the bill. Don’t send the money.

It seemed to be working. At the rehab facility, West went skydiving and canoeing, worked on a boat, acquiescing to the facility’s mantra to surrender and trust. Jesiolowski got the address from Martelli and sent a care package, including a hoodie he’d won in a hoops tournament and a book by ultramarathoner David Goggins. He added his name and number but never heard back.

West wound up leaving the clinic. In September 2020, another video surfaced, this time showing West panhandling in Dallas. Cuban drove to the gas station and picked him up, sending him again to Rebound. A month later, he posted a picture 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 done with his own rehab. He sounded hopeful.

Less than a year after leaving the rehab facility — in October 2021 — West was arrested after banging on police officers’ doors in Florida. During the arrest, he ranted about being better than LeBron James and claimed he was both Jesus Christ and the president. Attempts by The Athletic to reach West via text message to his last known cell phone number 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 is. They all are. When they step back from it, they see it for what it is — a semi-famous person caught in the crisis that torpedoes so many families. He’s not special or immune just because he could 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.”

The 2003-04 Saint Joseph’s Hawks gathered at a local country club for a reunion. (Courtesy Phil Martelli)

The hairlines hung back a little, and the waistlines pushed forward, but the stories? Unlike the tales told at most reunion gatherings, these stories — of a small Jesuit school, led by a Philly lifer, a diminutive point guard and an unheralded two-guard threatening to end Indiana’s reign as the last team to go undefeated in college basketball — didn’t have to be embellished.

In September, the 2003-04 Saint Joseph’s Hawks gathered at a local country club for a reunion. Not everyone could make it, but everyone was invited. Including West. Martelli emailed his mother, Delphina, inviting her as well as her son.

The last time he spoke with Delphina she begged the coach to help her find some hope for her son. “He’s got nothing to look forward to,” he says she told him. Martelli thought maybe the reunion could do that. Neither came. Martelli didn’t expect them to; a part of him worried what would happen if they did.

But West’s name came up often, as the stories flowed from the 4 p.m. cocktail hour and long past the dinner service, pushing toward 11 at night. “It felt like a piece was missing,” Jesiolowski says. “Like the whole family wasn’t there.”

Martelli last texted with West on April 25, 2022. West told him he was living outside of a 7-11 in Alexandria, Va. Martelli pressed him for the address and then called a coaching friend in the area. He asked his friend if he knew a cop. Maybe they could arrest West, charge 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 outside of the same convenience store on four charges: vehicle trespassing, entering a vehicle, fleeing from law enforcement and public intoxication. Martelli fielded another text, this time for a plane ticket so that, if the charges were dropped, West could get to Texas, where his two children are, and try to find a fresh start.

Martelli didn’t send the money. He hasn’t heard from West since. Neither has anyone else.

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