The second quarter of Game 5 of the 2017 NBA Finals — played a year ago in Oakland — was especially tense. The Cleveland Cavaliers, facing elimination by the Golden State Warriors, were playing with a desperate frenzy. They were trying to erode the Dubs' lead with the type of physical play they'd successfully used in 2016, when the Cavs had pushed the Warriors around and swiped the NBA championship from them.
During a crucial play, the Warriors' David West — a respected NBA veteran — cradled a rebound from a miss by Cavs guard Kyrie Irving, who immediately tried to steal the ball by jerking West's arm.
Suddenly, all hell broke loose inside Oracle Arena.
West pushed Irving away, and Cavs teammates J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson then shoved West. Bad idea. As a Dubs player restrained Smith, West stood grill-to-grill with Thompson, pushing his face into Thompson's over and over until referees, teammates, and coaches broke up the scuffle. All the players involved, including West, received technical fouls. And the game, for a moment, seemed ready to join the Oakland crowd in coming unglued.
But the Warriors calmed down and staved off the Cavs' comeback, winning the game and the 2017 NBA Finals. West played just 11 minutes in Game 5 but was among team leaders in plus-minus differential, meaning the team surged and outscored the Cavs by large margins whenever he stepped on the court. That included the moment when West confronted Thompson and staked a physical and psychological edge the Dubs had ceded to the Cavs 12 months earlier.
"They were trying to turn the table, in terms of physicality," West told the Express in a recent interview. "It was a crucial energy moment in the game, and I thought it sustained us and helped us close it out."
West paused and ruminated over the year-old memory. Then he flashed a smile and leaned in: "It's just in my nature to step to the line."
Indeed, over his long and successful career, West has used his intelligence and keen instincts to recognize a problem just before anyone else seems to and then act quickly to solve it. He's done it for years as a locker room leader, calling meetings to clear the air or stopping teammates' feuds before they escalated. And he's done it on the court, applying his trademark toughness and rugged athleticism to shift momentum and win games with big plays.
Now with their third championship win in four seasons this year, the Warriors have established themselves as this era's best NBA team — and perhaps the greatest team in Bay Area sports history. But while Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green may get all the adoration, veteran player David West is almost just as pivotal. In his younger years, the former All-Star was one of basketball's top players. And at 37, West continues to be an outspoken leader both on and off the court. Most notably, he's transformed his experience of growing up Black in America into social activism fueled by his unquenchable thirst for political history and social justice.
At a time when Black pro athletes are using their positions to speak out against racial injustice — and facing backlash from the president — West's outspokenness has proven that he's the perfect modern Oakland athlete.
West bristles against the idea of limiting athletes by telling them to "just stick to sports," as he's considered a deep thinker and avid reader of philosophy and Black history.
He's a husband and father of two children, and an unselfish team player who often advises teammates on social issues and life in the NBA. He frequently visits with Bay Area nonprofit groups, as he and his wife Lesley are well-known for their charity work. He's developed a reputation as a strong business mind with a history of successful money management. And while the backup Warriors big man plays for one of sports' most vocally anti-Trump franchises, whose head coach and best player often criticize the president, West provides plenty of his own thoughtful political gestures and commentary, even if they frequently fly under the radar.
All of which explains why he's one of pro sports' most respected athletes, said Joseph Marshall, host of the Street Soldiers radio show and co-founder of a San Francisco violence-prevention program called Alive & Free.
"David is an astounding human being," Marshall said. "He refuses to live in a bubble, unlike some pro athletes. I'm so impressed with his high level of social consciousness and the depth of his charity work."
West is adept at identifying society's problems, as well as working to help solve them, much in the same way he anticipates opponents' moves on the court better than some defenders. As he grew up near New York City in the 1980s and '90s, he caught glimpses of the nation's most glaring ills: inadequate health care, housing discrimination, the failed War on Drugs, and police violence.
As an inquisitive child, West asked countless questions about these and other nagging social issues, and then searched for answers to them in books and periodicals.
He's still searching.
He has been since at least 1990, when a violent act in West's hometown of Teaneck, New Jersey, began fueling his social conscience.
One April day that year, when West was 9 years old, a police officer shot and killed Phillip Pannell, a Black 15-year-old from West's neighborhood. Witnesses said Pannell had his back turned and was unarmed, while Teaneck police presented a very different version of the story.