CLEVELAND – When they say there’s a price paid to be a champion, it’s usually about blood, sweat, pain and sacrifice.
In 14 NBA seasons, Golden State Warriors big man David West has done all that and then some. He’s spent 961 regular-season games and 98 playoff games and counting using his brawn and guile in the trenches to do battle with some of the best athletes in the world for every inch of hardwood.
He’s got the scars to prove it.
But few have paid the price more literally than West, a two-time NBA All-Star who has committed everything to winning the last game of an NBA season for the first time in his career.
West, who turns 37 in August, made headlines when he walked away from a player option worth $12 million with the Indiana Pacers in the summer of 2015 to sign with the San Antonio Spurs for the veteran minimum, paying him about $1.5 million.
After a 67-win Spurs team was upset in the second round of the playoffs by the Oklahoma City Thunder (then led by Kevin Durant), West was on the move again, this time joining the Warriors and Durant — again on the veteran minimum and below his market rate.
After leaving at least $10.5 million on the table in Indiana and perhaps as much as $20 million over the past two years (had he pursued another two- or three-year deal), West seems poised to get the ring he’s been craving as the capstone to an already impressive career.
“I’m 36 and I’ve been playing basketball for 30 years of my life and you get to a point where [The Finals] is the only environment, the only stage I haven’t been in,” he said, regarding why he’s put such a priority on winning a title before his career winds down. “I’ve been in high school championships, played collegiately at a high level, but you want to get this final stage and it was an opportunity where personally I felt I had to jump at.”
Impressions so far?
“It’s been great, seeing the environment, the atmosphere, the energy at the games,” he said. “Just people wanting to see the two best teams, that’s what’s satisfying. You start the year off, you set a goal for yourself and it’s hard to lead from the front. We’ve been able to do that to this point and there’s just a little bit left to go.”
These Finals are being driven by star power – LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Durant represent seven of the last eight league MVP winners – but each team’s supporting cast represents a who’s who of the league’s role-playing veterans.
West might be old by NBA standards, but by the standards of this edition of the Finals, he fits right in: There were 55 players who were in their 13th season or more in the league this year and 11 of them are on the Golden State and Cleveland playoff rosters.
Their motivations are plain: with time running out on their athletic hour glass, they are cherishing an opportunity to finish their career with a championship.
“This is part of an evolution of an athlete,” said the Cavs’ Richard Jefferson, who won his ring with Cleveland last season in his 15th NBA season. He declared he was retiring in a champagne-soaked Cavs dressing room, victory cigar lit, but the chance to win again was too much to pass up.
“First you want to get here, you want to establish yourself as a player, you want to make some money where you can change your life, your family’s life. You want to win games, you want go to all-star games. [But] at the end, if you haven’t been fortunate to win a championship, that’s really what’s left for you to accomplish in the sport. You see it all over, you’ve seen so many players over their last few years trying to contribute to a high-level team.”
But not everyone can win. The Cavs and Warriors are dotted with longtime NBA players hoping to finish their careers on the highest note possible. Some are going to be disappointed — almost certainly those with the Cavs.
Kyle Korver is old enough to remember the 1991 NBA Finals and being an avid Los Angeles Lakers fan, trying to find a broadcast of their matchup with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls on a battery-powered transistor radio while riding home from basketball camp on a rattling school bus.
“I just remember trying to bend the antenna back and forth so we could get some reception,” he recalled earlier this week.
He had a chance to improve Cleveland’s odds – and his – of staying in the title hunt when James found him in the corner for a three that would have put Cleveland up five with 52 seconds to play in Game 3. But Korver, who ranked second in three-point percentage this past season, couldn’t convert and the chance slipped away.
The likes of Korver and Deron Williams (in his 13th season) are familiar faces and longtime foes looking for the same late-career parting gift as West, who is joined on the Warriors by the likes of Zaza Pachulia and Matt Barnes – also in their 14th season and seeking their first championship.
For his part, West has no qualms about crushing the dreams of his peers on Cleveland so he can live his.
“That’s part of it man,” said West, who came off the bench in Game 3 and provided seven crucial points in his 10 minutes of floor time, converting all three of his field goal chances. “That’s part of it.”
His resolve to pursue a ring above all else took shape while he was with the Pacers and making consecutive Eastern Conference Finals appearances in 2013 and 2014, only to be thwarted by James, who was in the midst of taking the Miami Heat to four straight Finals.
“I just felt like we got close [in Indiana] but we weren’t able to get over the hump,” said West. “And I just wanted to taste that.
“I said ‘That’s what’s going to make me feel the best,’ not necessarily still scoring and being an option on a team that might make it to the first round or the second round or whatever. That wasn’t important any more … you just want to be a part of it. You want give yourself a chance to be in all the environments, to tell stories of not just being in the regular season but to feel what the journey is like to get to this point.”
Of course, winning organizations have to view you as someone that can help their cause, and West has earned a reputation through his play and his character as someone who would be a positive addition to any locker-room.
“He’s been someone we can count on, who’s proven throughout this league,” said the Warriors’ Shaun Livingston. “He’s a calming influence. That’s what that veteran influence provides.
“He’s very smart. He’s probably the most interesting person we have on this team. Maybe outside of JaVale McGee [the Warriors’ quirky reserve centre], for different reasons. You need those veteran guys who understand the game, understand the moment, there is so much mental preparation to get to where we are. Everyone is talented, they have some of the best talent in the league, we have some of the best talent in the league, but it’s mindset.
“Who can think the game, who can prepare, who can make the adjustments?”
West qualifies, and walking away from guaranteed money wasn’t a problem for him, giving him the flexibility to pick and choose where he wanted to play. He’s earned $89 million in the NBA, a lot of coin for a guy whose financial wisdom passed on to rookies boils down to: Don’t spend all your money.
“The moment you sign that first contract, treat it like you will never get another one,” said West. “Treat it like you will never get another cheque in your life. Don’t forget that you were born without [money], don’t forget most of your life when you didn’t have access to it.
“That’s been a key for me. Don’t forget those days when Mom said: ‘You have to eat whatever is left in that cupboard, and if you’re still hungry you better eat whatever is on your brother’s plate.’
“Don’t forget that.”
In a league where athletes who are so easily stereotyped as being about money before winning, West was proof of the opposite, and the feedback he got suggested that his peers were often envious.
“A lot of guys, privately, were like ‘Dang, I wish I could do it,’ ” said West. “I mean it’s hard to be in this league and lose, it’s hard. Sometimes, from the outside looking in, folks will look at it and think money can kind of cure it but it doesn’t. It’s hard to lose. I talked to guys who had one or two playoff appearances in their career and they regret that.
“They wish they could have made a decision or two that could have changed that, now, in retrospect. I didn’t want to be one of them guys.”
With a 3-0 Finals lead and a supporting role on one of the best teams in NBA history, West most certainly won’t be “one of them guys.”
He’s paid the price, and is days away from earning his reward.