CHICAGO — David West was 9 years old when Phillip Pannell — an African American teenager in his Teaneck, N.J., neighborhood — was shot in the back and killed by a white police officer, triggering a night of racially charged violence in the streets near West’s house.
As the story became a fixture on the national news, West struggled to reconcile the friendly 16-year-old who had waved to him while walking by West’s house a couple of times a week with the neighborhood ruffian being portrayed on his TV screen. Even today, nearly three decades after an all-white jury acquitted the officer, Gary Spath, of manslaughter, West — a reserve big man for the Warriors — finds himself thinking often of Pannell.
“It’s whenever I try to figure out where I got started,” West said. “Like, ‘Damn, when did all this stuff start to consume you?’ I always go back to him.”
When Warriors fans look at West, they see a center who excels as the fulcrum for head coach Steve Kerr’s movement-heavy system. They see a 37-year-old who plays with a fervor that belies his age, and averages seven points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.1 blocks in 13.3 minutes per game.
What they don’t see is the deep-thinking introvert who, midway through his 15th NBA season, is a self-taught expert on African American history.
Teammates invite him to dinner to pepper him with questions about President Trump, police brutality and the deeper reasons behind today’s racial tensions. On team charter flights, while many players play cards, West reads books by James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Over the past three years, West has become borderline obsessed with studying the African diaspora.
“I like to look at some of the tribes in the African groups of the diaspora that are stranded in parts of India, and just try to connect those different dots,” West said. “How did they get there? What is their connection to this other group of people? That’s really been what I’ve been on the last few years, just trying to connect a lot of dots, connect the diaspora to one another.”
West’s goal is self-education. But when he sees politicians try to pass off
misinformation as fact, he sometimes feels compelled to respond.
Last week, after reports surfaced that President Trump had demanded to know at a White House meeting why the U.S. should accept immigrants from “shithole” countries like Haiti and some nations in Africa, West pulled out his copy of “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies,” which details how third-world countries became impoverished through colonization. Underneath the excerpt of which he posted a picture to Twitter was the caption, “How they became ‘Shit Holes.’” Golden State forward Andre Iguodala quickly retweeted it with a single word of support: “Preach.”
“David knows what’s happening in the world way beyond who’s winning the Nuggets-Mavs game,” said Kerr, one of the most socially conscious coaches in sports. “He’s informed, well-read. He’s got his opinions, and he’s fearless when it comes to his take on society. I admire him for speaking out.”
It wasn’t until he was a freshman or sophomore in high school, more than a half-decade after Spath shot Pannell in the back, that West realized the depth of the racial tensions in Teaneck. The summer before West’s junior year, his father retired from the postal service and the family moved to Garner, N.C., a suburb of Raleigh.
West, who had grown up in a predominantly black section of Teaneck, was suddenly one of the few African American kids in his apartment complex. It struck him that some of his best friends went home to houses with a confederate flag hanging off the front porch.
After learning in one of his first classes at Xavier University how to research books, West began to spend much of his free time reading African American history. His head coach his first two seasons with the Musketeers, Skip Prosser, gathered the team before each practice to discuss matters bigger than basketball: racial oppression, philosophy, current events.
Before transitioning to basketball activities, Prosser, who died from a heart attack while with Wake Forest in 2007, told his players, “carpe diem,” Latin for “seize the day.” Those words are tattooed on the back of West’s calves, “carpe” on the left and “diem” on the right, as a daily reminder to live in the spirit of his former coach’s teachings.
West has many outside interests. He sponsors a summer AAU program in Garner. His charity, the West Group, has raised college scholarships for more than 400 low-income students in North Carolina. West is on the advisory board for Zoetic Global, a renewable-energy company.
His Twitter timeline is filled with highlights of young players with whom he has worked, news articles highlighting the shortcomings of President Trump’s administration and inspirational quotes from black leaders. Last summer, West ran a basketball clinic at the University of Ghana.
Long before former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem before games to protest police brutality against African Americans, West started standing about 2 feet behind his teammates during the national anthem to protest systematic oppression against blacks, a practice he still employs today.
“He understands that it’s about life, not just basketball,” Warriors center Zaza Pachulia said. “It’s so interesting to have that kind of personality in the locker room, where you can talk to him about anything.”
These days, West is reading a book called “Stamped from the Beginning” that provides a comprehensive history of racism against blacks.
“When Phillip (Pannell) was killed, that was the first time I think I was really forced to feel the impact of racism,” West said. “But the truth is, it’s been going on as long as human beings have existed.”