July 8, 2016
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
– Over the last 12 years, Mario West has traveled to all four corners of the globe to play basketball, the game he loves.
He’s grudgingly declared that his playing days are over and will now get to settle down and enjoy his post-playing career. Fittingly, he’ll get to do so at Georgia Tech, where his playing career began.
West made the homecoming official on May 24 — a little less than a month prior to his 32nd birthday, when he joined new coach Josh Pastner’s staff as director of player personnel.
“I’m truly grateful,” said the Huntsville, Ala., native who played high school ball at Douglas County High School in Georgia before coming to Tech. “Every day, in conversation, I’m like, ‘Thank you for giving me this opportunity.’ [Pastner’s] someone I admire and respect so much. His philosophy of integrity and his stance of rebuilding the culture around here, I’m glad to have a part in it.”
As West has done his whole life, he made his own break, gaining a face-to-face with Tech’s head coach, then sealing the deal.
“I was there when they introduced him as the new head coach. I was there to support at the press conference,” West recalled. “I went up to him, shook his hand and told him who I was and said, ‘If there’s an opportunity to join the staff in any capacity, I would like that opportunity. I would love to sit down and have a conversation with you.’ Right away he gave me his number. He’s made himself accessible to all the alumni.”
“That was the initial process,” he added. “We sat down and I told him what I had been doing over the past several years and what I wanted to do now. He’s big on the whole student-athlete, putting the student-athletes in a position to graduate and then also perform on the court.”
Being part of the Georgia Tech family made West attractive. His resume and the common ground of being a walk-on also struck a chord with Pastner. On the Flats from 2003 through 2007, West played in three NCAA Tournaments and won the Slam Dunk competition at the 2007 Final Four.
“That was something I brought up in our conversation,” West said. “That’s the whole thing about entitlement, you’re not entitled. Everything that you get, you should earn. We both have that appreciation.
“He likes people that are going to work hard and don’t expect anything, because nothing is given to you. That’s how I am,” he added. “Coach Pastner is highly intelligent. Very, very intelligent. I’m not just talking about basketball. I’m glad to have this opportunity to learn from someone that has had so much success as a head coach, and that goes for his whole staff.”
While West is looking forward to learning from Pastner and his staff, he also realizes he has plenty to teach the players. His story is one of playing at the highest level in front of some of the most passionate fans and in some of the world’s most exotic locations.
The journey began in 2003, when he arrived at Georgia Tech and walked on to Paul Hewitt’s team. West came off the bench for that season’s national runner-up team. He’d work his way up to captain by his senior season, finishing his career playing 103 games (21 starts).
The next proving ground was the NBA, where West earned his way onto the Atlanta Hawks. He credits Georgia Tech for getting his foot in the door.
“I remember my first day of practice with Atlanta Hawks Coach [Mike] Woodson,” West recalled. “He said, ‘You went to Georgia Tech? You played for Coach Hewitt, didn’t you?’ He said, ‘I know you know how to play defense.’”
In 2007-08, his first professional season, West played in a career-high 64 games, making two starts, and was a key piece off the bench for a Hawks team that made the playoffs for the first time in a decade. They would take the eventual champion Boston Celtics the full seven games in the opening round before falling. West played two more seasons in Atlanta, then one in New Jersey — he also spent a short time in the NBA Development League — before he again faced a career conundrum with the NBA’s 2011 lockout.
West proactively explored other options, packed his suitcase and went to play outside the U.S.
Over the next four seasons he put together a dizzying itinerary that saw stops in the Dominican Republic, Italy, the Philippines, back to the Dominican, where he won a championship and earned Finals MVP honors. Then it was on to Mexico, back to the Philippines, back to the Mexico, to France, back yet again to the Philippines and finally to Argentina.
“I really grew up overseas,” he said. “I lived in Verona, the setting of ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Over in the Philippines I actually played where [Muhammad] Ali fought Joe Frazier in the ‘Thrilla in Manila.’ How historic is that? It’s something I have a great appreciation for. You look back and think, ‘Wow, man, I’ve truly been blessed to do the things that I did.’”
West feels ALL of his experiences add up to the total person that he’s become.
“I can’t say one was more relevant or more important than the other. I think each one of them was a stepping stone,” he said. “The whole experience of the Final Four, even though I didn’t play as much, I had a chance to witness and still be a part. That observation, when I sat on the bench and got to observe the guys, prepared me for the opportunity with the Hawks. The Hawks’ playoff experience, mostly observing again, prepared me so when I actually finally got a chance to play overseas in the Dominican Republic in the Finals, I was able to take what I learned, and I was more prepared to step in and take that experience and knowledge that I obtained from those two separate experiences — playing at the highest level in college in the championship game and then playing in the NBA, the highest level, against the team that ended up winning the championship. I was able to take all of that emotion, that whole atmosphere, that experience, and bottle that up. It was a recipe for what I used to fuel over in the Dominican Republic and help my team win a championship.”
West is eager to share his recipe for success with current and future Yellow Jackets generations, helping them grow, gain and appreciate life experiences and help the Jackets win a championship.
He’ll serve as a liaison between the players and academic support staff, monitoring players’ attendance in classes and helping them with any issues that arise in getting acclimated with campus. He promises to be as tenacious in checking on the Jackets as he was checking opponents when he played and wants them to understand the responsibilities that lie ahead.
“I’ll be sitting outside. I might not be right there, but I’m looking in through the windows, seeing, ‘Hey, are you there?’” he said, with a laugh. “But one thing I can say, we have a great group of guys. These guys have been focused, these guys have been going to class and they’re really determined. I think they all realize the opportunity that they have and they’re really so excited about coach Pastner and all of the assistants.
“Understanding the balance of life, of being a student and then being an athlete and the things you have to do, you have to do your work early and still perform on the court,” he added. “That prepared me to have that experience overseas as well. So I would say it all tied together and worked together to help shape the man I am and also how I carry on in life. Off of college, you have to cook for yourself, you have to learn how to manage your time, you have to learn how to be responsible.”
West admits he’s already feeling at home and is very much feeling the Georgia Tech spirit.
“Just walking the campus, making sure that the players are in class, I’ve had deja vu,” he said. “There’s definitely familiarity with the whole campus. Seeing the student center and over at the CRC and the trolleys. Putting on a polo shirt that has GT or a tee-shirt that says Georgia Tech, I’m proud to say that I’m branded with Georgia Tech. So anytime I step out in the community I hold my head up high. I stick my chest out.”