Some people just look like athletes. Mario West is one of them. His 6’5” frame is more towering in person than any photograph could depict, and his handshake is of the enveloping sort.
Indeed, West is an athlete. A former member of the men’s basketball team, West took his craft to the professional level after leaving Tech. After stints in the NBA and abroad, he is back on his home campus as the program’s director of player personnel.
Yet the path has not always been so clear-cut for West. A slam dunk artist with the ball in his hands, West was nonetheless a relative afterthought in the Tech offense, playing less than 20 minutes per game and scoring less than five points per contest his senior year, courtesy of sports-reference.com. He had to make it as an undrafted free agent, starting in the 2007-08 season.
Yet West was successful. He counts among his fondest memories his first contest, a game against the Phoenix Suns and legendary Duke alumnus Grant Hill. In his first year with the Atlanta Hawks, the team took the vaunted Boston Celtics to the brink in the playoffs.
Sure, he was playing a bit role, but he was part of a team at the highest level of his sport.
Not all was so sunny for West. Going into his third season with the Hawks, he was cut. It was difficult news for the hometown hero who had tried out for the team successfully two years in a row. Most people have midlife crises in their forties and fifties. At the age of twenty-five, West says, he was experiencing just that.
“I was devastated,” he remembers. “Because up to that point, everything I had wanted to obtain, every opportunity, every door I was able to knock down. But at that point, my faith was tested, and I was reminded that God is in control.”
West’s spirituality guided him to China, where his career was initially met with similar futility. In the period of a few weeks, he tried out for three teams. All of them passed. The man who once took on Jon Scheyer in heated ACC matchups was finding cold reception in a faraway land.
Set back but not defeated, West returned to the United States to play for the NBA’s Developmental League (now known as the G League), a time he called a “truly great experience” for the confidence it gave him. “Look, I can still play this game,” he recalls thinking to himself.
A month and a half after he had bid adieu to the Hawks, things had changed in Atlanta. The team wanted him back. The beginning of his second career in Atlanta was the end of a spiritual trial.
His playing days over, West now serves Tech basketball as the director of player personnel. In that role, he liaises with entities across campus, from housing to dining to academics, in an attempt to ensure that Tech players have all they need to be successful both on and off the court.
More than just an administrator, West has the chance to serve as a mentor. Being a former professional player, he says, gives him credibility amongst the players. One he thinks particularly highly of is Josh Okogie, who dons the same number and plays the same position as West.
“He’s far better than I ever was,” West says. While their work ethic is comparable, he adds, Okogie has significant untapped talent that will fuel his ascent.
Many unknown faces will fuel Tech basketball in 2017. West’s will certainly be one of them.