Basketball was a way of life for Mario and his entire family. "I started when I was 7 playing in the Boys and Girls Club. It's pretty much a family tradition for me. All the males play basketball and football, and all the women play volleyball and basketball. I just grew up around that environment, and I've had a love for the game since then."
Since the young age of 7, Mario continued to work on his game, pouring in hour after hour of practice. From shooting in the backyard to the neighborhood playgrounds, Mario pushed himself to give all he had, going the only speed he knows – 100 mph. His effort and determination landed him on the Douglas County High School basketball team, where he became a star. A two-sport athlete early in his high school career, Mario gave up football at his coaches' request. "I played football my freshman year and also basketball, then after that the coaches pushed me into concentrating on basketball. That was always my love, so I just concentrated on that and stuck with it."
Mario lettered all four years and was the team captain his junior and senior years. As a senior he earned the honor of Douglas County Player of the Year, averaging 22 points and 10 rebounds per game. Despite his success in high school Mario had a decision to make: accept a scholarship offer at a smaller school, or take a chance and walk on at Georgia Tech. In the end, the experience he would gain playing in the ACC and the education he could get from Georgia Tech were too much to pass up. "It was always a dream come true to play at a big Division I school in basketball. I sat down and talked things over with my parents about an opportunity to walk on with Georgia Tech. They were looking at the fact that I had the chance to get a degree and learn at Tech. Then I thought about playing in the ACC and the exposure it would give me in basketball. We talked about it and it was a win-win situation as far as academics and what I could get out of the chance to be a part of a special program."
After deciding to walk on at Georgia Tech he red-shirted the 2002-2003 season. He took the opportunity to work on his game and improve his basketball skills. More importantly, he hit the books and concentrated on his academics at Coach Hewitt's request. "The most important thing he always said to me was to take care of everything you do as a business and that you have to prepare yourself academically. When I red-shirted, I really didn't want to, but then I thought, ‘Okay, I'll have a chance to get acclimated and caught up to speed as far as basketball,' but he stopped me right there and he said, ‘Listen, all I want you to do is concentrate on your academics. Concentrate on your grades and don't even worry about basketball.' He said, ‘You'll figure that out. If you have success in the classroom, then you'll have success on the court.'"
Mario's hard work and dedication paid off after his freshman year, both on the basketball court and in the classroom. "I had a 2.5 GPA my first semester and then my second semester I picked it up. The next fall I made the Dean's list." Not long after Mario made the Dean's List his game picked up on the court just like Coach Hewitt predicted. During the 2003-2004 season his work ethic and all-out playing style convinced Coach Hewitt that he deserved a scholarship. Mario recalls, "There was a particular practice we had and, me being energetic, I had to get my chance to really prove myself. I went out there all over the place stealing balls, because I knew I was a defensive talent. So I was just showing a great effort and Coach was like, ‘Stop practice right now. I will help you get a scholarship right now – just don't hurt anybody.'" The memory brought a big smile to his face. "I was just doing my thing, just playing hard, being really aggressive but not trying to hurt anybody. I was going a hundred miles per hour on the court during that practice."
For Mario, success in the classroom did lead to success on the court – "I received a scholarship and I started playing minutes." Although he didn't realize it at the time, Coach Hewitt's stop in practice was the turning point that would eventually lead him down the path to his dream of playing in the NBA. Mario identifies Coach Hewitt as a great influence in his life. "On and off the court, I was blessed to have a wonderful coach to learn so much from and he did a lot for me, really not just me, but all the players. Looking back you either graduate or you have an opportunity to play professionally in the NBA or overseas. He just puts you in the right situation to help your career." "In all that time we worked together I really appreciated all his lessons. I appreciated him as a coach and all of his support."
Receiving a scholarship pushed Mario to focus even more effort on his academics. In May 2006, he earned a bachelor's degree in Business Management, which has tremendous significance to him: "It means a lot because not many people in my family have actually graduated from college. I also remember walking across the stage and having my mom and dad and grandparents, basically my whole family, there and seeing them smile and some of them even crying. It meant a lot to me to have that for something outside of basketball. One thing about basketball that is special, it has opened up doors for me to get a scholarship so I could get through school to have a degree that's good for taking me farther in life. Basketball did its part, and now my degree is something you can never take away from me. With Business Management I can do different things when I'm job hunting once my career starts to wind down."
In addition to earning a degree, the commencement ceremony was important to Mario because "it was a validation of all that hard work. Other people say it's just too long, but for me, I put in four years to get my degree on time when a lot of people do it in five, so I can sit through three hours for the ceremony. I just think it's something special to be a part of, just to send out invitations to everyone and I was very glad that I was able to celebrate that experience with my family."
Even with a degree to help secure his future, Mario doesn't want to think about life without basketball. "Life without basketball right now would be pretty tough. I've become so accustomed to it and it's opened so many doors. I love the game. I've got a genuine passion for it right now." If Mario wasn't currently playing in the NBA, "I guess I would just be working a 9 to 5 walking around in the real world like everyone else with a suit, carrying a briefcase."
Fortunately for Mario, he doesn't have to think about an alternate life in the corporate world. Right now, basketball is his job. In addition to the daily practices, workouts or games, Mario and the other rookies still have to pay their dues to the veteran players. "It's not bad, but we carry around bags, and when we get to the airport we unload bags for everyone. Or maybe if we're at a hotel and we're close to a restaurant we have to go get them something from there." Chuckling, he added, "I had to go get doughnuts one time, but it's nothing really bad."
Aside from the jokes and rookie treatment, his Hawks teammates recognize the amount of effort he gives day in and day out, and they have offered Mario a great deal of support. "That's one thing I love about the team. Even from working out during the summer and going through the preseason and trying to make the roster, everybody just took me under their wing. I've learned something from every single guy on this team. Every single guy on this roster went to bat for me as far as me making the team. Everyone has taken me under their wing and given me advice – I'm still learning and picking up on different things. I just love it; it's a wonderful environment. It feels good to know you've got 14 other guys who're willing to bat for you and help you out at all times. "
Mario's teammates are just one source of support. Fans from his days as a Yellow Jacket also continue to cheer for Mario, even wearing Georgia Tech gear at games. "I love it – I get a lot of support. Even now playing with the Hawks I get a lot of support from people at Tech. It's a wonderful feeling to know that people genuinely care about you, whether you win or lose, that you're going to have their support no matter what. It's just a great feeling."
Life in the NBA doesn't seem to have changed him much as a person, and when he's not giving 110% on the court, "Rio" still finds time to unwind. "I like going to the movies; I'm a big movie person. I love movies and spending time with my family. Me, A.C. and Al are fellow rookies and we hang out. We meet up and go to dinner or play some games. I really don't go out and do too much; I pretty much just chill. I do have a book I'm about to read. I just got Tony Dungy's new book for Christmas, and I'm going to pick it up and read it. Other than that, it's a long season and you just don't have time to do a lot."
Mario already feels he has grown as a player and has his own personal routine to prepare for games: "You've got to rest your body and stay focused right now and continue to build the momentum and prepare yourself for each and every game." "Over the years you learn what not to eat, how much rest you need to get, and how to get your body prepared. Also I think the biggest adjustment is doing things mentally to prepare. What I'm able to do now is get myself focused and pick up on things and learn things. It's a different game playing with these veteran guys. The learning curve is pretty fast and you can't dwell on the last game because you have so many games."
For Mario, all the years of post-practice drills, training and mental preparation came to fruition on December 21st. The Atlanta Hawks were playing the Washington Wizards at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. Mario entered the game with 16 seconds left and the Hawks clinging to a 93-90 lead. Guarding the Wizards' Nick Young, Mario forced him to take a long three and after the miss, Mario grabbed the rebound and was fouled with 9 seconds left in the game.
As Mario walked to the other end of the court to shoot the free throws he knew if he made one free throw the game would be over and he didn't want to let his teammates down. "Honestly, I was real nervous being in a situation like that. I didn't want to have to go into the locker room and look those guys in the eyes if we had lost the game knowing that I had a chance after they had fought so hard the whole game. I couldn't look them in the face knowing I had let them down. It was a hard-fought game and being in on the road, it was a big win for us. When I stepped up there I told myself to go ahead and relax and just concentrate. It's just free throws – I've shot a thousand of them. It's just like any other day, so just take my time and just take them one free throw at a time. And fortunately, I was able to knock them both down."
His passion for the game of basketball has led Mario West on a long journey of hard work and determination. The 7-year-old shooting hoops at the Boys & Girls Club in Huntsville, Ala., has become the man shooting game-clenching free throws in the NBA.
For Mario, the dream came true.