From the time he hit the hardwood as a ninth-grader at Davenport West High School in Iowa with head coach Mark Bigler, to becoming a key reserve on the Southwest Minnesota State men's basketball team coached by Mark's son, Brad, Lavione West has been like a son to the family.
"I met Mark Bigler, I call him 'Papa Bigs,' in ninth grade, and he really took me under his wing. He opened my eyes to the game of basketball," West said. "Coming here to Southwest, 'Little Bigs,' that's what my family calls Brad, he's been sort of the same way."
Last weekend, West pulled off the best stretch of his collegiate career, averaging 17.3 points and 24.3 minutes per game on the way to Most Valuable Player honors in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference tournament, helping the Mustangs win the tournament for the first time in school history.
Photo courtesy of Mark Bigler
From left, Mark Bigler, Southwest Minnesota State junior forward Lavione West and SMSU head men’s basketball coach Brad Bigler pose for a photo after the Mustangs won the NSIC?tournament championship on Sunday in Rochester. Mark Bigler coached West at Davenport West (Iowa)?High School.
"Playing with Lav has been a privilege," said SMSU guard Jordan Miller. "He's a hard worker and has been working on things that we've talked about the last few summers, and it's showing now."
But getting to that point involved a lot of hardships, from fighting through a tough upbringing, to having his basketball career nearly derailed by an eye condition.
After paying his dues over the last three seasons, the 6-foot-8 junior has battled through adversity and has become one of SMSU's biggest X-factors heading into the Central Region tournament.
"I think it's a blessing I'm still playing and I thank God I'm still playing," West said.
Welcome to the family
In the first year he moved to Davenport, Iowa, Mark Bigler remembers his first impression of Lavione West.
"I got to know Lav as a freshman," Bigler said. "He was a tall, gangly, couldn't-get-much-skinnier kid."
Bigler put West onto the varsity team as a freshman, and he took his lumps along the way on a struggling team.
At the same time, Mark Bigler was becoming more than a coach, becoming a sort of father figure to West, picking him up for school and putting him in an early-bird weightlifting class. The family connection continued on when Lavione's little brother, Darren, just finished a four-year varsity career for Bigler at Davenport West.
"Growing up, I didn't have a father, I didn't know my real father per se," West said. "My stepfather was there at times and he helped me out with the game of basketball, but at the same time, him and my mom were working a lot and I have four other siblings they had to take care of.
"(Mark) Bigler really did take me under his wing and was like a father figure in the game of basketball and in my everyday life. I give all my thanks to him for that."
In high school, Bigler believed that West had the athletic potential to be a Division II or a Division I player, but he needed to be at a place that would help him grow maturity-wise. West ended up staying close to the family, signing with SMSU where Brad Bigler was an assistant under then-head coach Greg Stemen.
"I thought Southwest would be an ideal fit," Mark Bigler said. "I thought he needed a place that had a family atmosphere. Brad had played at Southwest and loved it there. ... Knowing Brad was there and knowing Coach Stemen was there at the time, I knew a lot of role models would be around for him."
For Brad Bigler, West filled an important need for the Mustangs: versatility.
"We were looking for more versatile players, and he fit that description to a T," Brad Bigler said.
A Different View
A high-energy player that sports goggles on the court reminiscent of NBA players like James Worthy or Horace Grant, West has his own unique style on the court.
"The first AAU tournament I ever saw him play in, he had the NBA tights on, but his legs were so skinny that they were loose on him," Brad Bigler said. "He also had the goggles on at the time.
"A lot of people joked about it, but in that same AAU tournament, he dropped about 30 points on Michael Floyd, who played football at Notre Dame."
Miller added, "Lav's a character, but he's a great guy and a great friend and everyone loves him because he works hard and has fun."
But after redshirting in the 2008-09 season, West's college basketball career nearly ended before it began.
That summer, he found out that he had a detached retina in his left eye, and the retina was becoming detached in his right eye.
"I thought it was something minor," West said. "It's not uncommon, but it's only common in older people.
"It was really tough at the time. They didn't want me to play basketball anymore and do more damage than what had been done."
West ended up having two eye surgeries. In his left eye, the doctors put an elastic band around his eye to keep the retina attached. The right eye required a preventative surgery.
"My left eye, I can't really see out of. If something's close to my face, I can see, but at like 10 feet, it's blurry," West said. "When it comes to closing my right eye and playing basketball, I can't do it. My right eye is fine."
When West was having trouble with his eyes, it wasn't just hurting his chances at basketball. It was hurting him both in the gym and in the classroom.
"He was on bedrest for almost two months, no physical contact, and couldn't do anything the whole summer," Brad Bigler said. "That spring semester, academically, was a challenge. He was having headaches because he couldn't see, and because of that, he would stay at home and sleep during the day. We were fortunate that he got through that semester."
When West was finally cleared to play basketball, it was a tough adjustment as he tried to regain his form.
"My depth perception was different, and it was going to take a while for that to get back to where it was," West said. "It took a couple months for me to get that going."
Since coming to SMSU together, Miller has worked out with West in the summers. Two years later, Miller believes the team has the old Lav back.
"He had to adjust to the way he saw out of that eye," Miller said. "He adjusted to it really well and it's good to see him back to his confidence level."
Scratching the surface
Having played in 76 career games for the Mustangs, West has finally found his best role on the team as a key reserve and defensive stopper.
"With Will (Giddings) and I going back and forth, it helps keep up the defensive pressure going, just like for Vinard (Birch) and Tramel (Barnes) when Tramel comes into the game for Vinard at the point," West said. "There's nothing really lacking from the starters to the second team.
"It also gives me an opportunity to get into the flow of the game. I can see what's happening and it allows me to calm down."
West has averaged 7.0 points per game and has shot 50 percent from the field this season. But with his length and athleticism, defense has set the tone for the rest of West's game.
"It always starts on the defensive end with him because that's where he can make his biggest impact on our team," Brad Bigler said. "If he's playing at that level for our team defensively, that'll give him more opportunities to score."
When SMSU got the No. 2 seed in the NSIC tournament, that's where West took advantage of every opportunity.
"It comes down to my teammates getting me the ball. I give all the thanks to them," West said. "We got great weapons with Jordan Miller, Nick Smith and Vinard Birch, and they have to leave someone open, so why not me? I knew coming in, that's how it's going to be, so I need to make the most of my opportunities to make it in."
In the NSIC championship game against Minnesota State-Moorhead, West scored 12 of his 16 points in the second half, helping the Mustangs to a 76-72 victory over the Dragons, earning an automatic bid into the Central Region tournament.
"I'm very proud that he has identified with the role the coaching staff has put him and that he's become a good teammate," said Mark Bigler, who was in Rochester on Sunday to see the Mustangs clinch the NSIC tournament title.
"When those things happen, then the individual accolades come. ... With the talent level that Lav has, it was nice to see him reach that potential we all knew he had."
Like his father before him, Brad Bigler has watched West grow up both as a basketball player and as a man.
"That's why you do it. I understand that as a coach, you're evaluated on your wins and losses. But at the end of the day, it's about making a difference in young people's lives," Brad Bigler said. "To see Lav be successful and to walk away next year with a college degree, it's something that's rewarding for our family, knowing that my dad has really put a lot of time into him.
"Lavione has been one of those success stories of people growing up who don't have a lot, and using basketball as a way of making their lives better."