In the first of Jackie MacMullan’s five-part series on mental health in the NBA, the ESPN writer wades deep into an issue that impacts almost half the league, according to the National Basketball Players Association’s new director of mental health and wellness, Dr. William Parham. Only about 5 percent of those players are seeking treatment, and Cleveland Cavaliers star forward Kevin Love is one of them.
On the heels of former Toronto Raptors star guard DeMar DeRozan opening up about his bouts with depression, it was Love’s Players’ Tribune article, “Everyone Is Going Through Something,” that let DeRozan and anyone listening know they weren’t alone. In his own words this past March, Love described the panic attack he suffered during the third quarter of a Nov. 5 loss to the Atlanta Hawks. Now, with the help of MacMullan, the five-time All-Star details how frightening the attack was:
After he ran from room to room in a total panic, he says, he finally collapsed on the floor of the locker room.
“My heart was jumping out of my chest,” Love says. “I couldn’t get any air to my lungs. I was trying to clear my throat by sticking my hand down my throat.
“It was terrifying. I thought I was having a heart attack. I was very scared. I really felt like I was going to die in that moment.”
Love says Cavs trainer Steve Spiro came in and found him splayed on the floor. “He was trying to calm me down, but he didn’t know what to do,” Love says. “He asked me, ‘What can I do to get you some air?'”
The team transported Love to the hospital. All his vital signs checked out. His heart was fine. His teammates were confused, and angry. “They had no idea what was going on,” Love says.
After the Players’ Tribune piece was published, Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon reported that Love informed his teammates during a testy team meeting this past January that another panic attack forced him to leave a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder — a contentious issue that precipitated the meeting. Although Love told MacMullan that this part of the narrative was misguided, his mental health battle was still met with suspicion nonetheless, according to the first part of the ESPN series:
While the outpouring of support was heartening once Love publicly announced that he was suffering from anxiety and depression, behind the scenes, mild derision and skepticism lingered. A small number of Love’s teammates weren’t buying the mental health excuse for his bailing on the team in the middle of a game. The withering criticism was piercing — and proof that the stigma of mental health remains alive and well behind closed doors of NBA locker rooms.
In the face of that reported “mild derision and skepticism,” Love has continued to speak openly about his experience, which has included therapy. He and DeRozan both discussed the issue in a public-service announcement that aired during the playoffs. Love received an award for his contributions to the conversation. The NBA players’ association hired Parham and launched a mental health and wellness program. On Monday, Love spoke to a national TV audience about his struggles with anxiety:
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) August 20, 2018
If players around the NBA and others outside of it remain guarded against the face of the issue, Love is helping tear down those walls. Players of all walks and sizes — from Nate Robinson to Kelly Oubre Jr. and Steven Adams — have since opened up about their own struggles. Just last week, much-maligned former lottery pick Jahlil Okafor discussed his anxiety, crediting Love for assisting his transformation.
Former players are also warming to the NBA’s new normal. Paul Pierce described to MacMullan his crippling paranoia that followed the September 2000 stabbing that came within inches of claiming his life in a Boston nightclub. He was so frightened of appearing in public that he suffered a panic attack before he was scheduled to welcome fans into TD Garden to promote that year’s season opener. Basketball was his only form of comfort, and Pierce told ESPN he wishes he had Love’s strength then:
“I should have opened up earlier than I did,” Pierce admits. “It was eating me alive. Once I finally started talking to a family member, it helped me.
“I realized, ‘I should have done this sooner.’ I would tell everyone to get the help they need. My depression was bad — really bad. I never want to feel that way again.”
He’s not alone. As Love said, everyone is going through something, and talking about it is the first step toward ensuring that skepticism and derision subsides in favor of people not suffering in silence.
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