America at Large: NBA still on learning curve with mental health
Revelations from stars like Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan bring issue to the fore
Delonte West: suffered with bipolar disorder that eventually cost him his NBA career. Photograph: Michael Mulvey/Washington Post/Getty Images
Once James left for Miami in 2010, however, West was traded and never replicated that form with the Boston Celtics or the Dallas Mavericks.
His cause wasn’t helped by several incidents of erratic and eccentric behaviour and the 6ft3in guard was out of the NBA completely by just 29. Throughout his career the adjective most often appended to his name by fans and media was “crazy” – much less reported was the fact West had actually been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
In January, Kevin Love, one of those now charged with assisting LeBron in his annual superheroic attempt to land the Cavaliers another title, departed a game against the Oklahoma Thunder after just three minutes.
The 6ft 10in forward returned to the locker-room rather than sit on the bench and left the arena long before the 148-124 loss was over. Management told reporters he’d been suffering from migraines but it turns out he was having a severe panic attack. It was the second time in a matter of months his anxiety forced him to rush off the court during a match.
“Everyone is going through something that we can’t see,” wrote Love in a subsequent piece detailing his personal struggle for The Players’ Tribune.
“I want to write that again: Everyone is going through something that we can’t see. The thing is, because we can’t see it, we don’t know who’s going through what and we don’t know when and we don’t always know why. Mental health is an invisible thing, but it touches all of us at some point or another. It’s part of life.”
Time was when professional athletes who complained about mental health issues were shouted down by an ignorant constituency that failed completely to understand what ailed them. Those were the ones who could be heard asking how anybody could possibly be depressed when he’s getting paid millions of dollars to shoot baskets?
In stark contrast, the response to Love’s revelation has been uniformly positive, perhaps illustrating that American society has a heightened awareness of these issues, and a more sophisticated grasp of their root cause. That Love isn’t the first NBA player to talk openly about his mental health this season is obviously a factor too.
In February, the Toronto Raptors’ guard DeMar De Rozan tweeted: “This depression get the best of me”, a lyric from Kevin Gates’ song Tomorrow, at 3am in Los Angeles as the Compton native prepared to play in that night’s NBA All-Star game.
Those seven words prompted an outpouring of concern and affection on social media and, eventually, in the wider world. It wasn’t just that so many people out there could empathise with his struggle, it was how much they admired him for opening up about it. After all, athletes are supposed to somehow be bulletproof, impervious to the stuff that lays ordinary people low.
“It’s one of them things that no matter how indestructible we look like we are,” said DeRozan in an interview with The Star in Toronto, “we all got feelings . . . all of that. Sometimes . . . it gets the best of you, where at times everything in the whole world is on top of you. This is real stuff. We’re all human at the end of the day.”
The last line, of course, is the most important. In the middle of his best season as a professional, DeRozan is one of the reasons the Raptors are believed to have a chance of winning the Eastern Conference and is considered by a few pundits to be a legitimate MVP candidate. Yet, alone in the middle of the night, in his hometown for a game specifically designed to acknowledge the league’s elite players, the darkness still descended upon him. Sharing that stark reality required bravery and also helped to educate about the relentless beast that is depression.
Responding to the stories of Love, DeRozan and others, the NBA announced it will appoint a director of health and wellness and work to improve the way it handles mental illnesses. Nearly a decade after Ron Artest (later known as Metta World Peace) thanked his psychologist during the Los Angeles Lakers’ title-winning celebrations, those in power appear to be belatedly realising that spending millions on the physical health of their players is money wasted if they are emotionally or psychologically unable to perform.
Royce White has been preaching that gospel for years. Picked 16th in the 2012 Draft by the Houston Rockets, he played just three minutes in his entire NBA career because of problems with anxiety that precluded him from flying to away games.
At one point during his push for a policy to clarify the situation, management expressed concern about individuals potentially feigning mental illness to get out of playing. White is currently starring for the London Lightning in Canada’s professional league but, at just 26, even the new, enlightened NBA appears unwilling to take a chance on him. The stigma endures.
As for Delonte West, following a couple of abortive comeback attempts, he was found wandering shoeless in a hospital gown outside a Houston fast-food joint in 2016. More recently, there were unconfirmed reports of him panhandling in Maryland. He earned an estimated $14m during his NBA career but never, it seems, got the help he truly needed.