June 21, 2024


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DeMar DeRozan helped NBA get serious about mental health


DeMar DeRozan’s tweet in 2018 helped start an honest conversation about anxiety and depression

DeMar DeRozan has had a career year with the Chicago Bulls, four years after he helped inspire a period of mental health awareness in the NBA. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
DeMar DeRozan has had a career year with the Chicago Bulls, four years after he helped inspire a period of mental health awareness in the NBA. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

For DeMar DeRozan to have a season that was once part of his childhood imagination, he first had to be honest as an adult about what was going on in his head.

Career years don’t often arrive for 32-year-olds at the tail end of their prime, but DeRozan credits his renaissance in Chicago to the freedom created once he helped shatter the facade of the invincible athlete. Freedom that can be found in tattoos expressing the tales of his travails. Freedom that can be found in heightened mental wellness, with confidence approaching the Kármán line.

DeRozan has the Chicago Bulls in the postseason for the first time since 2017, and he’s in a better place after opening up about his depression and setting in motion a period of greater mental health awareness for the NBA and professional sports.

Four years ago, DeRozan revealed his coping struggles, exposing the humanity and vulnerabilities that can’t be masked with thousands of cheers or millions of dollars. DeRozan wasn’t seeking to become a mental health advocate or a leader in the issue, only to share that he wasn’t okay — and that it was okay. The rewards have manifested during a campaign in which he has sunk buzzer-beaters, broken a scoring record once held by Wilt Chamberlain, spent a few weeks as a dark-horse MVP candidate and established a career high in scoring.

“You have a clearer mind, and you have a different type of stance of knowing yourself,” DeRozan said. “Not feeling like you’re behind the curtain, it gives you a sense of freedom because so many people don’t know how to let that out.”

DeRozan wasn’t the first to reveal his mental health challenges. William D. Parham, the National Basketball Players Association’s director of mental health and wellness, likes to mention that the inspiration for the NBA logo, Jerry West, disclosed in his biography how he had to persevere through his own youthful traumas and misery. Metta Sandiford-Artest famously thanked his psychiatrist during his walk-off interview after hitting a critical three-pointer in the Los Angeles Lakers’ Game 7 victory in the 2010 NBA Finals. And within a few years, former NBA player Royce White became a public advocate for the league to reform its mental health policy as he dealt with an anxiety disorder and a fear of flying.

But there was something about DeRozan’s revelation that resonated and reverberated, resulting in a response from fellow players, the NBA offices and the players union that brought the issue of mental health out from hiding and into the forefront. His message came at a time when that honesty and openness were moving toward greater acceptance. A prominent all-star being comfortable with his struggles made Kevin Love feel ready to open up about his own battle with anxiety and depression.

“If they can begin to hoop at Hall of Fame levels of talent, carrying around the kind of baggage [we] know that they are carrying — which is quite significant with a capital S, for some of them — I can’t even begin to imagine how they would hoop if they had a place to share their stories,” Parham said. “It can exponentially increase individual talent, team chemistry, across team competitions. Everybody wins when you invest in the health and wellness of athletes. Our mantra is ‘Mental health is mental wealth.’ ”

‘This depression get the best of me’

DeRozan lost family members and friends to gang violence. That difficult upbringing pushed him deeper into basketball and further away from his reality. He found fame and riches, making good on the promise he made to his family that he would get them out of their circumstances. But as he got older, DeRozan discovered that his problems didn’t go away because he avoided them; they merely piled up. He needed help. With one tweet in February 2018, quoting the lyrics of rapper Kevin Gates, DeRozan acknowledged, “This depression get the best of me.”

The timing of what felt like a cryptic message appeared to be out of place, because DeRozan was back home in Los Angeles for an All-Star Weekend that was supposed to be a celebration of all that he had become, all that he had overcome. DeRozan, instead, made it known: Dark clouds don’t care whom they cover.

“It was just a confidence level of me not caring what anybody thought,” DeRozan said. “Not in a malicious way, but more, ‘I’m going through [stuff], too, and it’s driving me crazy.’ I hit a wall and kind of lashed out. It was just a real, emotional moment for me.”

The NBPA began its mental health and wellness program a few months after DeRozan created a lane for dialogue about how no amount of money or success can shield athletes from the realities of life. The league also created its own mental health program to assist players, coaches and other staff and expand on efforts that began in 2015, when every team was granted better access to licensed mental health professionals and counselors. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver brought home the earnestness of these efforts at a conference in 2019, when he candidly stated, “A lot of these young men are genuinely unhappy.”

The NBA just completed its first 82-game regular season after two coronavirus-shortened campaigns, one in a bubble at Disney World in 2020 that saw prominent stars such as Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul George mention the isolation and mental strain of the experience. Minnesota Timberwolves all-star Karl-Anthony Towns has been open about how the coronavirus ravaged his family, taking away his mother, and affected him mentally.

The past two seasons have involved the fight for social justice within the country, a global pandemic and the health and safety protocols disrupting league schedules and disturbing chemistry. More players have openly discussed confronting problems with anxiety. And teams have shown a willingness to help players deal with their mental issues, providing the same leeway they would for physical ailments.

In Washington, forward Rui Hachimura needed time after the Tokyo Olympics — where the native of Japan was featured prominently as a member of the national team — to step away from the game. Hachimura missed the first 39 games of the regular season for what the team called “personal reasons” and was welcomed back when he felt ready.

“Being excellent and being elite doesn’t absolve you from being human,” said Kensa Gunter, who has served as the director of the NBA’s Mind Health mental health and wellness program since 2020. “We think, if you have access to all of these financial resources, if you are living in the public eye and you are exceptionally talented on the court and able to do these remarkable things the rest of us could only dream about, how could you have any issues? This chips away at that idea that people are successful because they don’t experience adversity and rather humanizes that conversation by saying, ‘This person who is successful also deals with challenges, and learning how to manage and navigate those challenges is part of what contributes to their success journey.’ ”

While inspiring others to reveal their truths, the reserved DeRozan found the peace to just be. The pain he once suppressed has been unleashed in tattoos. Arms once bare are now covered with his life story, of loved ones lost, of feelings left unshared. The volume of ink needed for each phrase or image reflects the depths of emotions he used to conceal with each turnaround fadeaway jumper, each jackhammer dunk. “A therapeutic release” is how DeRozan describes his body art.

‘Everybody’s got a scar’

The NBA and the players union work both separately and in conjunction to assist players, placing a priority on the person over the performer. They collaborate for a session during the Rookie Transition Program, where newcomers are made aware of the resources at their disposal to address any concerns.

Both organizations assist players at whatever level they need, with suggestions for a better work-life balance or recommendations for meditation and other ways to get centered. When a player decides that he needs someone to talk to about his struggles, he can access a full-time or contracted therapist through his team, or the players union will give him the chance to choose from three licensed counselors in his city.

“They come into the NBA with a whole lived experience prior to making multimillions of dollars,” said Michael Grinnell, a wellness counselor with the NBPA, “and this notion that somehow you get money or material things and you’re supposed to be okay is a myth. And a lot of these guys come in maybe experiencing trauma or baggage that hasn’t been addressed.”

Grinnell added that because adversity can come at any time, the mental health journey and the process of healing aren’t linear. “It’s on a continuum. It is an ongoing process.”

Jamila Wideman, the NBA’s senior vice president of player development and a former WNBA player, said the past few years have required special attention for mental health given the collective stressors of a global pandemic but added: “It’s not something that begins at a singular moment in time. The goal is to build a program that has the capacity to embrace players at any moment, whatever the particular details might be.”

When Parham started the NBPA’s program, former NBA player Keyon Dooling was around to provide counseling and help connect with players in the league through a shared experience. Dooling left in 2020 to take an assistant coaching job with the Utah Jazz and was replaced by Grinnell, a licensed clinical social worker, and Derek Anderson, an 11-year NBA veteran.

Anderson grew up in a crime-infested part of Louisville, was abandoned by his parents by the time he was a teenager, became a father at 14, sold junk food from a truck to support himself and slept wherever he was welcome until an aunt and uncle took him in. Those experiences didn’t prevent him from winning championships at the collegiate (Kentucky) and professional (the Miami Heat) levels. But Anderson believes that he would’ve made more of his career, and made better decisions, had he sought more positive ways to confront the challenges that came his way.

“I was going through stuff, and they was like: ‘You’ve got to toughen up. You’re not serious about basketball,’ ” Anderson said of the climate when he played from 1997 to 2008. “No one felt you could speak your truth back then. You could lose a family member and it’ll really hurt you, and they want you back at work in a few days. It was rough back then.

“I would suppress it, keep it to myself. Sit at home. Then I would be stressed out the day before the game. Not perform my best, because I was thinking about stuff, family life — not realizing [that] you’ve got to let stuff go. I could’ve done stuff different; I just didn’t know.”

Five years into his career, Anderson discovered meditation as a means to become calmer and more focused. He later participated in group therapy sessions and discovered other outlets — establishing a charity foundation, starting a business — to provide balance and perspective so his life wasn’t solely defined by what he accomplished on the court.

In his role with the players association, Anderson meets with teams and players as they pass through Indianapolis or Atlanta and offers encouragement or a sympathetic ear, letting them know he’s there to help. (Parham does the same with players in Los Angeles and Grinnell in Boston.) His phone is often flooded with text messages from players seeking comfort from someone who understands their experiences. Anderson has spoken to several of his peers from his playing days who wish they had the opportunity to discuss their situations, either privately or publicly, without fear of being stigmatized.

“If you have a scar on your face, every day you go to the mirror it will be a reminder of that moment,” Anderson said. “You never get over it. It never goes away, but you learn to live with it and learn to be accepting of it, and then you feel happy with who you are. Once I figured that out, I realized I’m okay. Everybody’s got a scar. It just shows you’re strong enough to survive. And I appreciate those scars now.”

“Me surviving was my true reward in life. My voice is going to help someone find their own voice.”

‘You can be helpful with this’

DeRozan wasn’t concerned about the stigmas associated with his acknowledgment that he needed help. He wasn’t crazy, and he most certainly didn’t lack toughness. “I’m from Compton, California,” DeRozan said. “Nobody ever said I was weak.”

In the four years since he helped tear down the mythology of elite athletes, DeRozan has experienced more challenges. He was traded from Toronto, the franchise to which he dedicated the first nine years of his career. He watched that team immediately go on to win its first NBA championship, led by the player acquired for him. And last year — almost three years to the day of his famous tweet — DeRozan’s father, Frank, died of a variety of illnesses. DeRozan admired Frank, who made sacrifices to support his son throughout his career. The last few years of Frank’s life, his son would charter flights from Toronto and later San Antonio to be with him, whenever he could, for however long he could.

“Being able to express it and show people that you’re normal. I’m a man,” DeRozan said. “You look at social media, and people could portray a perfect life, and that could make someone else emotionally unstable because they get to comparing what they see on an everyday basis. You pick up your phone, and the access that you have to the world and life is not always reality. So many people get caught up in that, and sometimes it’s people behind that phone that’s looking at that and feel bad about themselves. So when you see someone really expressing how they may feel, that can uplift and give other people the confidence that they not alone. … And with that, you’ve seen the reaction that that happened. You realized you can be helpful with this. It was real time, real feelings, a real individual expressing his emotions.”

The downside of having a season in Chicago that pushed him back among the elite players in the game — he started in the All-Star Game for the first time since that homecoming in 2018, had a 50-point game, hit buzzer-beaters in back-to-back games and broke Chamberlain’s record after seven consecutive games with at least 35 points while shooting better than 50 percent from the field — was that Frank wasn’t around to witness any of it. But DeRozan knows his success is a living example of the work ethic and dedication instilled by his father, whom he described as “a hard worker who got up every day to provide.”

Gunter called DeRozan “courageous” for speaking out, because the cultures in which he exists — as an athlete, a man and an African American — are historically not welcoming of these conversations. Parham agreed while noting the immeasurable impact: “He went through this and can still get to the other side of this. There are benefits that are going to be hard to record and will continue to unfold.”

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