What Crazy Looks Like: Mental Illness In The NBA

As National Mental Health Month draws to a close, it’s worth asking why awareness doesn’t seem to be front and center.


Killer instinct. Grit and grind. Determination. These are all positive traits, especially for professional athletes. But sometimes, the athlete’s mentality stretches beyond his or her personal threshold, and this is where the problems begin — or, more accurately, this is where the problems become too big to hide.

May is National Mental Health Month, and after an NBA season that saw players step away from the game due to mental illnesses, perhaps its fitting to revisit the issue.

Controversial former Milwaukee Bucks center Larry Sanders took a contract buyout midway through the 2014–15 season order to focus on himself and get treatment for anxiety and depression. Saunders had previously run afoul of the league for his marijuana use, as well as behaviors generally perceived as antisocial.

Royce White, the much-maligned poster child for mental illness in the NBA, is still struggling to make an impact on the game he loves due to a publicized battle with anxiety disorder, one he equates to the suffocating “collective claustrophobia” he believes to be the root of the spate of killings of unarmed Black men over the past year.

Delonte West, the former Boston Celtics guard of the infamous “guns and guitar case” incident (as well as unsubstantiated claims of an affair with Gloria James, mother of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James), has reportedly been diagnosed with a multitude of mental health issues. Those “concerns” made up the foundation of his exile from the Cavaliers during LeBron 1.0, and, more recently, the perceived cause of his failure to stick with either the Fujian Sturgeon or Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball Association.

Slate Magazine explored West’s situation:

“[A]thletes can channel otherwise harmful tendencies — obsessiveness, aggression, anxiety — in ways that benefit them as competitors. Dr. Thomas Eppright, a psychiatrist who worked with West in Cleveland and has stayed in touch with him since, makes the point bluntly: ‘Some of the greatest athletes who have played any sport were not healthy human beings, mentally.’”

Lamar Odom — the injury-plagued, two-time NBA champion and one-time Kardashian — has fought drug-related problems since arriving in the league in 1999, problems which have been attributed to his supposed mental instability. Metta World Peace, the man formerly known as Ron Artest, has publicly wrestled with anger management issues since playing a key role in the infamous Malice in the Palace.

These are just some of the cases we know about.

Mental illness is not something that makes itself readily apparent, and it can only truly be understood by those who have experienced it — either themselves or through someone they know. This is probably why acceptance of mental illness remains a slippery slope in the NBA and other American professional sports leagues. Physical injury, rehabilitation, trades, marriage, divorce, births, cultural assimilation — these are socially acceptable topics to discuss in the locker room.

Mental illness, because of its relatively invisible and insidious nature, is not a topic as easily broached.

People fear that which they don’t understand, typically because of concerns about contagion. No one really wants to be known to associate with “that crazy dude” on the team, unless, of course, the crazy helps you get to the championship level. Then, all bets are off. For a perfect example of this, ask Pistons and Bulls fans how they feel about Dennis Rodman. Then, ask a Spurs fan how he or she feels about Dennis Rodman.

White touched on this idea for this publication:

“That problem isn’t restricted to team owners and CEOs, by any means. When it comes to issues of mental illness and mental health … discussing fear, anxiety, stress and depression remains stigmatized. The attitude is we’d rather not know. Why? Because mental health is an issue that requires and amplifies our individual and collective responsibility to ourselves and others. It’s a mirror that reflects who we really are — yet we keep running from our reflections.”

Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com also addressed the glacial progress regarding mental health acknowledgement and treatment in the NBA, giving kudos to the Bucks for the tangible efforts they at least made with Sanders before finally cutting him adrift. Arnovitz is not alone; there have been other takes on the professional sports leagues vs. mental health, and all of them have addressed the more visible issues: lack of interest by front offices in accommodating known mental illness; wariness on the part of players to admit to mental illnesses; confusion by team brass as to how to incorporate mental health protocols into existing injury protocols.

Still, there is something else at play here which isn’t being addressed: how the players themselves perceive mental illness. This is unfortunate, too, because it may be the silver bullet solution to raising awareness.

When a player goes down with a physical injury, other athletes are quick to rally around their fallen brother-in-arms. Chris Bosh of the Miami Heat was sidelined for the 2014–15 season with blood clots in his lungs, and was met with an outpouring of support. Kevin Durant, who missed most of the season himself with a lingering foot injury, received much Twitter love.

But what about Sanders or Odom?

Their plights are met with the sound of crickets, simply because mental processes are not easily recognized (and even acknowledged). Or, even worse, they are labeled as weak prima donnas, uncoachable, problem players. These sentiments likely foment the most fundamental level: from the players themselves.

Today’s NBA is filled with players who come from less-than-stable circumstances. Their very presence in the league — even if they’re nothing more than a towel-waver— is a testament to their fortitude and ability to better themselves.

For those that make it, the rewards are nearly boundless. Which is why the peanut gallery is quick to remind those who try to vent — even a little — that to whom much is given, much is required, and that since there are many who didn’t make it, an attitude of gratitude is in constant order. You don’t cry. You can’t vent. You suck it up and deal. You press on and push through. Psychiatric help is not an option; not only might that air dirty laundry (a big no-no), but it’s not something that real men do.

Our professional athletes, of course, are the realest of real men; modern-day gladiators who fearlessly trek into bloody battle in the name of King (team owner) and Country (fan base).

Dr. Bernard Vittone, Director of the National Center for the Treatment of Phobias, Anxiety and Depression, addressed the all too common male sentiment about being perceived as “soft,” which only serves to magnify the self-imposed injunctions against admitting to mental illness:

“Men in general are less likely to go to treatment because of the stigma where it implies they’re weak or somehow less of a man if they seek treatment. In fact, men are much more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol, trying to self-medicate because it’s more socially acceptable.”

No player wants to go into battle on the hardwood with a teammate who can’t hold up his end, whether physically or mentally. Unfortunately, mental illness cannot be easily quantified in the way a physical ailment, such as a torn ligament or sprained ankle, can. It’s not as simple as taking a player to the trainer’s office, running an MRI, seeing that he has depression, and diagnosing four to eight weeks of rehabilitation.

And though mental illness is often treated with medication and talk therapy; each person’s mind works in different ways, and the response to treatment to vary significantly. Furthermore, it takes time for medications to load in a patient’s system, then even more time to see if the patient actually responds positively. If they do, great; if not, the meds have to be recalibrated and the cycle starts again. It’s a slow, tedious, process fraught with uncertainty and educated guesswork.

Teams in the hunt for a championship don’t have time for this uncertainty; even if a player with mental illness has all the “upside” in the world. Teams need facts, timelines, and definite standards of treatment — all so they can keep their team calibrated for optimal performance.

Even if teams were to accept and acknowledge the need for mental health protocols, the issue of therapy is a sticky one. Though a team shrink would presumably (and ethically/legally) have the player’s best interests at heart — it’s still the team that would be signing his or her paychecks, and the team’s best interests might not align with the player’s.

For many of the same reasons that law enforcement personnel avoid departmental therapists like the plague, so might professional athletes ignore therapists on the team payroll; the fear that the truth will set you free … of your career. White is proof of that — he has not played as so much as a D-League game since March of 2014. West, as well, has suggested that his mental issues (which led to his legal issues) have kept him blackballed him from the NBA.

Mental illness is not a problem exclusive to male athletes, either. Chamique Holdsclaw, former star guard at the University of Tennessee and later six-time WNBA All-Star and Olympic gold medalist, has fought a well-publicized battle with depression and bipolar disorder. This condition, exacerbated by the deaths of her grandmother and stepfather plus the deteriorating schizophrenia of her father, led Holdsclaw to prematurely retire in 2007, only to return in 2009. (She hung up her sneakers for good in 2010 after rupturing her Achilles tendon.) Various articles published after her retirement have allowed Holdscaw to talk about what is not commonly discussed in professional athletic circles, those feelings of alienation and frustration that accompany mental illness:

“It’s been like a mental prison because it was real uncharacteristic of me … everybody judging me from every different angle.”

Now, Holdsclaw has dedicated her life to speaking out about mental illness through her nonprofit foundation. By doing so, she hopes to help others and help erase the stigma of mental illness, especially among professional athletes.

Larry Sanders is turning to family and friends while he carves out a peaceful place in his life. White and West continue to work out in hopes of an NBA comeback. Odom is trying to maintain his rehabiliation from drug abuse and mostly stays out of the limelight. Metta World Peace has signed a contract to play in Italy and continues to advocate for mental health awareness:

“ Just like a torn ACL, mental illness is a medical condition — you have to treat it. And as a community, we have to be sensitive about how we treat each other. We have to stop judging mental illness, and we have to talk about it.”

If the players truly want to change the status quo, they must demand that the issue is addressed in the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiation.

A player who is well, not only in body, but also in the mind and spirit, is a much more productive player. Productive players result in productive teams that win more games. Winning teams generate more revenue. More revenue makes the league, at all levels, happy.

The reality is that owners and front offices are far more likely to listen to the requests of a max contract franchise player than a bench warmer; it is here where those who have lent their voices to other prominent issues (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, et al.) can step up once more. We always hear how teammates consider each family, it’s time for influential players to blaze a trail for their brothers and sisters to come out of the mental health closet.


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