Despite its reputation as the most progressive professional sports league, the NBA has long hesitated to formally acknowledge the importance of mental health for professional athletes. However, as a result of the efforts of three players — DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Love and Kelly Oubre Jr. — in the last month the public has gained insight into the hidden opponents NBA players face and is putting pressure on the league to make changes in the way it handles mental health issues.
Of all the American professional sports leagues, the NBA is by far the smallest. It contains just under 500 players though basketball is played by over 26 million Americans as of 2012.
Because the NBA does not always offer guaranteed contracts and the league is so small, competition to earn a spot among basketball’s elite is fierce; the pressure to consistently perform well is even greater. Moreover, NBA players travel very frequently during the season, often getting to hotels as late as 5 a.m. for games later that day. These factors create immense amounts of stress and anxiety that can often cause players to suffer under the surface.
Currently in the midst of his best professional season, DeRozan, an All-Star guard for the Toronto Raptors, shocked the NBA during All-Star Weekend in February when he tweeted, “this depression get the best of me…”
In a lengthy interview with the Toronto Star, DeRozan said a dark moment in the middle of the night in Los Angeles prompted him to offer a cryptic glimpse into his mind. For DeRozan, known as a reserved person, the tweet may have been out of character for his public persona, but it was not out of the norm.
“I always have various nights,” DeRozan said. “I’ve always been like that since I was young, but I think that’s where my [shy] demeanor comes from. I’m so quiet, if you don’t know me. I stay standoffish in a sense, in my own personal space, to be able to cope with whatever it is you’ve got to cope with.”
In an interview with ESPN, DeRozan said he combats his depression by surrounding himself with his family and with basketball, filling every available hour with the search to be a better father, partner and player.
“Basketball, my whole entire life, has been my suppression to it … It helps me forget about everything else and has benefitted me.”
DeRozan’s honesty has motivated other NBA players to speak out about their respective mental health struggles as well. In an essay published in The Players’ Tribune, a platform where athletes express their opinions directly, on March 6, Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star Kevin Love talked about suffering a panic attack during a Nov. 5 matchup against the Atlanta Hawks and how it led him to address his mental health.
Love even credited DeRozan as the inspiration for his change of heart.
“Just by sharing what he shared, DeMar probably helped some people — and maybe a lot more people than we know — feel like they aren’t crazy or weird to be struggling with depression,” Love wrote.
In an interview with TNT, DeRozan said reading Love’s essay “made me feel, you know, pretty damn good, honestly. This last week has been probably one of the most incredible things that I personally have witnessed, period.”
After Love’s piece, Washington Wizards forward Kelly Oubre Jr. spoke about on the depression he’s faced since entering the league, in an interview with NBC Sports’ Tipoff podcast in early March. The New Orleans native was uprooted from his home by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when he was set to begin fourth grade: He says memories from that time have stayed with him to this day.
“That s – – t is serious,” Oubre said when asked about his mental health. “Nobody sees that I’m weak, but deep down inside I am going through a lot. Hell is turning over.” Oubre also credits DeRozan and Love for encouraging him to speak out on his personal issues.
In the wake of DeRozan, Love and Oubre’s confessions, the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association have worked together to develop a mental wellness program for the league’s players. The program would allow players to seek treatment and counseling with league partners and would be run by a director of mental health and wellness, the first of its kind in a professional sports league. Without a doubt, this program is an extremely positive sign for the league’s future relationship with mental health.
When asked what he hoped to accomplish by sharing his story, DeRozan said to ESPN after Kevin Love’s article, “It’s cool to be able to help somebody because it’s one of them things that no matter how indestructible we look like we are, we’re all human at the end of the day,” DeRozan said.
After Raptor legend Chris Bosh left the team in free agency during the summer of 2010, DeRozan tweeted to fans “Don’t worry, I got us.” Now, it appears the city, as well as the NBA, has got him.
To access mental health resources, reach out to Counseling and Psychiatric Services at 202-687-6985, or for after-hours emergencies, call 202-444-7243 and ask to speak to the on-call clinician. You can also reach out to Health Education Services at 202-687-8949. Both of these resources are confidential.
Carter Owen is a sophomore in the McDonough School of Business. THE HIDDEN OPPONENT appears every other Friday.