How NBA players are grappling with mental health inside the bubble

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The moment could have prompted Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul George to explain a recent shooting slump with conventional reasons.

George could have contended he took quality shots that just did not drop into the basket. He could have credited the Dallas Mavericks’ swarming defenses. He could have admitted feeling additional pressure of competing in a playoff game.

Instead, George offered the real reason that showed his courage and vulnerability with discussing a sensitive topic.

“I underestimated mental health,” George said. “I had anxiety. A little bit of depression. Us being locked in here, I just wasn’t there. I just checked out.”

The reason for NBA players nursing varies anxieties?

First, look at the state of the world. The coronavirus has killed nearly 190,000 people in the U.S. and the country’s shutdown has led to an 8.4% unemployment rate. Law enforcement officials have killed or shot numerous unarmed Black people this year, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake, leaving the NBA’s players frustrated over whether their platform can become effective enough with addressing systemic racism.

Secondly, understand the players’ current circumstances. They might still play a game they love, and earn millions of dollars doing so. That does not cover up the challenges, though. They had spent nearly two months away from family up until they were permitted to enter the quarantined campus this past week. Once the resumed season started in late July, NBA teams played games every other day, leading to a compressed schedule that leaves little time for recovery, sleep or unwinding.

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“It’s like a trigger. I couldn’t imagine having to go out and perform and being away from your family in a bubble and going through those different traumas,” Keyon Dooling, the NBA players union’s player wellness counselor, told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s a lot to navigate. I think our guys have done a fantastic job with focusing on basketball, while giving enough focus to the realities that we experience on a daily basis. So I’m extremely proud of our guys for just being so resilient, vulnerable and tough with trying to make change in a positive way.”

George developed that mindset after seeking help.

Beyond talking with Clippers coach Doc Rivers, teammates and family, George said he spoke with a team psychiatrist about his undisclosed issues. After shooting a combined 10-of-47 in Games 2-4 against Dallas, George then rebounded with a 35-point performance on 12-of-18 shooting in Game 5.

“I know exactly what Paul is going through,” Los Angeles Lakers guard Danny Green said. “You have nothing to do but look at your phone and social media all day. All they are doing is bullying you. They are trying to get you to play well. So he was going through a rough stretch. I’m sure doors were closing in on him, and it was getting dark for him.”

The NBA, the players union and participating teams all sensed the importance of addressing mental health well before the league’s season restart took place.

So the league established in its health and safety protocols that all team clinicians remain available, “particularly if any player experiences increased feelings of anxiety and stress upon transitioning to the campus and being away from household or family members.” If a respective team’s traveling party did not include a mental health clinician, teams were required to ensure tele-health access for players and staff on campus.

Dooling has held a wellness roundtable that players can access via Zoom. He was on the NBA campus between Aug. 11-23, and remained available for any personal conversations. He also has remained accessible by phone. Meanwhile, the NBA has had Dr. Derick Anderson available on site, who is the “lead clinical consultant for NBA Mind Health.”

“This was happening quite frankly before Orlando and even before the season hiatus in March,” Jamila Wildeman, the NBA’s Vice President of Player Development, told USA TODAY Sports. “The strength we had tried to create in the bubble is only possible because teams, players, coaches and team staff had already embraced resources on the team level and league level. That created a foundation in which we could work.”

Beginning in 2015, the league had made a clinical psychologist available to players and staff. In May 2018, the NBPA began its own mental health and wellness program. Before the 2019-20 season, the NBA required that all teams provide players with access to licensed, clinical mental health professionals. When the NBA halted play at the beginning of the pandemic, the NBPA’s director of mental health and wellness, Dr. William Parham, and Dooling held weekly Zoom meetings and had daily phone and text conversations with players.

In recent years, Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan, Metta World Peace, Paul Pierce, Royce White, Blake Griffin, Justise Winslow, Kelly Oubre, Jay Williams and Markelle Fultz are among the former and current NBA players that have publicly shared their struggles and successes with mental health.

“We’re starting to wake up to the reality that here’s no difference between a sprained ankle and something going wrong with your brain,” Rivers said. “The brain is probably even more important. It is more important. But it’s been such a taboo subject in society and probably even more taboo in sports because of the machismo.”

Beyond having mental health services, the NBA sought to construct its campus environment to help players, coaches and staff better achieve a work-life balance. Each hotel has a pool, gym and lounge room that includes video games and movie theaters. There are recreational rooms that include ping-pong tables and card games. There are golf courses and nearby lakes to go on fishing excursions. Wideman noted those activities “can be the difference between maintaining and sustaining a healthy orientation.”

Therefore, Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens is one of several NBA coaches that stresses two messages. One, Stevens has told his players to “recognize how lucky we are to have a job and to have an opportunity to do that job.” Two, Stevens encourages his players to enjoy the outdoors. Every morning, Stevens steps outside of the team hotel to take what he calls “the walk of sanity.”

“You feel isolated. We’re in a very small area. There’s only so much you can do,” Stevens said. “But you do have to find time for yourself. You do have to make sure you’re taking care of yourself the best that you can. You can’t get holed up in your room all day, which is very easy to do.”

And when players are holed up in their room? Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, for one, has used that time to connect with mother Gloria, and his three children via Facetime, including his 16-year-old son Bronny, 13-year-old son Bryce and 5-year-old daughter Zhuri.

Family always comes first. Having that in your life, you have to put yourself in the position of what centers you,” James said. “Meditating helps a lot for me personally with taking a lot of deep breaths, closing my eyes and just centering myself and listening to my inner self and talking to my kids and my mom. That definitely is something that keeps me sane in the bubble.”

And when players have trouble staying sane? They have access to speak to those that can help with their issues. Just like what George did when he went through a shooting slump.

“Whether I was the first to say it or not, we’re all dealing with it,” George said. “I’ve had conversations with guys here, and there’s been a couple guys that are like, ‘Man, I’m happy I’m not the only one. I’ve been dealing with this, too.’ It’s a thing in here.”

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