Jackie MacMullan, ESPN senior writer and Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame Curt Gowdy Award recipient, has captured the attention of the NBA community this week with her five-part series on the state of mental health in the league.
Each day this week, MacMullan has explored a specific angle tied to the topic, including the question of whether to medicate, the stress facing referees and mental health in the NBA’s African-American community. She shares more about the inspiration for the series below.
What inspired you to pursue this series on mental health in the NBA?
I have been thinking about mental health in the NBA for many years. I’d ask a coach, GM or an agent about a certain player whose career seemed to falter, and often they’d answer me, “well, off the record, he’s got some issues he’s not addressing.” More often than not, those issues were mental health related. Finding anyone to talk on the record about it was challenging, until I had a long conversation with Houston Rockets assistant coach John Lucas. Lucas was a star basketball player at Maryland and went on to the NBA, where drugs and alcohol derailed his career. He started a program for athletes who experienced similar struggles, and many NBA players sought his counsel. The other person that really pushed me to pursue this story was Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens. He feels strongly mental health is a major issue in society, not just in basketball, and, of course, the numbers corroborate that.
Why do you believe NBA players have recently turned a corner and are willing to discuss this more openly?
For years, asking players to address any kind of mental health concerns was taboo. The NBA, like many other professional sports leagues, perpetuated an image of machoism that prevented players from revealing their struggles because they would be labeled “soft.” I believe that in recent years, the number of suicides of prominent people, both inside and out of sports, emboldened professional athletes to take the necessary steps to get the help they need. The message is clear: Rich, successful people are not immune to mental health problems. Kevin Love [who shared the story on Twitter] was quite eloquent in explaining his devastation upon learning of the suicides of both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, because, in his own journey of self-discovery, he felt a kinship with them. The courage of both Love and DeMar DeRozan to not only get help, but to come forward and reveal their own struggles has given others the strength to do the same.