NBA: Kevin Love on mental health: ‘Beating that stigma has been great’

Story highlights

Kevin Love playing in 11th NBA season

Had panic attack during game in 2017

Works with therapist on mental health

CNN  — 

The Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star was, after all, quietly receiving therapy for an anxiety battle he had kept hidden from the public.

But Love came to realize that saying the words “panic attack” and describing his episode publicly were part of the recovery process, and could benefit others suffering in silence.

“Beating that stigma has been something that has been great in my life,” Love tells CNN Sport about the process that began with an open letter in The Players Tribune in March.

“It’s been therapeutic, and it’s been good to share my experience and try to help.”

The pressure on male athletes to suppress mental health issues only made his condition worse, Love wrote in the essay. He said he hoped to break down that wall for other pros facing anxiety or depression.

“The biggest lesson for me since (the panic attack) in November wasn’t about a therapist, it was about confronting the fact that I needed help,” he wrote.

With World Mental Health Day landing a few days before the NBA season launched in October, a reminder was served that the league’s policy concerning mental illness is evolving.

“At the NBA level there is great awareness, but the execution level is still far from there,” says sports psychologist Adam Naylor, who has counseled players in the NBA, NHL and PGA . “I hope it looks different five years from now.”

Both the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association have flagged mental health as a priority, and Love’s openness – along with that of other NBA players like Demar DeRozan – have spurred them to fortify programs that offer confidential counseling with experts in the field.

There is no policy in place, however, to protect NBA players and coaches who are unable to perform for psychological reasons from getting fined by their teams – although that is unlikely. Days after Love penned his article in March, Cavaliers then-head coach Tyron Lue stepped away from his duties for two weeks to deal with his own anxiety issues.

Teams are currently not required to keep mental health professionals on staff, though they do need to be accessible. The Cavaliers worked with Love to find a suitable therapist.

“I think the league and professional sports and in every walk of life, that’s where it’s trending,” Love says, stressing the need for access to confidential therapy “at arm’s reach.”

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‘Not just an athlete thing’

After running off the court during that game against the Atlanta Hawks in November, Love described collapsing on the floor before being taken to the Cleveland Clinic.

“My heart was jumping out of my chest. I couldn’t get any air to my lungs. I was trying to clear my throat by sticking my hand down my throat,” he told ESPN.

“It was terrifying. I thought I was having a heart attack. I was very scared. I really felt like I was going to die in that moment.”

Love says he has since been in “constant contact with players around the league” who reached out about their own mental health battles.

“A lot of players have opened up to me,” he says. “And not only will mention themselves, but will say, ‘Hey I’ve got another teammate, and we want to see how we can manage this, or can deal with the stress,’ or they had this catastrophic moment in their family.”

Cleveland teammate Channing Frye had already gone public about his depression after the loss of his parents, but since Love’s statement Washington Wizards guard Kelly Oubre Jr. has come out about his battles with stress. Retired Celtics legend Paul Pierce has also documented living through social anxiety after being stabbed at a Boston nightclub early in his career.

“One of my favorite quotes is ‘success is not immune to depression,’” says Love, who believes more than 40 percent of NBA players are plagued at some point by mental health issues.

“It doesn’t discriminate against anybody. It’s not just an athlete thing, it’s everybody.”

‘Is this about my contract or me?’

Naylor suspects the number of athletes grappling with mental health issues in a given year is closer to the US adult average of 18.5 percent, but concedes they are dealing with larger challenges.

“We’re not great at empathy in pro sports,” he says, adding that Love’s openness has been “incredibly brave.”

Naylor, who consults at Northeastern University’s sports performance center, says top athletes who have been coddled at the high school, university and pro levels have often been “neglected” from learning basic life skills.

“You’re asking a young man to act like an adult, but when it’s time to play, you’re asking them to act like a kid,” he says. “There is a dichotomy.”

There are also considerable financial pressures, Naylor notes.

“The realization for athletes that they are playing a sport with a lot of money at stake over a relatively short career can be troubling,” he says. “Many players do realize that when it’s over, what’s next? That’s tough for (even) the well-adjusted athlete – so there is a threat level.”

That threat can make a player wary of taking advice from teams when it comes to mental health, says Naylor.

“At the professional level there is still fear. A lot of pro athletes don’t want the organization to tell them who to go to,” he explains.

“Is this about my contract or is this about me? There is a lot of distrust out there.”

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Former Toronto Raptors All-Star DeRozan, who was openly unhappy about his trade to San Antonio in the offseason, explained how financial pressure can manifest into mental illness.

“You think when you come from a difficult environment that if you get out and you make it to the NBA, all that bad stuff is supposed to be wiped clean,” he told ESPN, “but then this whole new dynamic loaded with stress comes your way.”

“People say, ‘What are you depressed about? You can buy anything you want.’ I wish everyone in the world was rich so they would realize money isn’t everything.”

‘My opinion was mocked’

The acceptance for NBA players to seek mental health care has come a long way since the Houston Rockets drafted talented rookie Royce White in 2012.

White was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder before starring for Iowa State University, which was unfamiliar terrain for the NBA at the time.

After a public disagreement with the Rockets and the NBA, in part because of his request for a stronger mental health policy, White exited the league after appearing in just three games.

A year later he explained his view, comparing mental health disorder to that of a physical injury – a concept that is gaining acceptance in pro sports.

“Just like if your orthopedist says your left toe has a crack in it, and you can’t run and jump against the Lakers tonight, then you can’t run and jump against the Lakers tonight,” he told HBO’s Real Sports. “The only difference is you can’t see (my ailment). There is no swelling, so to speak. It’s not purple.”

“My opinion that mental illness was a pandemic was mocked and called ‘radical’,” he wrote in a recent blog post.

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For most of last season, rookie Markelle Fultz was mysteriously inactive from the Philadelphia 76ers team sheet and his demeanor was noticeably downbeat.

Although the 2017 No.1 NBA draft selection suffered an early shoulder injury, he appeared to have recovered and scant reason was given by the team for his exclusion.

In June, an independent trainer who worked with Fultz said he had a case of “the yips” and needed to relearn how to shoot.

Fultz’s Instagram post in July documenting the statistics of mental health disorder also gave clues that not everything was OK with the 20-year-old.

If Love’s example is something to go by, Fultz’s quasi-acknowledgment was a mental victory – and he has started in all the Sixers games this season.

On the other hand, his Instagram post on mental health has already been deleted.

Kevin Love appears courtesy of Shock Doctor, a leader in athletic mouth guard technology