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‘Everything was spinning’: Kevin Love opens up about his in-game panic attack

Kevin Love has gone public with his panic attack. (Brandon Dill/Associated Press)

You would think that Kevin Love, a 29-year-old in his 10th season of professional basketball, would have experienced everything imaginable in a basketball game. But accustomed though he may be to life in the NBA, an unexpected problem sneaked up on Love last fall. The Cleveland Cavaliers star suffered a debilitating panic attack during an early season game, an experience that helped convince him Americans must pay more heed to mental health issues.

“For 29 years, I thought mental health was someone else’s problem,” Love wrote this week in a candid Players’ Tribune essay. “I’ve realized I need to change that.”

He started that process with a vivid description of his own experience. During the third quarter of a Nov. 5 home game, Love suddenly felt like “everything was spinning, like my brain was trying to climb out of my head.” He described his heart racing, writing that “it was like my body was trying to say to me, You’re about to die.” He left the arena and headed straight for the Cleveland Clinic.

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The experience was sobering enough to prompt his essay. And his description comes at a time when a host of well-known athletes are urging increased awareness of mental health issues: DeMar DeRozan recently described his battle with depression, Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps has been outspoken about the same struggle, and New York Giants wide receiver Brandon Marshall has called raising mental health awareness “the civil rights issue of our era.” Love has now added his voice to that chorus.

“I turned 29 in September and for pretty much 29 years of my life I have been protective about anything and everything in my inner life,” Love wrote in the essay. “I was comfortable talking about basketball — but that came natural. It was much harder to share personal stuff, and looking back now I know I could have really benefited from having someone to talk to over the years. But I didn’t share — not to my family, not to my best friends, not in public. Today, I’ve realized I need to change that. I want to share some of my thoughts about my panic attack and what’s happened since. If you’re suffering silently like I was, then you know how it can feel like nobody really gets it. Partly, I want to do it for me, but mostly, I want to do it because people don’t talk about mental health enough. And men and boys are probably the farthest behind.”

Talking about mental health was “a form of weakness” that he worried could hurt him in basketball or “make me seem weird or different,” Love wrote. He also told teammates a panic attack caused him to leave a later game in January, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, although that is not mentioned in the Players’ Tribune piece.

“Growing up, you figure out really quickly how a boy is supposed to act. You learn what it takes to ‘be a man.’ It’s like a playbook: Be strong. Don’t talk about your feelings. Get through it on your own. So for 29 years of my life, I followed that playbook. And look, I’m probably not telling you anything new here,” he wrote. “These values about men and toughness are so ordinary that they’re everywhere . . . and invisible at the same time, surrounding us like air or water. They’re a lot like depression or anxiety in that way.”

Love’s description of what happened to him is terrifyingly real to anyone who has had a panic attack. His heart raced, and he couldn’t catch his breath.

“The air felt thick and heavy,” he wrote. “My mouth was like chalk. I remember our assistant coach yelling something about a defensive set. I nodded, but I didn’t hear much of what he said. By that point, I was freaking out. When I got up to walk out of the huddle, I knew I couldn’t reenter the game — like, literally couldn’t do it physically.

“Coach [Tyrone] Lue came up to me. I think he could sense something was wrong. I blurted something like, ‘I’ll be right back,’ and I ran back to the locker room. I was running from room to room, like I was looking for something I couldn’t find. Really I was just hoping my heart would stop racing. It was like my body was trying to say to me, You’re about to die. I ended up on the floor in the training room, lying on my back, trying to get enough air to breathe.”

Although he worried that people would find out, he sought therapy and now meets with a counselor, he estimates, “a few times” a month.

“He had a sense that the NBA wasn’t the main reason I was there that day, which turned out to be refreshing,” Love wrote of the first session. “Instead, we talked about a range of non-basketball things, and I realized how many issues come from places that you may not realize until you really look into them. I think it’s easy to assume we know ourselves, but once you peel back the layers it’s amazing how much there is to still discover.”

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For Love, the death of his beloved grandmother was one long-unresolved issue. And DeRozan’s frank discussion of his depression helped him, too.

“I’ve played against DeMar for years, but I never could’ve guessed that he was struggling with anything. It really makes you think about how we are all walking around with experiences and struggles — all kinds of things — and we sometimes think we’re the only ones going through them,” Love wrote. “The reality is that we probably have a lot in common with what our friends and colleagues and neighbors are dealing with. So I’m not saying everyone should share all their deepest secrets — not everything should be public and it’s every person’s choice. But creating a better environment for talking about mental health … that’s where we need to get to.”

DeRozan was recently applauded for opening up about his own struggles, telling the Toronto Star how overwhelming depression can be for him.

“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,” he said. “We all got feelings . . . all of that. Sometimes . . . it gets the best of you, where . . . everything in the whole world’s on top of you.”

DeRozan received an outpouring of support on Twitter after writing Feb. 17, “This depression get[s] the best of me …”

“This is real stuff,” he told the Star. “We’re all human at the end of the day. That’s why I look at every person I encounter the same way. I don’t care who you are. You can be the smallest person off the street or you could be the biggest person in the world, I’m going to treat everybody the same, with respect. My mom always told me: Never make fun of anybody because you never know what that person is going through. Ever since I was a kid, I never did. I never did. I don’t care what shape, form, ethnicity, nothing. I treat everybody the same. You never know.”

Marshall went public with his 2011 diagnosis of borderline personality disorder and has called raising mental health awareness “my purpose on this planet.”

“It’s extremely important for us to have this conversation not just in sports, but in society,” he told USA Today. “It’s important for us to change the narrative.”

Phelps, meanwhile, has admitted that depression caused him to consider suicide at times.

“For the longest time, I thought asking for help was a sign of weakness because that’s kind of what society teaches us,” he said (via USA Today). “That’s especially true from an athlete’s perspective. If we ask for help, then we’re not this big macho athlete that people can look up to. Well, you know what? If someone wants to call me weak for asking for help, that’s their problem. Because I’m saving my own life.”

At least as far as one teammate is concerned, Love needn’t have worried about how his essay would be received.

“You’re even more powerful now than ever before,” LeBron James tweeted Tuesday morning. “Salute and respect, brother!”

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