In recent years, the NBA has become a safe space for mental health discussion thanks to the likes of DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love. But the six-time all-star opened up at Friday’s media day about a topic that rarely receives more than token attention: grief.
The 27-year-old point guard told reporters that the death of his grandfather, in October 2018, sent him into a depression that led him to isolate himself from his Boston Celtics teammates and contributed to his leadership struggles.
“I didn’t share it with anyone,” Irving said. “I didn’t want to come out and say that this is bothering me, or that I was in a depression at this point dealing with the death of my grandfather. … Things got really, really rocky for me. After the Phoenix game, I went to my grandfather’s memorial. He passed on Oct. 23.
“After he passed, basketball was the last thing on my mind. A lot of basketball and the joy I had from it was sucked away from me. There was a facial expression that I carried around with me throughout the year. I didn’t allow anyone to get close to me in that instance, and it really bothered me. I didn’t take the necessary steps to get counseling or therapy to deal with someone that close to me dying. I’ve never dealt with anything like that. I responded in ways that are uncharacteristic.”
Virtually everyone will deal with grief at some point in his or her life, yet no two people will deal with it in the same manner or on the same timetable. Grief can come in overwhelming waves, or like a knife to the gut. It can stop someone in his or her tracks, blur his or her focus or steal his or her drive.
Clearly, Irving has given his loss, and his response to it, a lot of thought. On the podium, he expressed guilt at not communicating with his grandfather in the days before his death and he apologized to the Celtics for internalizing his pain. He also took responsibility for a disappointing season that was at the mercy of his mood swings, one that ended in a second-round exit so ugly that his offseason departure became a foregone conclusion.
“I barely got a chance to talk to my grandfather before he passed, from playing basketball,” Irving said. “You tell me if you want to go to work every single day knowing that you just lost somebody close to you. A lot of the battles I thought I could battle through in the team environment, I wasn’t ready for. I failed those guys. I didn’t give them everything I could have during that season. In terms of me being a leader and bringing everyone together, I failed. It’s a huge learning experience to just slow down and acknowledge that I’m human.”
These were words that Irving needed to say for his own benefit, and they were words that everyone in professional sports needs to hear.
Typically, athletes and coaches miss as few games as possible for the deaths of loved ones — absences often labeled with the oblique “personal reasons” explanation. Such deaths are usually quickly forgotten by media members and other observers unless there is an outward show of emotion, such as when Clippers Coach Doc Rivers broke down during a news conference nearly a year after the death of his mother.
When athletes perform well in the face of tragic circumstances, they are, as The Washington Post’s Kevin Blackistone noted in 2017, often hailed as invincible. That’s an unreasonable and harmful standard. If an athlete’s play suffers as Irving’s did, he or she can be pilloried by voices that simply don’t know the full circumstances.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver admitted at a conference earlier this year that many NBA players are “truly unhappy” because of issues such as isolation, jealousy, anxiety and scrutiny. The league has launched mental health programs and mandated that teams employ licensed mental health professionals as part of a new policy, but perhaps it should hear Irving’s words and consider working to shift the conversation and expectations around bereavement. Death is unavoidable, and its aftermath can inflict lasting pain that leads to unintended consequences.
Would Irving have been better served if he had felt enough support — and enough protection from the pressure of being a franchise player — to sit out for a month or two last season? Would the Celtics? Would a star of Irving’s magnitude taking such a stand have helped to establish a more reasonable norm? Would the league be a healthier place if other players listened to Irving’s media day comments and decided to act on them when facing similar circumstances?
“This is a game, but also our lives come into it this,” Irving concluded. “The important thing to realize [is that] a basketball player, or any person in an industry, struggles to deal with personal issues.”