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Mental health on injury report? NBA’s awakening could spark unprecedented move

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Near the top of his rocky rookie season, in April 2021, Golden State Warriors center James Wiseman learned he had a torn meniscus requiring surgery on his right knee. He cried as he sat within the Chase Center garage, struggling to digest the news. Then he cried for the following several days.

Wiseman plunged right into a dark place at times over the following 15 months. He couldn’t play basketball and every day life was daunting: He wore a brace and needed crutches, making it difficult to make use of the toilet or take a shower.

Wiseman also bottled his emotions, leaving him engulfed in frustration.

“Just going through my adversity, it made me stronger mentally but additionally took a toll on me mentally,” he said in a recent Chronicle interview. “I needed to go to therapy and express myself. … While you hold all the things in, it type of tears you apart.”

In acknowledging he needed help, and extolling the advantages of his therapist sessions, Wiseman joined a growing list of NBA players to openly confront mental health challenges. From DeMar DeRozan to Kevin Like to John Wall, several outstanding players have gone public with their stories, prompting the league and National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) to launch programs to guard mental health and wellness.

James Wiseman, Warriors Summer League player, answers questions within the interview room at Chase Center on Wednesday, June 29, 2022 in San Francisco, Calif.

Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle

Now the NBA and its players union are contemplating a landmark step: adding a mental health designation to the official injury report. That possibility has been discussed in collective bargaining talks between the 2 sides, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported in September.

Warriors head coach Steve Kerr understands the complications such a move would bring — especially on this era of social media, which supplies every fan a platform — but he still welcomes the likelihood.

“The more we normalize (mental health), the less stigma there’s and the more comfortable people shall be getting the assistance they need,” Kerr said.

As Kerr realizes, it’s easy for fans to have a look at skilled athletes — coping with pressure and scrutiny, yes, but additionally awash in fame and wealth — and wonder how they may face mental health challenges. That helps explain the backlash 76ers-turned-Nets guard Ben Simmons encountered last yr.

Simmons missed the 2021-22 season with a back injury and mental health issues, sparking strong criticism from fans. Simmons, on former teammate JJ Redick’s podcast in September, said he also didn’t receive support from his Philadelphia coaches and a few teammates.

Even Warriors guard Stephen Curry, the often-smiling face of a marquee franchise, occasionally struggled earlier in his profession. Long before he became a four-time NBA champion and two-time MVP, Curry missed greater than 50 games with ankle injuries that raised doubts about his long-term durability.

And that tested his mental health in a profound way.

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) goes to his family following the NBA game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif., Friday, Nov. 11, 2022. The Warriors won 106-101.

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) goes to his family following the NBA game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif., Friday, Nov. 11, 2022. The Warriors won 106-101.

Santiago Mejia, Staff / The Chronicle

“I’m endlessly grateful for the circle I had around me to maintain tabs on me through those years,” Curry told The Chronicle. “You’re away from the sport, away out of your team, stuck in rehab — your identity is type of threatened a bit of bit because you may’t do what you like. … Those were dark times, of course.”

The sports world is facing a mental health reckoning. This story is a component of a series examining the challenges faced in any respect levels of competition and the way they’re being addressed.

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* * *

Jerry West, the brand himself, battled depression throughout his life due to a physically abusive father, in keeping with West’s memoir. Lakers forward Ron Artest, now generally known as Metta Sandiford-Artest, thanked his psychiatrist during a live national-television interview after he helped the Lakers win Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals.

Still, in some ways the league’s mental-health awakening traces to the tweet DeRozan posted at 3:06 a.m. on Feb. 17, 2018. He was 28 and playing for Toronto on the time, preparing to make his fourth All-Star Game appearance the following day in his hometown of Los Angeles.

“This depression get the most effective of me…” DeRozan tweeted.

Those words, quoting rapper Kevin Gates’ song “Tomorrow,” resonated deeply. DeRozan didn’t specify why he was depressed, however it didn’t go unnoticed that such an achieved player — who had survived a rough, violence-scarred upbringing in Compton — felt compelled to disclose his psychological struggles.

Two-plus weeks later, Cleveland forward Kevin Love posted a first-person essay in The Players’ Tribune, titled “Everyone Is Going Through Something.” Love vividly detailed his long bout with anxiety, including a panic attack earlier that season during one game.

He acknowledged DeRozan’s tweet about depression helped persuade him to share his own story.

“In the event you’re suffering silently like I used to be, then you already know how it will probably feel like no person really gets it,” Love wrote. “… People don’t speak about mental health enough, and men and boys are probably the farthest behind.”

Soon thereafter, the players association launched a mental health and wellness program. The NBPA hired William Parham, a respected Loyola Marymount professor with greater than 30 years of experience in the sphere — working with the NFL, MLS, the U.S. Olympic Committee and UCLA, amongst others — to guide its efforts.

The NBA also began its own program, Mind Health, inside months after DeRozan and Love spoke out (the league had began making clinical psychologists available to groups in 2015). Now all 30 teams are required to make a licensed, experienced mental health skilled available to players.

Each programs are designed to guarantee players confidentiality in the event that they seek treatment. If a player chooses the NBPA option, for instance, Parham recommends three people in the specified NBA city and encourages the player to have a temporary, get-acquainted conversation with each without revealing his real name.

“Now we have phenomenal performers, but inside each performer is an individual,” said Kensa Gunter, director of the NBA’s program since January 2020. “So we’re attempting to humanize the conversation. It’s greater than science and symptoms.”

NBA players hardly are alone in shining a lightweight on mental health challenges within the sports world. Gymnast Simone Biles, tennis player Naomi Osaka and swimmer Michael Phelps even have shaped the conversation.

Clippers guard John Wall did the identical along with his own first-person Players Tribune piece in September. Wall began by writing, “I used to be this near taking my very own life,” then offered a robust account of how his mom’s death, atop his torn Achilles tendon, sent him spiraling into deep depression two years ago.

Experts like Gunter and Parham acknowledged the impact of outstanding athletes, including Wall, addressing long-taboo topics equivalent to suicide. That helps bring mental health into the conventional discourse and results in more people understanding its importance.

Plus, as Gunter put it, more individuals are talking about what they’re doing to get help — seeing therapists, using their support system, searching for solutions. That’s a striking step, she said, from the times when “mental health” often was interpreted as “mental illness.”

Parham pointed to DeRozan, Love and Wall for influencing people far beyond the sports realm.

“It’s akin to a pebble in a pond, creating ripples far beyond,” Parham said. “These personal, courageous, raw disclosures really give people a moment to pause: ‘If these players are hooping at Hall of Fame levels, they usually’re vulnerable, perhaps I can surround myself with people and resources to get healed earlier.’

“So their disclosures are the gift that keeps on giving.”

Kerr offered some context here. In his playing profession, he said, NBA players didn’t say anything about their psychological state for fear of being perceived as mentally weak. That might prevent them from landing their next contract.

Steve Kerr, coach of the Golden State Warriors, at a press conference following the Golden State Warriors-Washington Wizards game at Saitama Super Arena, on September 30, 2022.

Steve Kerr, coach of the Golden State Warriors, at a press conference following the Golden State Warriors-Washington Wizards game at Saitama Super Arena, on September 30, 2022.

Benjamin Parks, Freelance / Special to The Chronicle

Now the dynamic has shifted dramatically. Kerr compared the wave of candid, first-person stories about mental health to gay athletes coming out over the past 20 years. That helped normalize same-sex marriage in society, in Kerr’s mind.

But are NBA players really able to embrace a “mental health” category on the injury report, right there alongside “sprained ankle” and “wrist soreness”? Gunter and Parham agreed the possibility to rest, recuperate and decompress could be useful, if an individual engages in things like meditation, a massage or counseling. Parham cautioned that “simply taking day off just isn’t as necessary as what you do with the time.”

Still, adding a recent designation on the injury report looks like an enormous step, even with all the things that has happened prior to now five years.

“The discussion is an indication of progress, but actually bringing it to fruition is rather a lot more complex discussion,” Parham said. “It’s so progressive, they really should be certain that they get this right.”

* * *

Warriors officials highlighted this increased mental health awareness of their design of Chase Center. Rick Celebrini, the team’s director of sports medicine and performance, created a “mindfulness” room, a phone-free area where players can meditate, nap or play iPad games to assist with vision and focus.

This suits well with Kerr’s holistic approach. He incessantly reminds his players they earn their salaries not for enjoying basketball, but for getting cut, traded, injured, booed, criticized within the media and ridiculed on Twitter. That’s the more daunting challenge.

One recent example: Latest Orleans forward Zion Williamson, considered one of the NBA’s most physically imposing players, has talked of sobbing within the arms of assistant coach Teresa Weatherspoon at one point last season, as he struggled to manage along with his long absence (broken foot) and ensuing social-media vitriol.

“Athletes are viewed as powerful and physically strong, mentally strong,” Kerr said. “So when young people realize these people, who seemingly have all the things and do all these amazing things under pressure, even they feel vulnerable when emotional adversity comes their way …

“It hits all of us, really. There’s no shame in it, obviously, however it’s great for young people to see athletes are vulnerable too.”

As Wiseman recovered from his knee injury last season, he also ultimately regained his mental health. Wiseman had endured a difficult childhood — sometimes studying by candlelight because his family couldn’t afford its electricity bill — but he hadn’t previously hung out in therapy.

He began writing poetry, putting his thoughts in a every day journal and meditating. Wiseman also benefited from long talks with Atlanta guard Dejounte Murray, who missed all of his third season within the NBA due to a torn ACL.

Now, even amid a sluggish begin to this season (including a recent task to the Warriors’ G-League affiliate in Santa Cruz), Wiseman said he’s “at peace with myself.” He’s mostly grateful to be healthy and playing basketball, slightly than wandering within the darkness.

“All of us need assistance sometimes,” Wiseman said. “It doesn’t matter what type of status you may have: We’re all humans, now we have emotions and we’re not perfect. So should you need assistance or have any problems, don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

Ron Kroichick is a San Francisco Chronicle staff author. Email: rkroichick@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @ronkroichick

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