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Trae Young, Kevin Love and the future of mental health in the NBA

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Is vulnerability of NBA players overlooked? (1:39)

The Jump crew explains the mental troubles many NBA players deal with based on their exposure to criticism and scrutiny on a daily basis. (1:39)

TRAE YOUNG WAS already accustomed to having all eyes pinned on him, so it wasn't startling that nearly every fan in the Utah Jazz Summer League gymnasium intently followed the flight of the ball as he lofted his first official shot as a member of the Atlanta Hawks and ... missed everything.

Air ball.

The reaction was predictable: a cacophony of sympathetic groans blended with derisive "I told you so" cackles. Twitter was soon aflutter with hot takes on the Hawks rookie, whom the team had traded for (thereby passing on the highly rated Luka Doncic) on draft night. As Young missed shot after shot after shot against the Memphis Grizzlies' summer league squad (10 in all, before his first basket), his obituary was gleefully penned by the haters and the doubters who had become so bothered by Trae Young that it garnered him a dubious nickname: the Darth Vader of college basketball.

If the inauspicious start to his professional career in Utah flummoxed the 19-year-old, he adeptly concealed that angst from the general public. He said afterward he would try to do better. He assured the collective media he wasn't worried about his shot. And he smiled. A lot.

"My first shots in high school, college and the NBA were all air balls," Young tells ESPN, weeks after his underwhelming Salt Lake City debut. "That's something I'll never forget."

Young has been designated the new face of the beleaguered Hawks franchise, which has struggled both on the basketball court and at the ticket office. His size, or lack thereof at 6-foot-2, 178 pounds, has been a matter of great debate -- along with his ability to be a star in a league where giants like Joel Embiid swish treys and throw down dunks with regularity. The scrutiny has been unyielding since he morphed from a relatively anonymous college freshman at Oklahoma to a swashbuckling, body-wiggling, 3-point dynamo who draws comparisons to Steph Curry. Everyone loved Trae Young ... until they didn't. It went south when Oklahoma started losing and Young started missing, and media outlets such as ESPN embarked on relentless Trae Young coverage binges. The subsequent onslaught of negativity was biting -- and overwhelming. After his performance against the Grizzlies, the criticism resumed in earnest.

"Of course it's tough," Young says. "I just go back to the hotel and relax, not even turn on the TV, because I know they will be talking about me. [The criticism] isn't gonna help me. I've tuned out social media because that's a place that can really bring you down if you pay too close attention to what everyone is saying. So I don't."

"I've tuned out social media because that's a place that can really bring you down." Hawks rookie Trae Young

That advice, he says, came from Brett Ledbetter, Young's "mentor" who works as a consultant to help young athletes at Oklahoma navigate the pitfalls and pressure of being an elite athlete before they accelerate into a problem with mental health ramifications. Ledbetter, a renowned author and speaker, has made a living helping people to overcome the fear of failure, separate the athlete from the person, and identify valuable character traits to promote success. Young says Ledbetter was a "lifesaver" during his lone roller-coaster season in Oklahoma.

"I'm very aware of the mental health challenges [ahead of me]," Young says. "I understand there will be a lot on my plate, like there has been for DeMar [DeRozan]."

While the NBA ushers in its revamped mental health policy, many young talents who aspire to join the league are being proactive in preparation for the avalanche of attention, pressure and conflict that awaits them. Some, like Trae Young, are going to need it.

"I've got a bull's-eye on my back, and I haven't even been to training camp yet," he says.


IN DANNY AINGE'S second season as a player for the Boston Celtics, he picked up a phone call from back home: His brother informed him that his mother, Kay, had taken her own life. While the news was devastating, it wasn't completely unforeseen. Kay had suffered from depression for more than a decade, and Ainge noticed as he reached his high school years that his mother was sleeping more during the day and becoming more withdrawn from the swirl of family activity. There is a feeling of helplessness when someone you love slips away, and often, survivors are left with residual guilt about what they could have done to change the outcome.

"That was a time in my life where I didn't receive help when I could have used some help," Ainge says. "I wished I had talked with a counselor to help me deal with it."

Ainge has spent years learning to detect red flags of mental health concerns, which include players being habitually late or missing practice. Instead of suspending players or fining them large sums of money, Ainge requires they attend mandatory sessions with a mental health professional of their choice. "But to be honest," the Celtics president of basketball operations says, "I haven't had much success sending someone to counseling who doesn't want to do it willingly."

The instant infusion of money, fame and adulation is problematic on its own, but when you add layers of previous mental distress, family genetics, pressure to perform, sleep disruption, a grueling schedule and an unforgiving public, players often struggle without guidance.

"I don't expect anyone to have sympathy for players," Ainge says. "I can't tell you how many of them I've warned and warned and begged to address their issues. They don't, then come back three years later and say, 'OK, now I'm ready.' But the chance is gone. There are 60 new players in a 440-person pool every year. There's a huge percentage of turnover and the competition is fierce.

"When you get here, you better be ready -- mentally, emotionally and physically. Because otherwise it will eat you alive."


TRAE YOUNG IS deathly afraid of birds, so naturally, Oklahoma State fans held up pictures of pigeons while he shot free throws. He learned by working with Ledbetter how to block out such distractions and ignore the taunts of "You're too small!" that permeated visiting arenas. Still, he admits the vicious chants of "F--- you, Trae Young!" awaiting him at Texas Tech, where his father, Ray, was once a basketball star, were a bit unnerving.

"There's no formal training for the whole country turning against you," notes one mental health professional.

Oklahoma has done its best to prepare its athletes for such moments. Led by athletic director Joe Castiglione, the Sooners have created a groundbreaking mental wellness platform for all of their incoming student-athletes. The program includes weekly discussions and meetings -- Sunday nights with athletes and Monday-morning sessions with coaches to create a bridge between them. As the players become upperclassmen, they initiate their own captains' roundtables, which Castiglione says have been particularly effective in generating dialogue among teammates. Topics include detaching from praise and criticism so others cannot dictate how the athlete feels about him or herself.

"There's no formal training for the whole country turning against you." Mental health professional

That is sometimes easier said than done. Young says the worst part of his Oklahoma experience was when outsiders criticized his teammates for not holding up their end of his magical freshman season. "I hated it when the media said, 'He's not getting enough help, it's his teammates' fault,' because I never said any of those things," Young says. "I worked so hard to stay connected with everyone I played with. I never said anything bad about them, but it felt like near the end, people were trying to pull us apart."

That same scenario could present itself at the next level. New Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk says his club is trying to better understand its players by implementing a personality test, designed to reveal natural leaders, followers, leaders by example and those who thrive under stress. Schlenk has talked to AAU coaches, high school coaches, guidance counselors and even math teachers to glean as much insight as he can about his young roster. Atlanta will have a sports psychologist meet with its players every two weeks -- and, Schlenk promises, it will be someone who's unaffiliated with the team.

Schlenk says he and Young have already had conversations about Young's unusually challenging college season, and Schlenk has assured his rookie that the organization understands and expects there will be good days and bad days.

"We're here to support him," Schlenk says. "Everyone wants instant gratification. Trae missed his first shot, and everybody says, 'Oh, he's a bust.' Well, no, he's not, but we won't really know what he is for two or three years. It will come down to: How much work does he put in? How does he handle this? Then we'll know."


THE DATA REGARDING mental health suggests the groundwork for future issues is laid early in life, long before players arrive in the NBA. Commissioner Adam Silver says it occurred to him one day that while the league's NBA Fit and Jr. NBA programs had introduced comprehensive physical training, "we weren't holistically addressing the complete person."

That has changed. A component of stress relief has been added to both programs. Mental health is now part of the rookie transition program and the junior elite program. While many teams have employed sports psychologists for a number of years, the league is now requiring that teams establish a connection with a licensed psychiatrist as well.

"The joke around the league was teams historically had a team psychologist, but we call him the shooting coach," Silver says. "If a player was having trouble dealing with stress that was impacting his play, they would readily accept help from the shooting coach, but if you called him a team psychologist, the reaction was, 'Hey, not me. I don't need a doctor.'"

Don Kalkstein was the first sports psychologist in the NBA, hired by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban 18 years ago. He spent his early years trying to convince players that although his training didn't generate instant success, it was still worth their time. Soon he evolved as a team guru who has helped dozens of players reach their potential. Kalkstein says the new buzzword in the business is the acronym MVP: meditation, visualization and positive self-talk.

"In Dallas, we're always talking about things the player can control -- and things they can't," Kalkstein says. "The idea of, 'If I do X, then this will happen' isn't always true because the coach controls how many minutes you play and, to a degree, how many shots you might take. So you can't say, 'I need to score more points so I'm an All-Star,' or, 'My girlfriend wants to get married, so I need to score more points so I can get more money,' because you can't score more points if your coach isn't playing you. Your parents want you to buy them a new house, so you need better stats, but that's hard to accomplish when you're not in the rotation."

Playing time (or lack thereof) is an age-old trigger. Athletes who identify as elite stars come to the NBA and are often expected to play a subservient role. It is a blow to the ego, the purse strings and, often, to the mental well-being of the player.

"It's a sensitive topic," acknowledges Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri. "If you aren't performing well, and I came to you and said, 'I think you should be seeing a psychiatrist,' your first instinct is to say, 'Buzz off. I'm fine. I don't need help.' It comes down to trust in a relationship. You try to tell the player, 'I care about you, that's why I'm suggesting this.' But some of them just can't wrap their arms around it."


BILL WALTON WAS a first-ballot Hall of Famer who paid for his excellence with his body. He was in so much pain at the end of his career from back woes, he revealed in his book "Back from the Dead," that he contemplated suicide on numerous occasions. This revelation was a complete shock to his son, Los Angeles Lakers coach Luke Walton.

"I was blown away," Luke Walton says. "I called my brothers and said, 'Can you believe this?' I never saw it. I think as a father, you try and protect your kids. As kids, you'd love to know a loved one is going through something so you could be more supportive.

"But he never let us see any of that. I asked, 'Dad, why didn't you tell us?' It's just a different generation. They don't talk about their feelings the way we do."

Luke Walton started working with sports psychologist Michael Gervais while he was playing at Arizona because if he lost or had a bad game, Walton says, "I'd hold it in, get depressed. I wasn't dealing with it properly." The recent publicity surrounding mental health has given him pause regarding his young Lakers team. "I'm not sure I was as good at identifying mental health issues as I should have been."

"It's not an illusion to say there's a stigma attached to this." NBA commissioner Adam Silver

Veteran big man Robin Lopez has played for five franchises. Sometimes his coaches were able to help him with his emotional outbursts, sometimes they weren't. Over time, he says, he learned to cope on his own. "When I was younger, there wasn't a lot of consistency in my game," Lopez says. "I was pretty violent if things didn't go my way."

Lopez says former Chicago Bulls coach Bill Cartwright helped him corral his temper by talking to him in a low, even tone. When Lopez played in Phoenix, he says, then-Suns GM Steve Kerr would leave books in his locker on the topic. Lopez has since discovered meditation as a way to relieve stress.

"When you phrase it as mental wellness, then I feel that that includes everybody," Lopez says. "When you say mental health, then guys tend to say, 'Well, that's not me. I don't have any mental health stuff.'"

Silver applauds players who have found the strength to tell their story, but he emphasizes his focus is getting the players help, not convincing them to come forward.

"If a player were to say to me, 'Guarantee me this won't have an impact on my [free-agency] signing,' I'm not in a position to say that it won't," Silver says. "It's not an illusion to say there's a stigma attached to this. There are still very real issues around disclosure."


KEVIN LOVE HAS turned to basketball his entire life to combat the mental health demons that have plagued him since he was a small boy.

"It has always been my safe place," he says. "It's the physical exertion that takes your mind out of the equation. I'm fine when my mind is preoccupied. It's the moments you are left alone that can be scary, or misleading, or when your mind can play tricks on you."

Love says he's in the process of establishing a foundation centered on mental health with an emphasis on helping young boys. He is drawn to others who have struggled with mental health and recently watched a documentary on comedian Robin Williams, who killed himself in 2014. Love was devastated by the recent death of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and was in the process of pitching a basketball show to The Players' Tribune based on Bourdain's format of "Parts Unknown."

"It was Game 4 of the Finals, and it was the first thing I saw when I looked at my phone," Love says. "It said, 'Anthony Bourdain, suicide.' And it just crushed me. I was thinking to myself, 'How am I going to go out and play this game?' He was one of my heroes.

"So many of us in the public eye feel we have to be perfect, because everyone is watching. It's so difficult to keep up that façade. It was heartbreaking to hear that Kate Spade didn't address some of her mental health issues because it might 'hurt her brand.'"

Love often finds himself harking back to the day his Players' Tribune article appeared and he told the world he was battling depression and anxiety. He wasn't sure how his teammates, particularly LeBron James, would react.

Immediately following Love's panic attack in November, before he had discussed anything with his teammates, James approached Love, visibly upset, and told him he needed to know that Love would commit to the team completely. In that moment, Love thought about sharing the details with James, but decided against it.

Months later, on the day the piece appeared, James hung back on the team bus as the rest of the Cavaliers filed off. He shook Love's hand and told him, "You helped a lot of people today."

Kevin Love says he's not done. Maybe he can help Trae Young. Or maybe it will be Marvin Bagley III, whose high school track teammate killed himself without warning, a memory that still shakes Bagley. "I find the best way to deal with something is to talk about it with the people I love, and to have faith in God," Bagley says.

Here's who it won't be: a former All-Star whose mental health struggles remain unchecked, untreated. His agent frets about his client, has begged him to get help, but the player declines. "He can't bring himself to see himself as a vulnerable person," the agent explains, "because it doesn't match up with the invincibility of the player that he once was."

No one said the road to mental wellness is smooth, or easy. But Kevin Love is ready to reach out and help anyone.

"I think," says the Cavs forward, "I have found my life's work."