As published in The County Times (countytimes.somd.com), June 2020
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Bi-weekly status check: it has been 106 long and bizarre days since the NBA suspended its season. We should be celebrating recently crowned NHL (maybe the Caps?) and NBA champions (definitely not the Wizards) and enjoying Serena Williams’s attempts at the French Open and Wimbledon to tie Margaret Court’s record 24 major tennis championships. Instead, the NHL and NBA are planning frantic championship sprints in bubble cities, MLB is struggling to salvage a season and the NFL is pondering helmets retrofitted with anti-COVID face shields. Meanwhile, the viral culprit of all of this is re-energizing in new hot spots around the country.
In the immortal words of Vince Lombardi, “What the hell’s going on out here?” Good question, sir. I saw a dude wearing an “Occupy Mars” shirt the other day. It feels like we already have.
On, then, to good and rather important news. In some ways this article is long overdue; in others - as we battle a pandemic and social injustice - discussing psychological health feels timely. Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love started talking about “it”, specifically anxiety and depression, in 2017. And he didn’t address either generically, as part of his foundation or in the context of loved ones struggling with mental health. No, Kevin Wesley Love - a big, strong and classically masculine professional athlete, and one whose middle name is an homage to former Bullet Wes Unseld, another rugged man among men - talked to the world about his personal struggles and the panic attack he had…on the court…during an NBA game.
The psychological freight train arrived, unannounced, in November 2017. He couldn’t catch his breath. His heart was racing. Death seemed imminent. The game went on, coaches drew up plays during timeouts, but Love, lost in the death spiral of his mind, was disconnected from this familiar basketball reality. Ultimately he couldn’t physically bring himself to re-enter the game and fled to the locker room in an attempt to escape the inferno raging inside him.
Love survived and even returned to play in the Cavaliers’ next game, but the episode left him confused and searching to determine what happened and why.
Love had had a panic attack. Why it happened was - as it often is for anyone with such experiences - a complex trip into his mental make-up, scars acquired through his life and a series of recent triggers. Instead of shrugging off the episode and moving on, Love took the difficult journey into understanding and controlling the beast within him. More courageously even than facing it for himself, he did so publicly. In March 2018, he penned a raw, personal account of the attack and his recovery in The Players Tribune (a highly recommended read) and has continued his mental health advocacy in the years since.
ESPN gives the Arthur Ashe Award at the ESPYS each year to the athlete reflecting “the spirit of Arthur Ashe, possessing strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost” (as an aside, Ashe’s memoir "Days of Grace”, a gripping farewell to life and his family, is another suggested read). Last Sunday, Love received the award for his bravery in discussing his struggles and on-going efforts to raise awareness of mental health. Since 2018, Love has turned a spotlight on a pervasive and invisible affliction that, due to lingering social stigmas, is still misunderstood and for which proactive treatment remains inconsistent – especially for prideful men.
While physically just a trophy, the Arthur Ashe Award represents an official “thank you” from Love’s peers in the world of sports; unofficially, it expresses gratitude from anyone struggling directly or indirectly with mental health. As Love said in his Player’s Tribune piece, “Everyone is going through something we can’t see” – encouraging words as we tote around our burdens and a reminder when encountering others carrying theirs. Elvis Costello once sang, “What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?” Nothing. The truth is everyone needs more of each as we seek to find and maintain health of mind, body and spirit.