It happened 15 years ago. It wasn’t at Quicken Loans Arena, but in a classroom on the campus of a small college like so many that are tucked away in rural areas of New England. There weren’t 20,000 people in attendance watching, but there might as well have been.
The coach in this setting wasn’t wearing a suit, nor was he handsomely compensated for the important work he was doing. At the head of the classroom was professor Mark Wagner, who was leading a professional development seminar for freshman. In terms of professors, he fell firmly under the “he’s cool, he gets us” category.
At some point during a relaxed, maybe even mundane, discussion about conducting yourself in a professional manner -- a point of emphasis for a business school with, at that time, an enrollment of far fewer than 1,000 -- bile started to hit the back of my throat.
Suddenly, all the things that drew me to the school triggered a feeling I’d never experienced. There were just a few dozen students seated around me and nowhere to hide. One of the things that drew me to the school was a slogan of sorts – here you’re a name, not a number. Now as I fought back vomit, there was nothing I wanted more than to be indistinguishable.
A few muffled (or so I thought) gags later, it became apparent to those around me that something was up. My professor was empathic despite the disruption and asked if I was OK. When it became clear that I was not, he asked a classmate to help escort me to health services. The act of getting out of my chair and walking to the door felt like a marathon. Once out into the fresh air, I could hold myself together no longer. I leaned over, clutched my stomach and disturbed some of the newly fallen snow on the sidewalk.
I gathered myself, thanked my classmate and lied that I was already feeling much better. I wouldn’t need to see the nurse, but I was going to skip the remainder of class -- could he let the professor know? Sure, he said. My professor would later check on me, but to everyone that had witnessed the event … this was the end of it. After all, how many of them had looked, or gotten, sick on a Friday or Saturday night since we arrived on campus? No big deal.
To me, it became a very, very big deal. I’ve replayed what happened on that day in my head hundreds of times since. I still can’t say with certainty whether what happened on that winter morning was brought on by anxiety or intestinal distress, but (right or wrong) I’ve come to consider the incident my first panic attack.
Flash forward to March 2018.
The same 18-year-old that became fearful of getting sick again in public, resulting in dry-heaving and intense anxiety whenever there was a big test or presentation on the horizon is scrolling through Twitter. There’s a toddler on the toilet and sometimes it’s smarter to hang out in the bathroom and wait to be needed than try to begin another task. Inevitably, you’ll hear I’m done just as you step into the other room.
As I wait for my duty as Daddy, my thumb moves up and down searching for a tweet that catches my eye. When one finally does, there’s a twinge deep in my stomach as well.
The Players’ Tribune released a piece by Kevin Love on Tuesday morning entitled, Everyone Is Going Through Something. In the piece, Love details how he suffered a panic attack after halftime of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Nov. 5 game against the Atlanta Hawks. Love explains that he was moved to speak out in part because of how DeMar DeRozan opened up to the Toronto Star about depression last month.
A lot has transpired since panic attacks first became a part of my life and oddly enough, the NBA played a major role.
Since that first one, I’d estimate that I’ve had 100 panic attacks of varying severity. An overwhelming majority of those came while I was still in college, which would lead you to believe that I had a terrible four-year experience. It was quite the opposite. I flourished in spite of my anxiety, had a blast, made the girl that was by my side from the first attack my wife and somehow turned my passion for basketball into my career.
Near the end of my sophomore year, I reached out to RealGM’s Executive Editor, Chris Reina, to see if the site, which I’d frequented, was in need of any writers. I wrote a sample and to my astonishment it was posted only a day later.
This sort of thing is relatively common now, but this was the early aughts. It seemed odd to everyone around me that I was building a professional relationship with an editor that I’d never met in person. Less than a year after I began writing for RealGM, they got me in the door at Madison Square Garden as a credentialed member of the media for the first time. It was a Pacers-Knicks game -- early on I must have written a thousand pieces on Indiana -- and afterward I caught up with Chris in Manhattan for the first time.
We didn’t talk over a beer or even coffee, I was a few months shy of 20 at the time.
This is where the tentacles of my anxiety cross those of DeRozan and Love, even if it’s simply because they had the courage to speak publicly and I’ve been lucky enough to make a living adjacent to the game I’ve loved since I was roughly the age my children are now.
As I was learning how to deal with chronic anxiety and control attacks, I started spending more and more time around the NBA, near the court, in locker rooms and talking to people I never thought I’d even meet. At some point it occurred to me that giving a five-minute speech in front of a few dozen people I knew in college nearly crippled me, but I could walk up to a professional athlete in some stage of undress at his locker and ask him a question that was probably only important to me without breaking a sweat.
My unique, now mostly behind-the-scenes, role with RealGM never made me what you’d call a beat reporter, but over the last 12 seasons I’ve covered a few hundred games between the regular and postseason. Not once have I endured a panic attack at an arena or while covering a lottery, draft or all-star game.
Anxiety and panic attacks aren’t a big part of my life anymore, but they are very much still a part of me. As I read the words Love bravely wrote, I once again felt that unwanted energy knocking on the door. Athletes are more accessible and vulnerable than ever before and the stories shared by DeRozan and Love are shining examples of why an NBA player, or any high-profile athlete, should never stick to sports.
They are both at the peak of their profession. They are ungodly rich and with a snap of their fingers or signature on a check they can make things happen that the average human being cannot. The blessing of fame and fortune, however, doesn’t exempt them from the painful inability to simply get out of one’s own head.
Despite being in a much better place now than I was when anxiety entered my life, I still carry an amount of shame that I’m not sure will leave. It’s here as I type, wondering who might read this and immediately think less of me. It’s the root of my desire to talk about anything other than myself in casual conversation. That’s why I didn’t realize until after I finished reading Love’s Players’ Tribune piece that tears were streaming down my face.
It sounds masochistic, but there is comfort in knowing that everyone does, in fact, deal with something. Everyone’s “thing” is different and that doesn’t make anyone’s issues more or less real. Love and DeRozan are the epitome of stereotypical male strength. They are tall with bulging biceps. The simple act of dunking a basketball is filled with testosterone and yet Love explained a panic attack better than I’ve ever been able to: “But it was real – as real as a broken hand or a sprained ankle.”
In reality, they struggle with the same things a thirty-something, married, father of two does while trying to do the best by those around him and stretch for that extra quarter of an inch to hit six feet at the doctor.
The courage it took DeRozan and Love to speak their truths is far greater than anything they’ll achieve on a basketball court. They are accustomed to hearing 20,000-plus screaming and cheering while they are at work; I hope they also see the fans that are silently nodding their heads.