Heaven Knows We’re Miserable Now: Mental Health in the NBA and the Basketball Community

The Smiths: an angsty Manchester band of the 1980s with a unique penchant and prowess in articulating feelings of melancholy, isolation, unrequited love and disillusionment. Still a firm fixture both for teenagers around the world and also those of us who never grew out of feeling like verbosity, entitled anxiety and pompous grandiloquence makes you cool. My point exactly. The Smiths likely seem a far cry from the glitzy world of the NBA as you start to read this.

At the 2019 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference however, Adam Silver captured the basketball world’s attention when he voiced his concerns over the unhappiness of many of the NBA’s players. He said “I think we live a bit in the age of anxiety”. Not content with leaving it there, the NBA Commissioner went on to describe how he felt that being a public figure in the social media age we currently live in ultimately causes unhappiness.

To place this statement in context with what has transpired across the world since 2019, it seems difficult to accept that this was more of a problem in 2019 than today. Indeed, the NBA recently expanded its policies and guidelines regarding mental health amid the challenges brought by the pandemic and the associated conditions that players have competed in.

If they don’t believe us now, will they ever believe us?

We must also remember that 2020/1 in the United States has not only been characterised by a global pandemic. Numerous high profile instances of police violence inflicted disproportionately on its African American community. A political climate so toxic and divisive that it actually resulted in an attempted coup of the Capitol Building. Kobe Bryant (along with his daughter and many others) tragically died in a helicopter crash… I could go on.

Adam Silver bringing up this topic also wasn’t anything new in 2019. Josh Coyne wrote an excellent piece looking at the state of mental health in the NBA on this same site in 2018. But while not a new topic, I feel like with the environment we have all been forced to live in for almost 18 months, if a certain level of existential dread didn’t seep into even the jolliest of people then they’re not human.

Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan and Paul George among others have been brave enough as high profile players to openly discuss the struggles they’ve experienced with mental health, and there appears to be a collective lessening of the subject being a taboo. The average social media user may have some catching up to do however.

Over the past 6 months or so, mental health has been a point of passionate debate among the basketball community as it has related to current players, and I’ve observed varying degrees of sympathy, understanding and tolerance. For every supportive message that I’ve read on this topic, I see many more simply pointing to the wealth or favourable circumstances that NBA players generally enjoy thanks to their status as professional athletes.

In response to that way of thinking, a major message that I’d like people to take away from reading this is that mental health is not logical. It can’t be explained away simply by pointing out that someone’s feelings are irrational or perhaps not super important in your own mind. That person isn’t actively choosing to feel how they do and because of how we’re conditioned, they even likely feel a level of personal shame and embarrassment.

There is a Light That Never Goes Out

As I conclude this piece and put together my final message, I’d like to return to the Smiths, those vegetarian-endorsing, flower-waving “popes of mope”. Often characterised (or satirized) as simply being anti-establishment and “sad” for effect, I think this completely misses the brilliance of the work that the group produced in that relatively brief period. Named by NME as its Most influential British band back in 2002, there is good reason why writers and music pundits in particular hold the band with reverence.

I started this piece talking about how vividly and poignantly the music and lyrics of the Smiths speak to tragic and helpless feelings. But what is less discussed is how these sentiments are counterbalanced with subtle hints of optimism amid the gloominess – a metaphorical light that never goes out and an ultimate refusal to give in or lose hope. As much of the world starts to turn a corner in combating the pandemic, we as a basketball community have good reason to be hopeful.

We can only control our personal feelings and our mental health up to a certain point. And at this point I can’t stress enough how important it is to seek help if you are personally struggling with these issues. But what we as a community have much greater control over is our own behaviour and how it relates to others. I don’t just mean your immediate friends and family – I mean everyone that you interact with in this “social media age” that Adam Silver listed as a huge contributor to unhappiness and anxiety.

When we accept that we have a strong degree of agency over how our actions make others feel and if I can borrow from the Smiths again… As a basketball community, now more than ever we should strive towards the goal of becoming a community of (metaphorically of course with the gendered language) Charming Men.