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On mental health, Larry Sanders, and defining seasons

These are my thoughts of mental health and how it's hard to discern what may or may not be going through a player's head during the ups and downs of their careers.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

There is a scene in the superb Larry Sanders feature by ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz that nearly had me in tears:

At breakfast, Sanders was approached by a 50-something financial analyst from suburban Milwaukee. Sanders' large frame had just folded itself into a chair at a window table in the cafe inside the Pfister Hotel.

The consultant apologized for the interruption, then paused for Sanders to give him an OK before continuing. Sanders smiled at the guy, as if to say, "It's OK, man. Two strangers can engage each other in a hotel restaurant without a security clearance." The smile reassured the man, who gently set his business card face down on the table in front of Sanders. He then flipped the card over and pointed to a message scrawled in pencil on the back, which the consultant chose to read aloud.

"Larry, you're a great ball player with a huge heart. Get back soon."

Sanders politely thanked him. The man nodded, apologized again for the interruption, then walked back to his table across the restaurant.

"There are people out there who don't judge, who just want to support," Sanders said. "They genuinely care and they express that because they can relate. They see the humanity in the situation. They say, 'Ah, I've been there.'"

Larry Sander's story is becoming less and less rare and shocking as awareness for mental health scales upwards. Royce White essentially left the NBA in the fashion that Sanders did, not trusting the NBA system and simply walking away. White explicitly gave an explanation while Sanders' decision has been more shrouded in silence. But both players are at the frontier of a culture that is becoming necessarily sensitive towards the well-being of the human mind.

When there are things like "ball is life" and basketball as sanctuary remain common tropes among fans across all generations, it isn't reality for some of the higher-profile players in the greatest hops association in the world. The stigma of mental health as an illness needs to be explained and shoved in people's faces but also entertained from the notion that even successive players fight through this. Royce White did not make the NBA but Larry Sanders was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and a Sloan Sports Conference superstar.

I am in no way a therapist (despite a pending application to someday become one) but there's a reason basketball sociopath Kobe Bryant acts the way he does especially in emulating Michael Jordan. There's a reason why LeBron James forever heeds the call of fans that want to love him, veering away in his first season as a Miami Heat before succumbing to his instincts ever since.

Mental health goes both ways in sports, for good and bad players. It helps some thrive and for others, it's simply too much to maneuver in a near-obsessive job function while battling all these demons.


From a Golden State Warriors perspective, here is more Sanders:

One of Sanders' pet theories is that elite defensive players are particularly susceptible to mental health conditions because playing defense at an NBA level demands a strong degree of nervous energy. As evidence, Sanders points out Ron Artest and Dennis Rodman as examples of players who, like him, are wired differently.

"Anxiety is a big part of playing defense," Sanders said. "I think there's a reason defensive players are the guys who fall into that category. They use that anxiety."

The Warriors are set up with elite defenders at nearly every single position. This passage perked my interests pertaining to a team that brings two former All-Stars, albeit regressing ones, off the bench.

Harrison Barnes is a noteworthy candidate for oft-talked about character in the mental aspect of the game. Coming into the NBA, he was "not aggressive" enough and vanished from games. Barnes threw down some impressive dunks his rookie season and blew up in the postseason to assure fans and writers he was talented enough to overcome those ghost symptoms. Then, in his sophomore season, he clashed with Mark Jackson's use of him right off the bat and struggled with a lack of confidence. He played progressively worse as the season wore on and by the beginning of his third year, he was talked more as an afterthought than promising young guy ready to make the leap.

Of course, when he's recovered to become the promising youngster he always was, confidence and aggression were to blame/praise. We don't know how much the mental aspect of the game has affected Barnes but ascribing it to explain his success and failure is more atypical in today's NBA than ever.

The most interesting player, and perhaps directly correlated to Sanders' comment, is Andre Iguodala's Warriors career arc. He came in as the two-way start that could handle, score, and defend, ostensibly relieving Stephen Curry of some offensive duties. In the broad spectrum, however, he's been more defensive specialist than anything else. After playing most of his minutes with the starters last season, he's been asked at times to carry the bench unit. And like Barnes, he's struggled with the mental aspect of adjusting, and perhaps even the familiarity and confidence of this brand new situation.

This isn't to say Iguodala has mental health issues, that would be reckless theorizing and moronic. He's been the same locker room presence as ever, steady, never too high, and never too down. He loves rooting for his teammates, sometimes heard shouting out their names during interview sessions. But he's also done things on the court he's never done - at time declining point-blank layups perhaps in fear of shooting free throws. Rajon Rondo is fighting through these issues and he was a great defensive player. Andris Biedrins' career ended because of the mockery he made on the phrase "charity stripe".


We'll never know what goes on in an athlete's mind in any given moment. Part of the fun in human existence is that we're left to guess and wonder about these things. I'm not really sure what I'm trying to say here except that mental health issues affects the lesser known players and the successive ones. This isn't something exclusive to people we barely root for. For Larry Sanders, it was enough to push him away from the game of basketball. A game that we love. But for the best athletes in the world, it's still a job.

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