Brian Grant overcame the odds to get to the NBA, but Parkinson’s was a different challenge
In an excerpt from his new book, Grant recounts how he learned he had the disease
I had to ask.
What I hoped to hear: “It’s nothing.” Or, at least: “It’s nothing to worry about.” That’s what I hoped.
Deep down, though, I had a feeling I wasn’t going to get the answer I wanted. If that sounds pessimistic, well, there was a reason: at that moment, nothing in my life was going the way I wanted.
From the outside, it might not have seemed that way. Newly retired from a rewarding 12-year career in the NBA, I had all the perks that come with it, both materially and personally. Big houses in Portland and Miami and a getaway cabin in the woods of Oregon. A fishing boat. A bank account fat enough that, if I was smart, I’d never have to work again. A beautiful wife, Gina, my one true love, a great mother to our four kids and a former dancer who still looked very much like a dancer, if you know what I mean.
I had worked my ass off for two of the most loyal franchises in the league — the Portland Trail Blazers and Miami Heat — that assured I’d be welcome even though I no longer grabbed rebounds for them. Even though I wasn’t playing anymore, I was recognized wherever I went — I guess that’s to be expected when you’re a 6’9″ Black man who is the spitting image of Rasta legend Bob Marley. I even had an American bulldog, Brutus, that liked to chew up my shoes and drown me in sloppy wet kisses. For a Black kid from a little farming town on the banks of the Ohio River who expected to be in a field picking tobacco and potatoes his whole life, that’s a pretty amazing step-up.
Dig just a little ways below the surface, though, and things were a lot different. It wasn’t just that the six-figure paychecks were no longer rolling in every two weeks. Or that I no longer had crowds cheering and chanting my name on a nightly basis. Or that I was no longer officially part of the NBA, flying around the country on private jets and staying in five-star hotels and having beautiful women handing me their phone number. Having all that go away is something every professional athlete has to deal with when they retire.
It felt as if I was dealing with something heavier. I had ridden an elevator in the building of life to a floor way higher than I ever thought possible for someone like me. At the moment, though, I was out on the ledge of that high-rise, hanging on by my fingers — and starting to lose my grip.
The marriage to that beautiful woman? I’d f—ed that up. The standing welcome I had from my former teams? I went to a game and sat in the stands and the people around me were so polite. “Congratulations, man, and thank you for the work you put in here,” one fan said. But by halftime I was so anxious my heart was pounding and I was squirming in my seat. My head and my body were telling me, “You’re supposed to be out there working right now because this is when we work.” I didn’t realize I would miss it as much as I did. I left and never went back.
The willpower that allowed me to beat the odds, make it to the NBA, and out-work bigger, stronger men also seemed to have disappeared. It felt like there was a black cloud hanging over me and some monstrous weight sitting on my shoulders from the minute I opened my eyes every morning — a psychological weight that was turning into very real pounds around my waist. I love to fish and now I had all the time in the world to do it. Friends invited me to go out on their boats all the time, but they and Gina would practically have to drag me to the docks. I eventually stopped leaving the house, preferring to sit on my couch in the dark watching people fish on my TV screen while I felt sorry for myself and self-medicated with the opioids I had left over from the multitude of surgeries during my playing days.
Those who knew me from my playing days would’ve never imagined me living like that. Hell, I never imagined it, either.
Throughout my playing career, Gina had done everything possible to make life easier. She understood the competitive world in which I lived, the razor-thin difference between having a job in the NBA and all the perks that came with it and being just another tall Black man in search of a job.
Now it was my turn to make life easier for her. She was starting her career as a fitness dance instructor, something that made her feel good about herself, something that she could claim as her own beyond being the mother of our children and supporting me and my career. Did I support her the way she supported me? No. I was jealous and paranoid. Day after day I’d sit on the couch, eat bowls of Cap’n Crunch Berries, watch TV, and call her every bad name in the book. I accused her of being unfaithful and of caring more about her career than me. I was never physical with her but I’m sure I frightened her; a man as big as me on a rampage, throwing dishes and smashing pictures will do the trick. I had learned how to channel my rage and pain to attack the basket and intimidate men bigger and stronger than me. I even had thousands cheering me for it. But that was in the middle of a big arena. Acting like that in the confines of our home was a lot different.
Truth is, Gina wanted to figure out what the hell was going on with me and how she could help. She tried to get me out of the house or have friends over. But I was stuck between being consumed with guilt over how I was acting and outraged over what I thought she was doing behind my back.
The last thing I wanted was to drive Gina away; the fear that I might lose her fueled my anger. I suspected I was dealing with something more than post-retirement funk, but I didn’t want anyone to know, least of all her. I had always considered myself the family rock, the strong one, the one who overcame whatever stood in front of me to take care of my family. She did, too, leaving notes in my shaving kit to find on road trips that said exactly that: “Thank you for taking care of our family, my shining star.” So it was on me to figure this out. I didn’t want to hear anything about depression. That was for the weak, or the weak-minded, and I had proved over and over again I was anything but that.
It took six months for me to admit to Gina that I was depressed and then another three months before I made a doctor’s appointment to do something about it. Pride can be a pretty tough opponent. Sensing that Gina was ready to give up on me and our marriage finally got me to seek medical help; her threatening to leave and take the kids with her if I didn’t see a doctor might’ve given me that sense. I never imagined being someone in a psychiatrist’s office, talking about feeling lost and bawling my eyes out, but there I was. The psychiatrist also prescribed me an anti-depressant, Zoloft, which helped me start to reconnect with my friends and actually leave the house. Adding the Zoloft helped balance my body’s chemistry, but there was still something going on that I wasn’t aware of — dopamine.
Philippe Manicom was one of the first people I let back into the house. To call him merely a massage therapist or acupuncturist wouldn’t do him justice, but those were the talents that made him a popular figure within a circle of world-famous celebrities based in Miami — Julio Iglesias, Marc Anthony, Lenny Kravitz, and my old enemy Shaquille O’Neal, to name-drop a few. So, when it came time to stop ignoring a physical tic that had grown progressively stronger during my self-imposed hibernation, Philippe seemed like the natural person to ask. We were sitting next to each other on a plane, flying back from Portland to Miami, when I rolled my arm over and pointed to a tiny patch of twitching skin near my left wrist.
“Hey, Philippe,” I said, “what do you think this is?”
I had asked the question once before, almost a year earlier, but not to him. I was still in the NBA at the time, winding down my career with the Phoenix Suns, when I pointed it out to the team athletic trainer.
“B, you’re just getting old, man, but we can go see the neurologist and have him check it out,” he said. The team neurologist had a similar diagnosis — a muscle twitching from years of overuse. “I suspect you’re going to see a lot of that in different places, because you’ve been in the league so long,” he said. “You’ve had a good run and you played hard and been beat up.” And with that, I didn’t think anything more about it.
Every year there are 60 players — selected out of hundreds of thousands — added to the mix through the NBA draft. Those of us already in the league will take anything, do anything, try anything, to keep our spot. Playing through pain becomes necessary, or at least it was for me; I needed 14 major surgeries to get through my 12 years. I had learned to negotiate with my body: Just get me through this and we’ll fix whatever needs to be fixed in the offseason. I wasn’t alone. Everyone — coaches, GMs, athletic trainers, owners — learns to see players as somehow above the laws of normal human beings. Because in a lot of ways, NBA players are. Guys our size aren’t supposed to be as fast or jump as high or have the endurance we have. It might not be apparent when you’re watching on your TV screen or even when you’re in the stands, because everyone on the court is unusually big and fast. But put one average-sized human with average athleticism out there and the difference would be obvious — shoot, the difference when an NBA player declines just a little bit is pretty apparent.
Because it takes a combination of size, athleticism, and mental toughness that is rare, an NBA team will provide every resource imaginable to keep someone with all those traits functioning. Some physical quirk that might be a red flag for the average Joe is often viewed as just the price of business for a player in the NBA.
But what had been a damn twitch on my wrist in Phoenix now occasionally included a wiggly pinkie finger. As much as I wanted to still believe this was merely a side effect from the physical grind of 12 NBA seasons, I thought, Shouldn’t it be getting better, not worse? It had been a year since my body had last endured an NBA game or practice. I knew plenty of professional athletes, including a few former teammates, say how much better their bodies felt once they stopped playing; that wasn’t happening for me, mentally or physically. If anything, I felt worse. It felt like my entire life was sliding in the wrong direction. I was losing control — over my marriage, my weight, and even my general outlook on life. All of it symbolized by a pinkie finger suddenly with a mind of its own.
I had come to respect Philippe, both for his knowledge of what makes bodies work the way they do — especially mine — as well as his honesty. I considered him a friend. I hoped he was going to tell me the skin tremor was related to some issue of flexibility or diet or nerve endings, something we had discussed or he had treated me for in the past. Something fixable.
He turned and looked at me as if he’d been waiting a long time for me to ask.
“Brian,” he said, “I love you too much not to tell you.”
I studied his face. “What is it?”
“I’m going to tell you what you have.”
“What I have? What do I have?”
“You have Parkinson’s.”
“What? Don’t say no s— like that!”
Parkinson’s? It was as if Philippe had punched me in the face. I wasn’t even sure exactly what Parkinson’s was; all I knew was that it was really bad and that Michael J. Fox had it, and the only reason I knew that was because I was a big fan of his, going all the way back to his first TV sitcom, Family Ties. For a disease to take over the system of a short, slightly-built actor, okay — but someone built like me, in his thirties, who could dunk on the heads of 7-footers? There was no way I could be afflicted with the same disease as Marty McFly.
This excerpt from Rebound: Soaring in the NBA, Battling Parkinson’s, and Finding What Really Matters by Brian Grant and Ric Bucher is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy, please visit Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop.org, or TriumphBooks.com/Rebound.