Mental health coach Ronald Kimmons is critical for Utah Jazz behind the scenes
Vice president of player wellness says he gives ‘mental skills training and health to young athletes’
The Utah Jazz will be represented during the upcoming 2023 NBA All-Star Weekend by first-time All-Star Lauri Markkanen, All-Star Saturday participants Jordan Clarkson, Walker Kessler and Collin Sexton and Ronald Kimmons.
Yes, Kimmons, the Jazz’s vice president of player wellness. And if you haven’t heard of Kimmons, it’s by design since this mental health coach works privately behind the scenes to help the Jazz players and organization.
“Like anything, if you see everybody all the time, you can get on each other’s nerves,” Kimmons told Andscape about his role with the Jazz. “I try to be very conscious and mindful of that, so I give people space. I know when a group of players are talking when to sit there and kick it with them and when to get up and get out of there because they’re starting to go on their own way. And so, because of that, we can make it easier and a flow of interaction. Then the advantage overall, again, is just being present, just being around.
“It might be a short chat behind the squat lifting machine. It could be, ‘Hey, I actually want to sit down and talk to you about some things and get some stuff off my chest,’ knowing that whatever we talk about is going to be confidential and it’s going to be safe. If something does come up, I’m very honest to say, ‘Well, this is something maybe you should talk to your coach about. You might need to open that up with them. It’s your choice, but this is how your work with them is going to be a little bit better.’ So sometimes literally coaching them on communication in an interaction.”
In 2018, the National Basketball Players Association debuted a mental health and wellness program to offer players access to mental health counselors. The NBA also has a Mind Health program created to humanize mental health with a mission to “engage, educate, and serve the NBA community and to position mental health as an essential element of wellness and excellence – both on and off the court.” It is mandated that every NBA has a mental health staff member.
“The mental well-being of our players, coaches and staff is vital to our organization,” Jazz general manager Justin Zanik said. “Ron’s impact has been absolutely invaluable. His talent, ability to connect with everyone and genuine care is essential to our team.”
Kimmons is in his second full-time season with the Jazz after starting with the franchise as a consultant in October 2019. The Oakland, California, resident has a doctorate in clinical psychology, a master’s degree in social welfare, and a master’s degree in sport psychology. The former John F. Kennedy University adjunct professor is a founder, practitioner and consultant for Train the Mind, LLC, which offers weekly online meditation, anxiety, mindfulness, assertiveness, mental skills, and life skills training “for elite athletes, academics, artist and regular folks.”
During NBA All-Star Weekend, Kimmons is scheduled to speak to a Jr. NBA Youth Coaches Clinic about his role with the Jazz and providing insight on mental skills training, the integration of mental health and wellness perspectives. The former Division III Hope College (Michigan) football player will also serve as an ambassador for the Jazz this weekend.
“A lot of people say this is your dream job. My dream job was to play pro football … It’s an interesting full circle to give mental skills training and health to young athletes.
“It’s cool for starters, but definitely all these are things I would’ve never predicted 20 years ago coming up,” Kimmons, 51, said. “Although I was from Ann Arbor, I was also from the projects, welfare, and a single mother home. This is a long way from that. So, there is a sense of amazement that I wouldn’t have guessed.”
The Jazz have been located in predominantly white Salt Lake City since moving from New Orleans in 1979. Jazz owners Ryan and Ashley Smith, however, have made diversity and inclusion a priority for the franchise since purchasing the team on Oct. 28, 2020. Since then, the Jazz have hired or promoted African Americans in prominent front office role including Kimmons, associate general manager David Fizdale, senior director of basketball intelligence Charles Terrell, vice president of global scouting Luca Desta, G League Utah Stars general manager Marquis Newman, manager of college scouting Shawn James, basketball operations generalists Katie Benzan and Tide Osifeso, basketball strategy associate Chris Robinson, head athletic trainer and director of rehabilitation Jamal Cort and senior vice president of team security Steven “Cobra” Smith.
“The Smiths recognize a state and community in transition in basketball operations and in tech,” Kimmons said. “They’re trying to do their best to match up with the rest of the world. For them, they know that different voices and perspectives only make it better. They are doing everything in their power to have open arms, fully embracing different and using it to their advantage, making the players and the staff feel safe while challenging their own norms.”
The National Basketball Players Association Foundation recently announced grants totaling $50,000 to support several Utah-based organizations in recognition of the city hosting the 2023 NBA All-Star Weekend, including the Black Physicians of Utah. This grant will help the Black Physicians of Utah launch a mental health alliance for Black men in Utah and provide subsidized behavioral health services.
Kimmons believes it is very important in an NBA with predominantly Black players to have an African American mental health presence and that the generational stigma that Black men are not comfortable speaking to psychiatrists is “evolving for the better.”
“It is evolving because younger people have had way more access to that,” Kimmons said. “If you think of someone who’s 23 now, for the last five or 10 years, we’ve been talking about mental health and wellness in high school, middle school and then also in sports. So, they may or may not come, but there is an awareness that you have to take care of your mind and your soul, whatever you want to call it. So, they don’t trip off on that much.
“But I think they’re still going to always be the like, ‘Well, are you talking to the GM? Are you talking to the coach?’ So, we’re very, or at least for me, I know I’m very mindful. Even in taking the job, I’m like, ‘I hope you guys know, ain’t no punks here. Ain’t no open season to the relationships; otherwise, it’s not going to work. If you were putting somebody in just as a prop, then I’m not the guy.’ ”
The Jazz now know Kimmons is also a soulful guy. He has close to 10,000 records, primarily R&B, jazz, funk, and hip-hop, that he has been collecting since the early 1990s after buying turntables. The former college radio DJ spun during a practice at the Jazz’s headquarters in January in celebration of first-year coach Will Hardy’s birthday. It also has helped Kimmons that Hardy is a big proponent of mental health.
“It was dope. Hella fun. But my cover is blown,” Kimmons said. “When Coach [Hardy] first got to the Jazz, we talked about hip-hop during one of our first meetings. He is a big Nate Dogg guy. His philosophy is that no one ever says, ‘Turn that Nate Dogg off.’ He believes Nate Dogg is the fabric that keeps us all together. I was like, ‘Did you say Nate Dogg?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I mess with Coach Will.”
Kimmons now feels fully integrated with the Jazz, which has helped him implement programs and build relationships. Known affectionately as “OG” by Jazz players and staff, his look usually includes big black frame glasses, a slicked-back Afro, a viewable necklace with a peace symbol and very long baggy shorts.
Kimmons says several Jazz players have playfully joked with him about his look and he loves all of the good-natured ribbing.
“It is funny to me. I don’t get too caught up,” Kimmons said. “Something you learn is you go with what works for the client. If it is something that connects us, I’m all for it. In our culture, to be bestowed the title ‘OG’ is one of the highest honors.”