why loneliness stalks the NBA

new balance

Making it to the NBA is a dream come true. Fans can see it on the faces of the players on draft day when their names are called. They arrive at the podium with visions of celebrity, multimillion dollar paydays and glamor as they shake the commissioner’s hand. But no matter how exciting the prospect is of playing in the league, there is more to being human than simply providing entertainment for big bucks. So, what happens when the dream fades and issues of loneliness and trust become part of a person’s day-to-day?

“You dream about something for your whole life,” NBA veteran Kelly Oubre Jr tells the Guardian. “And when you finally reach that dream – everybody wakes up at one point in time. When I woke up, life really hit me.”

For Oubre, who was drafted No 15 overall in 2015, and played for the Charlotte Hornets last season – he averaged 20.3 points and 5.2 rebounds a game – getting comfortable in the NBA wasn’t easy. At first, playing for the Washington Wizards, he tried to find where he fit in on an older squad. But once he got a taste of success in his third year, he wanted more. That was his on-court life. But outside basketball, people in his world began to change. They wanted more from him: money, attention and access from a man whose career earnings now top $62m.

“People start acting different,” Oubre says. “It’s easy to get lost in that mental cycle of not feeling you can trust anybody.”

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There is no great way to navigate that minefield. “Every day we have to live,” Oubre says, meaning he chooses not to spend too much worrying that some people may not have his best interests at heart.

“It’s a terrible feeling, though,” he says. “Money is the root of all evil.”

NBA players are more than their job title. Because the game is quantifiable, because there are winners and losers, players are talking points as much as they are athletes who entertain in the moment. Those burdens, as well as the paychecks, continue to grow. Athletes are often put on pedestals only for fans and media to take aim at them. What makes the situation worse is social media, which gives fans access to players, and players 24-hour access to the vitriol aimed at them. “I stay off social media nowadays,” Oubre says. “I try to be mentally free.” Summer vacations help.

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When Oubre was a child in New Orleans, he studied taekwondo. He’d seen the Karate Kid and knew that he wanted to learn martial arts. Oubre’s father was a basketball player in high school and so later he taught his son the game. He fell in love with it. Worked at it. And the effort paid off, just as taekwondo had. Except now, he was in the NBA after just one year at the University of Kansas. Today Oubre says he lives two lives: a “raw version” and a “guarded” one.

“I chalk it up to social anxiety,” he says. “When I’m around large groups of people, I get squirmy and a little bit uncomfortable.”

It’s not about crowds at games. Instead, it’s about daily life. Because when you’re 6ft 7in, rich and on television, you never know what someone may try to get from you. For instance, Oubre may be sitting in a movie theater when he sees someone notice him. And that may make him antsy. Oubre says he enjoys taking photos with fans. If they’re respectful and treat him like a person, it’s all good. But that’s not always how things unfold, and sometimes he is treated more like a prop for a selfie than a human being.

These worries, though, may be something of a modern-day phenomenon. For instance, four-time All-Star Michael Ray Richardson, who played from 1978 to 1986, says he doesn’t remember feeling lonely during his career. While Richardson’s former teammate Darryl Dawkins wrote in his memoir that “loneliness leads to lust,” for the player they called “Sugar,” NBA life back then wasn’t how Oubre experiences it now. For Richardson, a three-time league leader in steals and father of two in his playing days, guarding himself in social situations wasn’t an issue – at times to his detriment.

“When we were coming up,” says Richardson, “it was all excitement, being a professional athlete. We were doing a lot of traveling, going from city to city, so there wasn’t a lot of loneliness back then.”

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Sugar does remember feeling homesick in college his freshman year – but many college kids experience that. He would drive from school in Missoula back home to Denver on weekends, nearly 900 miles each way. But later, Richardson formed bonds with people on campus and never felt problems in public. In the 1980s, though, players weren’t on television as much as they are now (the NBA finals were tape-delayed in 1980) and contracts were closer to $100,000 than $100m. Today, Oubre’s life is markedly different.

When asked if loneliness is more of a modern day issue, Oubre answers, “Absolutely.” He is not the only one. Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan have spoken about their struggles with depression and anxiety, while the NBA commissioner himself, Adam Silver, has said many of the players he meets are “genuinely unhappy” and “amazingly isolated”.

Oubre cites social media, which allows people to be anonymous and, thus, spew a strange mixture of anger and cowardice. And so, Oubre avoids it. In its place, he reads, sleeps or plays video games on the plane with teammates. But in hotels, Oubre is constantly on FaceTime.

In 2022, Oubre married his fiancee, Shylynn. Together, they have two young children, including a four-month-old. So, as soon as he gets to a hotel on a road trip, Oubre, his wife and kids connect through video calls until gametime. “When we first met,” Oubre says, “we never really left each other’s sides. [FaceTime] makes me feel whole, makes me feel like I’m at home, even though I’m obviously not.”

Having a good relationship can go far. It fills a void that may otherwise be pacified with drugs or promiscuity. Before they had kids, Oubre and Shylynn, who met in Arizona, traveled during the season together. These days, being away, Oubre says, “takes a toll on a man. You’re providing for your family, but you can’t be there to protect them. It can be very disheartening.”

To help, he leans on his faith, something he and his wife take great solace in. Yet doing so can separate him from those who he grew up with, those who maybe want to do more juvenile things – “hood-rat stuff,” as Oubre says. It’s a balance and, despite some ups and downs, Oubre says today he’s “happier than I’ve ever been.”

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One of those lows came not too long ago when Oubre’s grandmother passed away. She was the person who knew him best, he says. She helped raise him and never asked for anything from him but his time. It was his grandmother “who showed me real love.” Thinking about this, Oubre remembers when the NBA asked him to be an advocate for mental health. At the time, he says he wasn’t as mature as he is today, so he declined. He was concerned talking about his feelings would make him look “weak”. More recently, though, since his grandmother’s death, Oubre has grown to be someone who young players look to for advice. That was his role this season with the Hornets, along with the likes of Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward.

NBA life is hard, physically and mentally. In 2020, Oubre played for the Phoenix Suns when Covid forced the NBA into a quarantined bubble. Though the team went undefeated in the bubble Oubre was injured and was relegated to a “cheerleader” role. In the following offseason, he was traded for the second and third times in his playing career, landing in Golden State. While it’s part of the business, Oubre says, it’s nevertheless hard to adjust to new teams, cities and cultures. The first time he was traded, from Washington DC to Memphis, the transaction was nixed after it had been announced. So, Oubre had to get back on a Wizards plane, unwanted. “I cried,” he says. “Around a bunch of grown men. I was crying on Sasha, our PR representative’s shoulders.”

Today, the NBA and its teams employ therapists. Still, fighting the very real isolation that comes with the job can be a daily battle. And as social and financial divisions between NBA players and average folks increase, so will the need for understanding. For Oubre, success is about controlling what you can control, whether that’s the people in your corner or how you handle mental health. Don’t let others make decisions for you, he says. And above all, listen to your instincts.

“Trust your gut,” Oubre says. “Take control. And do that before it’s too late.”

new balance

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