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Basketball had always been an escape for NBA All-Star Kevin Love. “It had been a way to alleviate stress and get away from the dark thoughts of when I’m alone in my mind,” he said November 29 as Tufts hosted Get with the Times, the New York Times conversation series for college students.

That safe place came crashing down around him on November 17, 2017, when he had his “first real life-changing experience with a panic attack” while playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team, he noted, that was expected to win a championship every year. “Expectations,” he said, “went through the roof.”

That attack struck him at half time; suddenly breathless and confused, he left the game for the locker room, but ended up on the floor in his trainer’s office, gasping for air. “It got to the point where I thought I was having a heart attack and I was going to die,” he said.

Calmed by teammates and admitted to Cleveland Clinic, Love was soon assured by doctors he was not at risk of cardiac arrest. But Love, going on to talk with a therapist, knew he had to confront buried mental health issues, including suppressed grief.

“I took a look in the mirror and said, OK, this might be time to start addressing what’s been going on . . . since my younger teenage years,” he said.

“Each day is going to bring a different challenge and pose something that you might not be ready for,” said Kevin Love, in conversation with Juliet Macur. Happiness is “like a quiet joy,” he added. “People expect it to be so great all the time—it has to be this elation and euphoric experience, but in a lot of ways that’s unrealistic. Take your time to have gratitude and look around you and think, OK, this is a great life.” Photo: Alonso NicholsToday Love has transformed that panic attack into a new calling as an advocate for mental health in sports culture. At Tufts, he shared that journey in a conversation with Juliet Macur, New York Times sports reporter and a nationally recognized sports columnist.  

Love launched his advocacy role for mental health awareness not long after his panic attack. He shared his thoughts and feelings about the experience in an essay in The Players’ Tribune, in which he revealed to fans and teammates that he had struggled with depression and anxiety all his life.

“When I was younger, I didn’t really understand it,” he told a capacity crowd at Cohen Auditorium. “It manifested in rage fits and anger, and I was always able to separate myself and have somewhere to go.”

His family culture, he went on, kept the lid on feelings. “My playbook was to put all that stuff over here,” he said, “to suppress it, to not talk about, keep your chin up. Don’t show any emotion, don’t cry. I think as young men, that’s what we’re taught to do.”

While he hoped his article might help him break free from those constraints, he also had his trepidations.

“I was afraid that my teammates would think I was weak, would think less of me, and that I would be unreliable on the court,” he said.

Instead, the article led an outpouring of support and “amazing” consequences well beyond the basketball court. Becoming a mental health advocate, he said, has helped him see, most importantly, that he is not alone.

“More people have come up to me about sharing my story and what I’ve been dealing with than any other point in my career,” he said. “I found that to be super-therapeutic, but also very cool and a big reason why we’re sitting here today.”

Asked to talk more about expectations about “what it means to be a man,” Love replied that “I believe that whole conversation needs to change. People need to allow themselves to be vulnerable and to express themselves . . . Men need to allow themselves,” he said, “to speak a different language. That’s being better men, holding ourselves accountable, but also allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and speak our truths. Nothing haunts you like the things you don’t say.”

Opening up the dialogue around depression, in particular, took on personal meaning as he recalled the suicide of Anthony Bourdain. A longtime fan of Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, Love was devastated when the globe-trotting chef, who seemed to have everything, took his own life.

“It was game four of the NBA finals, and that just completely shut me off, not only that day,” he said. “It felt like we had lost a great Samaritan, a great person, a person who stood for all the right things.”

He found no greater truth than words spoken by actor Bryan Cranston: “Success is not an anti-depressant. [Depression] doesn’t discriminate,” he said. “This is a universal thing. . . . This hits home for everybody.”

As for his own frame of mind, when Macur asked if he is happier now, he paused. “Happiness is a moving target,” he replied.

“Each day is going to bring a different challenge and pose something that you might not be ready for. . . . But I think [of happiness] like a quiet joy,” he said. “People expect it to be so great all the time—it has to be this elation and euphoric experience, but in a lot of ways that’s unrealistic. Take your time to have gratitude and look around you and think, OK, this is a great life.

“I like the saying,” he went on, “that only by admitting who we are do we get what we want. I had to pass the mirror test and say, OK, how can I be a better version of me? . . . We’re all a work in progress. Once you realize that, and that everybody is going through something . . . you’re going to be a lot happier.”

“Openly discussing mental health challenges is a critical step toward reducing stigma, building understanding of the challenges so many of the members of our community face, and advancing society’s attitudes surrounding mental health,” said Tufts University President Anthony P. Monaco, in opening remarks.

Tufts’ own efforts to expand that conversation got a boost just prior to the event with an announcement from Diane Bainbridge, vice president of public relations and HBC Foundation at Hudson’s Bay Company.

She announced that the foundation was awarding $300,000 to the Jed Foundation, which provides mental health and suicide prevention programming to colleges, to establish the HBC Foundation Campus Program. Tufts was selected as the first recipient of financial support from the HBC Foundation Campus Scholarship Fund.  

“Thank you Tufts for your dedication to improving student mental health,” she said. “Today is just the beginning of our partnership that will impact the mental health landscape for young adults nationwide.”

Watch a recording of the event on Facebook.

Laura Ferguson ca be reached at [email protected].