Take it away David Aldridge:
He took this time in his life to make a checklist.
One, he was in a mental hospital.
Keyon Dooling's mental breakdown forced him to deal with a childhood trauma.
Two, he didn't know how he got there.
"It was like hell," Keyon Dooling is saying, from the safety of a chair in his home. "If you're not a person that needs to be in a mental institution, it's no place for you. In my opinion, if that's hell here on earth, I don't want to see it in the next life."
Dooling is safe now, because he was able to finally face down demons he'd kept buried throughout his adult life. He is safe because of a rock-solid wife, an organization that reached out when he needed it, and because he was willing to admit he needed help.
Dooling, basically, suffered a nervous breakdown, which explained his sudden decision to retire in August after 12 NBA seasons. The breakdown culminated in a week-long stay in an asylum, and forced him to finally address the root of his troubles: the sexual abuse he had suffered when he was a child in Florida.
After a lifetime of hiding the truth, Dooling now wants to tell his story, hoping that it will help kids that are in a similar predicament -- or convince potential predators to seek help before they destroy someone's life.
"It started when I was five, and it happened multiple times," Dooling said. "It happened with men and women. I was abused by my brother's friend. I was five; he was about 13 or 14. But also young ladies, older ladies in our neighborhood. In my opinion, I thought I was cool at the time. I thought I was in the in crowd. I thought that was how it was supposed to be. And I was sadly mistaken. I didn't even realize the pattern of behavior I had taken on at such an early age."
(The details are available if you want to Google them, or watch the clips of Dooling's appearance last week on Katie Couric's show with his wife, Natosha. They are as bad as you would imagine.)
Like most victims, Dooling never confided his secrets with anyone, including Natosha, who's been with him since they were both 15. Instead, he became a star point guard in Fort Lauderdale, then at Missouri. Drafted 10th overall in 2000 by the Magic, Dooling's pro career never reached superstar status, but he was a solid pro for six teams, including the Celtics, who acquired him in 2011.
Dooling earned a reputation as a mentor for young players over the years, including the Pistons' Brandon Knight and the Celtics' Rajon Rondo. He was, in the NBA lexicon, a good locker room guy. He ascended to a vice presidential role in the players' union, always immaculately dressed, able to roll in all manner of different worlds, paying his mentor role forward as he had been helped over the years by the likes of Eddie Jones, Doug Overton and Adonal Foyle, among others.
"It's my duty," Dooling said. "I get a lot of pleasure seeing young men, people around their game, reach their goals, accomplish their goals. Uplift their family, uplift their community. And a lot of times, cats just don't know how to do it. They don't know how to put a name or a face to that success they're striving to achieve. I kind of normalize it for them, because I've come from nothing. I've come from the slums, the City Zone, as we like to call it in Fort Lauderdale. I've had a very unique ride, a very unique journey."
But the past was never far behind. As Dooling was deciding whether or not to return this season -- he had an open invite, basically, from the Celtics -- his behavior began to deteriorate. The week before the family moved back up north to Boston to get ready for the season, Natosha began noticing her husband acting erratically. He began having hallucinations.
"I didn't know what it was, but I knew it wasn't good," she said. "Just weird stuff that he would say, or do. I was just like, 'Hmm, what's going on? Is he OK?' I even called his momma at one point, but she really couldn't give me any answers. I knew something was wrong. Actually, I just stayed on my knees. I was just praying. That's all I know to do, just go before the Lord."
Dooling was exhibiting behaviors familiar to soldiers returning from war zones. But Post Traumatic Stress Disorders aren't limited to those who fight in wars. Police officers, firefighters, anyone subject to a severe emotional episode can suffer from PTSD. Dooling's problems came to a head in August.
He was at home, playing in the street in front of his home with his kids. A neighbor thought he was playing too roughly with the kids and called the police. There is uncertainty about how many officers showed up -- 10? 12? 20? -- but it was more than one. The Doolings were new to the neighborhood. They know the police were just doing their job, responding to a call. But a bunch of cops showing up, unannounced, banging on your door is a little disconcerting.
"So I ran to the door to see what was going on," Keyon Dooling said. "I was like, 'Who is this knocking like they're the [dang] police?' That's what I said to myself. So when I got to the door, it was really the police. They was like, 'Get on the ground, get on the ground, get on the ground!' So I got on the ground."
Natosha didn't know what to do, what to tell her kids. She was scared. Keyon had always been the strong one, able to handle whatever. And now he was being taken away.
"I was just terrified," she recalled. "I was like, 'What is going on? Like, what are these people doing in my house?' ... And they separated us. They had the kids over here and me over there and Keyon over here. It was horrible. I was living in a nightmare. I was really living in a nightmare. I was terrified for myself, for my kids."
Dooling was taken away and hospitalized for evaluation. He didn't remember voluntarily signing into the hospital. The details are hazy, in part, because he was immediately put on medication. One of the primary symptoms of PTSD is paranoia, and Dooling was surely paranoid. He didn't want to see anybody -- or anybody to see him.
"They try to find the right dosage of medicine," he said. "Unfortunately, the dosages are so high that they start out with, all the side effects hit you. And unfortunately, it's [during] visiting hours. So when my wife was coming, I was scared, because I had no control over what I said, what I thought. It was a bad situation."
"When I saw him, you could tell," Natosha said. "It was like they would give him the medicine, like they was timing to give him the medicine. They would give it to him when they knew I was coming, they would give it to him like four, five hours before so he could be a little calm, but still, [he was] talking out of the side of his head."
Throughout his career, Keyon Dooling was regarded as a solid veteran presence.
Even though Dooling wasn't quite right yet, he knew there was no future for his marriage or his family if he couldn't get out of the hospital. While Natosha leaned on family, her pastor and Ashley Bachelor, Rondo's fiancé, for support, Dooling had to straighten himself out.
"I crawled my way out of there," he said. "I had to fight to get out of there. I had to fight. But I'm a fighter. That's what I've always been able to do. Because I've got too much good out here that I'm supposed to be doing. I couldn't be a lost gem, bro. I couldn't let it happen to me or my family."
Eventually, doctors found the right level of meds for Dooling. His head started to clear. That's when he realized he was free to go, having voluntarily checked himself in. But since it was a Friday, he couldn't leave until the following Monday. He called union head Billy Hunter. He relented and saw a couple of visitors -- Doc Rivers and Danny Ainge.
"You do it because you should and because he's such a great human being," Rivers said Sunday. "We all go through stuff. I would go up and just sit with him. And I just kept telling him, don't worry about basketball. I could care less. I don't care if you ever play again. You just get back to being Keyon."
After a week, Dooling was ready to leave the hospital. But he had a lot of work yet to do. He knew playing this season would make no sense, which led to the abrupt retirement. He had made strides spiritually. But he had to deal with the memories of the abuse. He had never told Natosha.
"I think I really blocked it out," he said. "I remember my wife asking me if anything like that had happened to me, like a while back. And I only told her half of the story. Like I was with somebody when I got abused. Like I literally lied about it, like, yeah, I ran up out of there real fast. And it wasn't the truth. So I didn't deal with it. I blocked it out. I knew that it happened, but it wasn't my reality."
She was more disappointed than angry.
"We're supposed to be best friends, husband and wife," she said. "You couldn't tell me that? I don't know why he thought ... I think it was because he didn't want to seem less than a man, that he was molested. I was hurt, a little, that he couldn't tell me. 'Cause I thought we could tell each other everything."
They both wound up in therapy, and still go. He sees a psychiatrist at Harvard ("so I'm Ivy League, finally"), and has, gradually, addressed the pain that he had kept bottled up for three decades. He and Natosha sat down with Couric a couple of weeks ago. They have told their kids. The older two, Deneal and Gabrielle, understand what happened; 5-year-old Jordan and 3-year-old K.J. don't really get it.
He does not think his case is an isolated one among NBA players, or African-American men.
"There's so much hurt, especially when you grow up in the inner city," he says, "whatever struggle it may have been growing up, fatherless, maybe abusive mother, maybe you've seen a stepfather being abused. Maybe you're like me and you were sexually abused. It hurts. Cops abuse people. Teachers abuse people, you know, like verbal abuse, physical abuse, any kind of abuse. It leaves wounds. And as athletes, a lot of times, we don't heal. We don't know how to heal. We're afraid of healing. Thus we get stuck with all this anger and all these different emotions where we don't even know where they're coming from. We've got to go within."
Keyon Dooling's sudden retirement from the Celtics left a void in his life.
But opening up to the abuse was only part of the adjustment. There was the sudden end of his career. He had been thinking about it for a while, but he genuinely loved playing with Rondo, and Kevin Garnett, and was excited about Boston's prospects this season. But he knew he needed time to heal, and to try to improve as a husband and father.
He wasn't the only one who had to deal with it.
"Actually, it came on so fast, and just out the blue," Natosha said. "Honestly, I didn't know how to feel. This is the lifestyle I lived for 12 years, and for it to happen so fast, it was like, it was shocking. It was shocking. So I had to come to grips with, OK, this is not the lifestyle I've been used to living for 12 years. And it just all ended. And it was shocking to me. Just having him home all day when I'm used to having him gone, it was an adjustment."
But soon, the Celtics came calling again, with an idea for a job that would take advantage of all of Dooling's skills and personality. He would work with players on the court, but also be available to them off the court. He wouldn't have to travel, and he could come in to the practice facility or to TD Garden on his schedule, not the team's. He'd do some community service, which he'd enjoyed in other cities. He'd do some TV in Boston. And he'd get to pick Rivers' and Ainge's brains, see how they envisioned putting a team together.
"It's just really good how he kind of bounced back from all this stuff," Rivers said. "He's been such a great mentor for all our players. He comes in the locker room, he can come to our meetings. We just want him around ... I think he's great for Rondo and he's great for Jeff Green, and the message he's giving has been nothing but positive."
The official title is player development coordinator, but it's basically "Keyon's Job."
"It's really custom built for me," he said. "I get an opportunity to still be in the locker room, still mentor the guys in the locker room, which is something that's very near to my heart. We need mentorship. It's something that's very underrated in my league. Not only develop them as players, but as people as well, and that's very important."
At least he's out of the house.
"He loves working with the Celtics," Natosha said. "So this is good for him. Now he's getting out more. Now stuff is back to normal, you know? It's good. We're so happy now, and at peace. Because everything is out on the table. It makes me feel good, because with his story, we can help other kids. And maybe other kids will come out and say hey, look, to somebody they trust and love, I've been molested. I need help. This can help a lot of other people who've been in this situation. And that brings peace to me, knowing that me and my family can help others."
Dooling also wants to help players who have to deal with the expectations that come with suddenly being one of the richest people in town.
He's seen first-hand what NBA players, coming into the league so young, often have to become: the patriarchs of their extended families, the sounding board, the priest, the big brother -- and the local bank. Dooling hopes to help not only Celtics players but players on other teams who are dealing with that kind of pressure.
It's something the league and union each spend a lot of time doing, but Dooling thinks one-on-one, peer-to-peer counseling can help, too. (This is the same approach that former NBA referee Bob Delaney believes helped him beat the PTSD he suffered after spending more than three years as an undercover police officer in New Jersey in the late 1970s.)
The pressure to provide for someone never stops. Dooling had to play a game in Indiana the night after Natosha lost a child.
"We buried my father three years ago in Fort Lauderdale," Dooling said. "I love it; it's the place where I grew up, I take it with me on the court every time I play. I represent Lauderdale to the fullest. But when we buried my father, over a two-day period I got asked for more than $100,000. As I was trying to mourn. I got asked to take pictures; I got asked to sign autographs; I got asked for jobs. It makes your grieving process like, I didn't get to grieve. And that was something that came out in the meltdown process as well, how much I missed my father. I didn't even get to grieve my father."
He has had to cut back -- to friends, to family -- while he puts himself back together. He wants to choose his words carefully here. But players can either empower their community, providing opportunities -- think of how a life is changed if someone who can't afford to go to college can suddenly go -- or they can enable people who aren't as committed and dedicated.
"Not only are we there financially, but emotionally," Dooling said. "We have to hear everybody's stories, deal with everybody's shortcomings. It's a gift and a curse. But what I had to do was stop thinking about everyone, and start taking care of me, and who I'm responsible to, and who I'm obligated to take care of, and that's my wife and my children. And I can be a blessing to many people as I go along, but I cannot be an enabler, not only for the people in my community, or my NBA friends who might rely on me for that comfort or that advice. I have to really focus on what God put me here to do."
He is committed to his therapy, his medications that allow him, finally, to get a good night's sleep, his wife, his kids and his team. He is able to move forward. His money, his cars, his life experiences couldn't pacify him. Only falling as far as he could and putting everything out there for all to see has given him the inner peace he didn't have for a lifetime.
He answers the question before it is finished. Yes. He has forgiven the people that abused him when he couldn't fight back, when he was too scared to talk, too emotionally scarred to deal with the pain.
"Heck, yeah," he says. "I don't have a hateful bone in my body. I can't hate. Now, I don't forget anything that happened to me, and I think there has to be some accountability when people hurt you, and people wrong you. And right now, I'm not concerned or focused on the people who hurt me. I'm more so praying for the people who are going through, the kids who are going through what I had to go through. And I also want the people who know they have these issues, and know they have these behavior problems, and they know they can be a predator, I want them to go seek mental help. Whether it's depression, whether you get stuck in grief from losing a loved one, whether you get physically abused by a husband or a wife, whether you get mentally abused by a husband, father, mother, whatever. I want everybody to get the proper care they need, especially the mental help we all need from time to time to reach our full potential."
There is a piece of paper he keeps with him, when he feels a little out of sorts. Some thoughts he wrote down last year. A lot of things. A reminder to represent Fort Lauderdale the right way. Details about how to play basketball the way he was taught, from Dillard High on. And, finally, a saying from his father, who called him Bubba.
"Remember, Bubba: you are a shooter."
Really moving. I wish Keyon the best in life, and I'm glad he's still a part of the organization.
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