Eighty-two games over seven months. Countless practices, shootarounds, flights, bus trips and time zones.
That’s just part of life as an NBA player, coach or staffer. Then there are relationships, family issues, social media distractions, pandemic concerns and constant news cycles.
There are countless reasons for minds to wander. Often they can manifest into stress, depression or panic attacks, all of which can be compounded by the dehumanization many face in their line of work. It’s true not just in the NBA, but in every walk of life.
For the Sacramento Kings, and the NBA as a whole, addressing mental health and creating an environment for open discussion has been a priority in recent seasons.
First-year Kings coach Mike Brown took steps when he was hired in June to foster conditions where the mental health of his team is as important as anything else.
“A lot of times, players get looked at these robots who aren’t even human, who are above being human,” Brown said. “So to try to help them in that area, like any other business out there does, to me, was a no-brainer. And it was something that I pushed for right away from day one.”
According to the CDC, more than 50% of American adults will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime. And one in five Americans will experience mental illness in a given year.
Beyond keeping it light with laser-pointed postgame celebrations, a giant Defensive Player of the Game chain and Brown turning on the “(expletive) jets,” the “Beam Team” is also incorporating meditation and breathing exercises into a hectic basketball schedule.
It’s been a mandate from Brown that he’s fulfilled by hiring mental health coach Graham Betchart, who’s a regular at team headquarters, helping everyone “stay present.”
Betchart has been a mental health coach for two decades after playing guard at UC Santa Cruz. He has served as a mental skills coach for the NBA Players Association, USA Basketball and the Utah Jazz. Brown connected with Betchart when he was an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors, where Brown credited head coach Steve Kerr for incorporating mental health practices into their routine. Betchart was among Brown’s first calls when he came to Sacramento.
Betchart’s work starts with team-wide meditations, which can come after days of travel to help players refocus and calm their minds of stress-inducing thoughts. These sessions take roughly 10 minutes but have a lasting impact.
Some Kings players have experience with meditation while most don’t. Guard Kevin Huerter first began incorporating meditation while at the University of Maryland and has continued it throughout his five NBA seasons. He said early sessions with the Kings included a few scattered giggles, mostly because players were new to the idea.
“The art of thinking about nothing, you know?” Huerter said. “It’s tough for me not to sit there in a dark room with your eyes closed and not think about different things. So, it’s something I have to practice to get better at, but it’s a good thing to do.”
Huerter said he’ll often take a moment to close his eyes and focus on his breathing during pregame introductions, where excitement or anxiety can peak.
“Sometimes you get the jitters or you get those butterflies before a game, and, for me, (it helps) to just try to close your eyes, take deep breaths,” he said.
Betchart, who sports a long beard, shaved head and is often near the Kings’ bench during early warmups to help players prepare, has incorporated tenets into the Kings’ mental health approach. The first is “next play speed.”
“That’s the ability to refocus, right?,” Betchart said. “To let go of whatever just happened, whenever it was in the past, to refocus and come back to that next play.”
Betchart calls himself a “strength coach for your mind.” Another skill he is trying to hone in players is “palms down.”
“If you’ve noticed around a lot of sports, there’s this reaction where people put their palms up when something doesn’t go their way or they perceive some sort of adversity,” Betchart said. “It’s about being really mindful and choosing your response to these situations.”
The Kings have maintained a good spirit throughout their first season under Brown. Guard Malik Monk is a connective personality who can joke with everyone in the locker room. Center Domantas Sabonis sets the tone with his work ethic and consistency, evident in his unwillingness to miss time with an avulsion fracture to his right thumb.
Harrison Barnes, 30, is an understated veteran with a professional approach the Kings hope rubs off on their younger core of players. Brown has praised point guard De’Aaron Fox for becoming more of a vocal leader than years past while he’s played the most efficient basketball of his six-year career.
To put it plainly, the vibes have been good in the Kings’ locker room, which hasn’t always been the case in recent seasons. That has been as important as anything as they’ve maintained a winning record into January for just the second time since 2004-05.
The team has also incorporated periodic breathing exercises, which can play a vital role in physical training as well, from the treatment of injuries to work in the weight room.
“I think the traditional lay down and do some belly breathing is definitely one avenue,” said Jas Randawa, the Kings’ senior director of athlete health. “But we can also incorporate breath work into an actual workout. So, instead of saying, ‘You’re having a number of reps. How about we do this exercise into a number of breaths? I just want you to control your breath as your doing this.’ And so that has tremendous value as well.”
Mental health discussions have stemmed from prominent athletes willing address their issues publicly, shedding light on concerns that had previously been swept under the rug and allowed to fester. Cavaliers big man Kevin Love took a significant step in the discussion by writing a letter for the Players’ Tribune in 2018. Love detailed a panic attack he had during a game, details of which he struggled to reveal until deciding to pen his essay.
“Call it a stigma or call it fear or insecurity — you can call it a number of things — but what I was worried about wasn’t just my own inner struggles but how difficult it was to talk about them,” Love wrote. “I didn’t want people to perceive me as somehow less reliable as a teammate, and it all went back to the playbook I’d learned growing up.”
Star guard DeMar DeRozan in 2018 with the Toronto Raptors detailed his issues with depression in a conversation with the Toronto Star. “This is real stuff,” he said. “We’re all human at the end of the day.”
Given their platforms and the value of their voices, athletes speaking up about mental health issues has been imperative to the raised awareness that’s become more commonplace in recent years.
“It’s really powerful,” Betchart said. “It’s really powerful to see a professional athlete — they have all these physical gifts — also saying, ‘Hey, this is a big part of what I do and this has really helped my life.’ So I think the more people share, talk about it … I think it helps kids and young folks know, hey, this stuff is good.”
©2023 The Sacramento Bee. Visit sacbee.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.