'How did I get here?' NBA player Keyon Dooling discusses overcoming dark past

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Former MU basketball and NBA player Keyon Dooling showed students during a discussion Wednesday that nobody is immune from personal struggles or above asking for help.

Dooling, 38, who spoke to nearly 1,000 people in Jesse Auditorium, opened with an anecdote discussing past traumatic experiences, which he wrote about in a May essay titled “ Running From a Ghost.” The essay appeared in The Players’ Tribune and received nationwide attention.

The essay described how a man inappropriately touched Dooling in a restroom in June 2012, which brought back memories of childhood violence and sexual assault.

“I didn’t eat for days. I didn’t want to see those visions that were coming, so I didn’t sleep for days,” he said. “I dwelled on PTSD, and I didn’t even know what it was.”

When Dooling was 7 years old, a 14-year-old invited Dooling and a friend to his apartment, according to The Players’ Tribune essay. The boy turned on a pornographic video and made Dooling and his friend watch before sexually assaulting them.

At age 11, Dooling also witnessed gun violence at a party, he said on Wednesday. Those experiences led Dooling to begin drinking, doing drugs and having sex.

Dooling described his journey from June 2012 to now: He stopped playing for the Boston Celtics, spent four days in a psychiatric hospital and began going to therapy.

“I remember being on the bottom floor of the mental institution, saying to myself, ‘How did I get here?’”

Dooling said part of his journey included being open with his family about his experiences. He and his wife were high school sweethearts, but she didn’t know until after the 2012 incident of his traumatic experiences.

Now, he said, he makes a point to be candid with her and their children. Their children were young when he began therapy, and he thought it was important they know what happened in his life and not to be afraid to reach out for help.

“That was a hard conversation,” he said. “My babies cried. My oldest was 12 at the time. They felt so bad for me that I had to go through that.”

Though his close family was supportive, some family and friends pushed away.

“There were members of my family that were really embarrassed, really ashamed of what I experienced. ... Some of my teammates gave up on me, but the true friends and the true people in your family, they’ll support you through it,” he said.

Dooling grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and attended MU before he was drafted in 2000 by the Orlando Magic before a draft-day trade to the Los Angeles Clippers. He later played for the Miami Heat, Magic, New Jersey Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Memphis Grizzlies.

He was also the first vice president for the NBA Player’s Association.

Though he had anxiety throughout his life, he thought it was due to his high-stress profession and not any underlying issues, like the past violence and sexual assault.

Dooling said part of the reason he did not speak out earlier was because he was taught to be tough as a child.

“Men, we’re told (crying) is not natural,” he said. “So we’re navigating from a place where we’re just wrong. We’re missing the mark.”

Dooling encouraged students to use the mental health resources available on campus. He said that if he had not disregarded his anxiety, he would have gone to therapy in college and may have retired from the NBA later in life.

MU freshman Kurtis Ralston listened to Dooling’s speech, and he said afterward that he went because he knows many people who have mental health issues.

“All the stuff he said about going to therapy, there’s help out there, and you can get it if you need to,” Ralston said.

Though Dooling said he’s in a much better place with his mental health now, he’s by no means “fixed.” He has a routine involving affirmations, prayer, yoga, exercise, essential oils and at least four therapy sessions a year.

While in the NBA, Dooling was never a full-time starter, but he was a five-time captain. He said leadership is important to him, citing a time where former coach Doc Rivers pointed him out in a meeting for his role on the team.

“He said, ‘This guy has totally committed himself to the team, totally,’” Dooling said. “‘He doesn’t care about points, he doesn’t care about minutes, he’s cheering on the sidelines, he’s helping the youngsters, he’s totally given himself to the team,’ ... and Doc singled me out for my leadership qualities. Something clicked for me in that,” he said.

He continues to use his leadership skills off the court in his position as a wellness counselor for the NBA, helping players work on their mental well-being.

“If we help heal them, those guys are influencers. ... A lot of us can relate to that,” Dooling said.

Supervising editor is Claire Mitzel: news@columbiamissourian.com, 882-5720.

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