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Anxiety, isolation and social media - Why are so many NBA stars 'genuinely unhappy'?

The league’s commissioner Adam Silver has admitted it’s a growing issue.
Mar 9th 2019, 7:15 AM 4,661 2

WHY ARE SO many of the NBA’s biggest stars unhappy?

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant during this year's regular season meeting. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

That question was put to NBA commissioner Adam Silver by The Ringer founder Bill Simmons during an illuminating hour-long discussion at the 13th annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last week. 

“I think those players we’re talking about, when I meet with them what strikes me is that they’re truly unhappy,” said Silver.

“This is not some show they’re putting on for the media. When I’m one-on-one with a lot of these guys, I think to the outside world they see the fame, the money, all the trappings that go with it, they’re the best in the world at what they do. 

“They say, ‘How is it possible they could even be complaining?’ I hear this on television all the time,” he said.

A lot of these young men are genuinely unhappy.

Silver is widely regarded as the most forward-thinking commissioner of the four major US sports. As concussion and domestic violence issues contribute to the declining popularity of the NFL, recent studies have placed basketball as the favourite sport of America’s youth. 

The NBA is becoming ever popular across the globe. Silver recently negotiated a $24 billion TV rights deal and was handed a six-year contract extension – with a big pay-rise to boot.

He led the charge to legalise sports betting in America, pushed a new collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union over the line without much fuss and forged strong relationships with the players. 

NBA: Commissioner-Press Conference NBA commissioner Adam Silver. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

And the NBA has become a 12-month league, with the draft and free agency dominating the news cycle even during the off-season. 

Silver’s candid interview with Simmons was another example of his refreshing approach, in contrast to his NFL counterpart Roger Goodell, who seems to mishandle almost every scandal that comes his way.

But it will be fascinating to watch how Silver tackles the apparent growing unhappiness that has gripped some of the NBA’s top stars.

It’s a league-wide problem. On Wednesday night, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James moved past Michael Jordan into fourth place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. It wasn’t the watershed moment James would have imagined. The Lakers are already highly unlikely to make the playoffs, barring a miracle down the home straight.

James broke the record during a blowout loss to the Denver Nuggets in a season that’s been getting more demoralising for his team over the past two months. His muted celebrations with his team-mates indicated that all is not well in the Lakers camp.

In January, New Orleans Pelicans franchise player Anthony Davis handed in a trade request in an attempt to engineer a move to the Lakers before the trade deadline.

Davis’s request was leaked by his agent Rich Paul – who also happens to be LeBron’s best friend – to ESPN to pressurize Los Angeles into making a move.

Los Angeles president Magic Johnson reportedly offered almost their entire roster of Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Ivica Zubac, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley in various proposals to the Pelicans for the transcendent star.

News of the offer soon became public knowledge and with all players apart from LeBron on the trading block, it’s little wonder the roster downed tools when the trade fell through. 

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Lakers Lakers star LeBron James. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Outside of the Lakers and Davis, there are plenty of other miserable stars across the league. Kawhi Leonard forced his way out of the San Antonio Spurs by sitting out almost the entire 2017/18 season with a mysterious quadriceps injury.

San Antonio’s team doctors felt he the injury was nowhere near as severe as he claimed, but Leonard rehabbed the injury with his own medical team in New York and was eventually traded to the Toronto Raptors. 

Jimmy Butler is on his third team in as many seasons after causing chaos prior to his departures from Chicago and Minnesota. He wasn’t long in Philadelphia when he “aggressively challenged” 76ers head coach Brett Brown over his role in his new team.

Then we come to Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, who’ve had several heated confrontations with the media over the past couple of months. 

Both hold player options for next season, meaning they can hit free agency in the summer. Durant and Irving have been heavily linked with a move to pair up with the New York Knicks, who have cleared the decks for the addition of two max-salary players in the off-season. 

The constant swirling rumours around their respective futures have rankled with Durant and Irving. Golden State Warriors forward Durant attacked the media during a testy February press conference, telling one reported to “grow up” after he was quizzed about speculation linking him to the Knicks. 

“I have nothing to do with the Knicks,” Durant said. “They got nothing to do with me. I’m trying to play basketball. Y’all come in here every day, ask me about free agency, ask my teammates, my coaches.

“You rile up the fans about it. Let us play basketball. That’s all I’m saying. And now when I don’t wanna talk to y’all, it’s a problem with me. Come on, man.  I come here and go to work every day. I don’t cause no problems.

“I play the right way, or I try to play the right way. I try to be the best player I can be every possession. What’s the problem? What am I doing to y’all?”

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Back in October, Boston Celtics point guard Irving verbally committed to re-signing with the franchise at the end of the season. But he walked back on that commitment last month, telling reporters to “ask him on 1 July” and that “he’s going to do what’s best for him.”

Irving added: “I’ve spent the last eight years trying to do what everybody else wanted me to do in terms of making my decision and trying to validate through the media, through other personnel, managers, anybody in this business and I don’t owe anybody shit.

“For me, I think the confidence I have in myself and abilities, I want to be able to control what I want to control.”

Durant and Irving, two of the best 10 players in the world, only joined their teams in recent seasons. KD was added to Golden State’s already star-studded line-up in a deliberate move to add championships to his CV, while Irving left the Cleveland Cavaliers to get out from under the shadow of LeBron and run his own team. 

The two superstars are a prime example of the sort of unhappy stars Silver referred to during his interview at the Sloan Conference. 

“I think we live in an age of anxiety,” Silver stated. “I think part of it is a direct product of social media.

I think it’s less calculated than a lot of people think. The reality is that most don’t want to play together. There’s enormous jealousy amongst our players.”

An increasing number of NBA players have opened up about their mental health struggles of late. Spurs All-Star DeMar DeRozan and former NBA champion Kevin Love of the Cavaliers both highlighted their struggles with depression and anxiety in the past 12 months, while several more have opened up to Silver behind closed doors.

“I’m an anxious person myself,” he added. “That’s why the players like talking to me.”

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Atlanta Hawks San Antonio Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

He went on to describe the loneliness and isolation some players are experiencing. However, outspoken TV pundit and NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley wasn’t buying it.

“I think that’s probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard Adam say,” Barkley said on ESPN.

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard any commissioner say. These guys are making  $20, $30, $40 million a year. They work six, seven months a year. They stay in the best hotels in the world — they ain’t got no problems. That’s total bogus.”

He then took aim at Irving.

Let me tell you something else, Kyrie Irving – I’ve never seen a person so miserable. 

“To have so much success, to have the world in the palm of his hand, he’s gonna make $40, $50 million a year for the next 10, 15 years. He’s already won a world championship, he’s in movies. But he’s got to be one of the most miserable people I’ve ever seen.

“He wanted to go to Boston because he wanted to have his own team. And what a lot of these guys don’t understand is, when you’re a star — and I’ve been a star — you get all the credit, but all the blame. That ain’t right, that ain’t fair — but that’s just how it is.”

Equating happiness to the amount of money the players earn was a nonsensical argument from Barkley.

Silver also pointed out one major difference between this generation of players and those in the days of Barkley and Jordan in the 1980s and ’90s.

In Jordan’s era ”the camaraderie was incredible”, whereas almost all the modern NBA players now wear headphones on the team bus.

“Some of them are amazingly isolated,” he said.

What people didn’t see was…Michael and Phil Jackson as the coach deserve enormous credit, but there was a classic team building going on all the time. These guys were a band of brothers on the buses and the planes, and all the attention only brought them closer.

“If you’re around a team in this day and age, they have their headphones on – they’re isolated and their heads are down.

“Years ago, Isaiah Thomas said to me, ‘Championships are won on the bus.’ And he meant that.

K.C. Johnson: 1995-96 Bulls vs. this seasonís Warriors: Debate centers around defense Chicago Bulls players Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan, Ron Harper and Toni Kukoc in 1996. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

“It’s not just unique to these players, I think it’s more a function of their generation. Not that our generation doesn’t have anxiety and depression too, but there are some real studies that show these ties and direct connection to social media. The isolation that comes with social media and the bullying that comes with it. 

“The notion you don’t care what people are saying about you. Their so-called friends are all over them saying, ‘Look what he said. Look what Bill Simmons said now about you, or whatever.’ It’s part of their lives. 

“In terms of what’s going on in the league, you do have unhappy people and it kills me.”

Dealing with the growing number of disgruntled NBA stars may well be Silver’s biggest challenge over the next six years of his reign.

Andy Dunne joins Murray Kinsella and Ryan Bailey to discuss Joe Schmidt’s undroppables and how France might attack Ireland’s predictability in The42 Rugby Weekly.

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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