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Ben Gordon opens up about his battle with mental illness

The UConn legend shares his mental health journey through The Player’s Tribune.

Orlando Magic v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Chris Elise/Getty Images

Since leaving professional basketball in 2017, former UConn Huskies’ star Ben Gordon was having problems, like getting kicked out of a hotel for demanding a room on the top-floor, setting off multiple fire alarms after locking himself out of his apartment, and managing to get arrested four times in just five months. News of his downward-spiral led many to believe the 14-year NBA veteran and leader of UConn’s 2004 National Championship team was adjusting poorly to life after basketball and it became easy to think of him as the cliché struggling former athlete.

In Gordon’s recent letter to The Player’s Tribune, “Where Is My Mind”, the former NBA lottery pick reveals that he did feel disconnected from the world during this time and had become increasingly desperate to escape a feeling of mental “purgatory” that had haunted him since childhood. Dealing with anxiety, paranoia, and panic attacks for so long had left him feeling “dead”, like he was “living in the underworld.”

His desperation had become so severe that he regularly contemplated suicide and even tried to hang himself. He nearly succeeded in his attempt but was saved when his desire to live resurfaced just in time. This was a pivotal point in his battle with mental illness and he holds nothing back in his vivid description of this intensely personal moment.

Gordon makes a point of being deeply descriptive when discussing his mental health journey because he wants his story to make a difference. He knows there are plenty of other athletes and people dealing with the same daily challenges and wants them to do something he was so reluctant to do: get help.

Having grown up putting little faith in therapy, it took decades for Gordon to realize the benefits of having someone to talk to. He had always taken pride in handling his own problems and found the notion that your issues would go away simply by talking about them to be ludicrous. He might have never changed his mind had he not landed in 18 months of court-ordered counseling after his series of arrests. Through these sessions, he was able to prioritize his long-neglected mental health and took the first step in his healing process.

One topic that came up during these sessions was his recollection of early childhood episodes. Gordon said his mind first began “getting trapped in unanswerable thoughts” after a religious conversation in his youth left him questioning creation and the afterlife.

To keep his mind from getting lost in contemplation, Gordon shifted his focus from obtaining a deeper understanding of religion, spirituality, and conspiracy-theories to dominating on the basketball courts of Mount Vernon, New York. He honed his craft, earned All-State honors in high school, and made his way to UConn in 2001 as a top recruit.

Success followed Gordon to Storrs where he recorded 1795 points, 415 rebounds, 437 assists, and one national championship on his way to being be drafted No. 3 overall by the Chicago Bulls. He experienced immediate success in the NBA, winning Sixth-Man of the Year and All-Rookie First Team honors in first season.

It had become clear that basketball was helping him reach unprecedented heights, but it was also enabling him to ignore deeply-rooted issues with his mental health.

During his time in the NBA, he developed “a serial killer mentality” on the court and watched himself change from “Gentle Ben” into a silent assassin bent on “slaughtering” his opponent. Maintaining this mindset fed his obsession, but when it was time to hang up his jersey, the thoughts and loops that basketball diminished during his youth began to run wild again. He now lacked an outlet to channel his energy and began questioning his identity, “going on Kanye rants”, and spiraling out of control.

Flash forward to the present day and Gordon has a new-found appreciation for life. His struggles with mental health have made him stronger and given him renewed purpose to help others find “peace and acceptance” of their own. He knows he still has work to do but sees the light at the end of the tunnel.

His heartwrenching story is an important reminder that mental illness does not discriminate and impacts everyone’s life in one way or another. If you or a loved one are depressed, having suicidal thoughts, or fear you’re a danger to yourself, please follow Gordon’s advice:

“Get some help. Because you’re not crazy, dog. You’re not damaged. You’re just human like the rest of us.”