In some ways, as Ben Gordon splashed a three-pointer inside the Bulls’ practice facility recently, it felt like 2004 again.
At his playing weight of 198 pounds and with his chiseled torso, one could argue Gordon looked the part. The jumper was pure, too.
But the gray in Gordon’s goatee is one hint that his playing days are behind him — if the sight of his 8-year-old son merrily shooting at another basket hadn't already given it away.
And then Gordon speaks, calmly and matter-of-factly, his words jarring anyone strolling down memory lane back to reality.
“I remember being literally, like, suicidal at one point,” Gordon said. “Unless you’ve been through that, it’s a really strange place to be.”
Gordon visited many strange places as his 11-year NBA career came to an unceremonious end in 2015. He was waived by the Magic and Warriors. He was arrested three separate times in 2017. TMZ released a video of Gordon using threatening language to acquaintances he believed were stealing his business ideas. He was hospitalized for a psychiatric evaluation following an incident (in which he was not charged) at a business he owned in New York.
In short, he was a long way from the calm, quiet force who made a career of rising to the occassion during the most chaotic moments. Still the only rookie in NBA history to win Sixth Man of the Year back in 2005, Gordon had descended into darkness.
“I’m not there anymore,” Gordon said. “Going to multiple professional therapists, I’ve resolved that. I’ve left that place.
“I learned to understand who I was as a failure. This was the first time in my life where I ever failed. I won a state championship in high school and college. I always had good fortune. I was skilled.
“Before therapy, I was difficult to be around. Some of my relationships were tarnished. Bridges were not burned, but damaged. I was in an unfamiliar place with myself. I finally said, ‘Don’t fight it. Learn about yourself in this space.’ And I learned a lot. I realized I was bulls****ing a lot about a lot of things. I learned to do the opposite of what I was doing.
“And where do you get the willpower to do that? I started to return to what made me me. Going to the gym every day. Getting shots up every day. Lifting weights every day. Doing things I’ve been doing my whole life. I was like, ‘Let me just start there.’”
So Gordon did. At a very unfamiliar 230 pounds, Gordon returned to the structured and disciplined lifestyle that defined his five years with the Bulls — a tenure that still resonates fondly with many fans.
“The more I did that, the more clarity I got,” he said. “My relationships started to get better. When you get depressed, it’s almost like you catch amnesia and you forget who you are and you become this new unfamiliar person to everybody.
“And I wasn’t depressed because I was an unhappy person. I was depressed because I had these great gifts. I put in all these hours of work. And now I can’t use it anywhere. That made me feel like, ‘Damn, what’s my purpose?’ I’m a very goal-oriented person. I didn’t have any goals. With no structure, I lost my control.”
As he shed pounds, Gordon’s identity started to return. Now 36 and with his legal issues quieted, he has started setting new workout challenges for himself. How much of his former athleticism could he regain? Could he windmill dunk again?
Throughout this process, Gordon visited his therapist weekly. He watched from afar as current NBA stars like Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan publicly revealed their struggles with anxiety and depression. This week, Proviso West product and Timberwolves forward Robert Covington talked to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune about the value of therapy.
But even if mental health doesn't become as much a part of the discourse surrounding NBA as three-point shooting, Gordon is comfortable addressing the subject. In fact, he wants to find a documentary filmmaker to help him get his message of healing and recovery out to more people.
“I don’t understand why people feel embarrassed to talk about going through bad stuff. To me, I feel very empowered. I walk around with a sense of renewed personal strength,” Gordon said. “When my issues were in the media, some people would say, ‘Ah, look, Ben Gordon is going crazy. He’s broke. Ha, ha.’ Why is it so amusing when somebody is going through depression when it’s really a serious issue?
“I talk about my depression to people, and not to defend what I went through. I’m doing [it] to share what I’ve learned about the human mind and body when it’s stressed. I’m speaking from a place of experience. I’m very educated on the topic.
“That’s why I want to do a documentary where I’m talking about all my demons. I feel that would be therapeutic to certain people. I want to show people the fruits of the labor of figuring out a very difficult thing you’ve gone through. I didn’t cut corners in the healing aspect of what you have to go through to get back to being your normal self or a better version of yourself.”
Staying in this place is obviously Gordon’s goal. Before his ascent from such depths, Gordon didn’t necessarily view seeking professional help favorably.
“I was like many in the black community who were like, ‘Therapy? No, I’m not talking to anybody about my problems. I’m going to internalize it, be strong and do it myself.’ And I learned that type of attitude is only really good when you’re doing something competitively and trying to push yourself. You’re trying to create an edge so you create this thick skin,” Gordon said. “But when you need help, you need a professional. If you’re in therapy and in denial, you’re never going to get anything out of it because you’re not going to open up.
“I went through all these phases like, ‘I don’t want to go to therapy. OK, I’m in therapy. Oh, it’s not that bad. Oh, you know what? I like therapy now.’ What helped me is I started listening to what I was saying and I could really sort out my thoughts. Once I was able to do that, I was like, ‘Yo, BG, you have to be more accountable.’”
Gordon worked to restore personal relationships. He vowed to repair any damage done to his beloved hometown of Mount Vernon, NY, where he opened a holistic wellness center and sports rehabilitation facility that is now shuttered. Gordon has long given back to his community with free clinics, autograph sessions and barbecues. A playground is named after him there.
Gordon played 25 games with the Texas Legends of the G League in 2016-17. In a conversation with NBC Sports Chicago that lasted over an hour, he alternated between acceptance that his career is over and acknowledgement that the game has shifted to even more fully match his strengths of shotmaking and offensive flow.
“It’s a weird space to be in,” Gordon admitted. “I could be doing this but there’s not really a platform for me to do it. People ask about playing in the Big3. I don’t want to play 3-on-3 basketball. I didn’t work hard to do that. It’s like settling or being desperate. I can play in the Big3 when I’m 50.
“But I’m enjoying helping other players when I can. That’s more fulfilling than being desperate. I don’t miss the game in that way. I work out every day. I get my fix every day. If I make 10 threes in a row, that does something for my self-esteem. I feel good. I got better at something I love to do. That part is fulfilling.”
Even the fact Gordon visited the Advocate Center as a welcomed guest is a sign of progress. For many years, Gordon harbored some resentment towards the Bulls organization over how his contract negotiations led to a messy exit to the Pistons in 2009. With his son living in the area, he splits his time between Chicago, New York and California.
To keep busy outside of parenthood, Gordon works out and trains those who ask him to, and is happy to share his knowledge. He talks about possibly getting into coaching in a player development role or reviving his rehabilitation center in Mount Vernon.
For now, his life has returned to calmness.
“I’ve become more comfortable not being wanted by an NBA team. I’m at peace with my career,” Gordon said. “The reason why I wasn’t around the last two years is I couldn’t be in this environment. That would trigger me. But now I’m at a point where I resolved so many things and changed my perspective on so many things that nothing bothers me anymore. I know what my triggers are now.
“I’m how I always was, peaceful and focused. My son sees it the most. My Mom sees it the most. I’m able to pour into players I work with because I’ve done what I needed to do. I couldn’t help players before because I wasn’t myself. Just being through all that stuff and proving to yourself you can overcome it, it’s empowering. I feel great.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7 support for people in distress. If you or anyone you know is ever in need, their number is 1-800-273-8255.
HeadStrong: Mental Health in Sports will premiere right here on NBC Sports Chicago on November 9th, immediately following Blackhawks PostGame Live. It’s all part of a month-long campaign this network is undertaking for the month of November in partnership with the “Movember” foundation to bring attention to men’s health issues.
Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.
Though men are certainly not alone in struggling with mental health, men are three-to-five times more likely to commit suicide than women. Watch for HeadStrong and a compelling series of more than thirty digital shorts in November.
Go to www.nbcsports.com/headstrong for a special extended version of this trailer and more information on times and airdates.