There’s a certain elegance and connectedness to Dr. William D. Parham’s words when he talks. The director of mental health and wellness for the National Basketball Players Association, Parham sounds as if he’s speaking in cursive.
While I ask him about the NBA’s resumption of the season in a sequestered environment and the possible psychological impacts on players’ minds, his response is strikingly optimistic, measured and serene. He sprinkles in artful analogies to explain how adversity is opportunity in disguise.
“Take the image of an archer,” Parham says. “If you have a bow and arrow in your hand and you pull the string back just a bit and let it go, the arrow is not going to go very far. But if you take the bow and arrow again and if you pull the string, back, back and back and you can’t go back any further and you have the max stretch, that arrow is going to go far, high and true.”
As he talks more, I picture him talking into an NPR microphone or making a commencement speech. But wait, did I just hear a car door close? Was he driving an automobile when he delivered that thoughtful monologue?
This is what Parham does for a living. His job is to reach people, often professional athletes. Parham is a licensed psychologist and the counseling professor in the School of Education at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles. Before he took the position with the NBPA, he was a consulting psychologist for the Los Angeles Lakers and worked with the NBA, NFL and several U.S. Olympic teams for years.
Parham is also Black. This detail provides important context in an NBA community filled with white leaders and the surrounding racial crisis in America. The NBPA represents a player pool that is approximately 81 percent Black, but that ratio dips precipitously the higher you climb on the NBA’s ladder of power.
Only 27 percent of NBA head coaches, 27 percent of general managers and exactly one owner, Michael Jordan of the Charlotte Hornets, are Black.
This, according to one prominent report, is a model of perfection. Last year, the NBA received an “A-plus” for its racial hiring, per a study by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, the details of which were published on the league’s official website NBA.com. That comes on the heels of several years of A or A-plus grades in the category. (The study’s analysis includes league office staff in addition to team personnel).
The NBPA, on the other hand, is much more diverse than the players’ bosses. Parham reports to executive director Michele Roberts, who is a black woman and a longtime trial lawyer raised in a South Bronx housing project. Parham works closely with former NBA player Keyon Dooling, an African-American, who is the NBPA’s wellness counselor and mental health advocate. In a statement released by the NBPA on Wednesday regarding the social crisis, the union noted its staff is comprised of 65 percent people of color.
It is the union, and more directly, Parham’s job to help those players navigate an unprecedented time.
Says Parham: “I’ve been more busy than usual with both pandemics that are going on, COVID-19 and racism.”
When NBA players on 22 teams travel next month to Walt Disney World in Orlando for at least a seven-week stay, both of these deadly forces will be weighing heavily on their minds. The players will have to think, digest and react to both the surrounding social unrest in the country and the deadly disease that is killing black people at a higher rate, likely due to their systemic socioeconomic disadvantages. Oh, and they have to live without family or friends for nearly two months.
As players waited for and eventually received news on the NBA’s return to play, Parham and Dooling have been receiving texts from players directly on a regular basis. Parham hears from agents looking for resources to help mentally manage the crises at hand and sends out written newsletters to players with words of advice and links to explore.
“There’s certainly a fair amount of anxiety, depression, uncertainty, confusion, chaos, disbelief at the extremes, resentment and anger,” Parham continues. “The pandemic, particularly the global nature of it, is unprecedented. There’s no playbook for this.”
There is, however, centuries of experience with racism, social injustice and the systemic mistreatment of the Black community in America. Parham remembers the Watts riots of 1965 which resulted in 34 deaths and over 1,000 injured in Los Angeles. He also recalls the city’s Rodney King riots in 1992 that claimed the lives of another 63 people and injured some 2,300 more. But he also recalls Jim Brown, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar and Bill Russell supporting Muhammad Ali in the famous Cleveland Summit of 1967 to show solidarity for Ali’s objection to the Vietnam War and the black-gloved fists of American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics, a symbol of black pride and a call for equal rights.
Now, NBA players can have the stage and own the message.
“We had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard,” Parham says, echoing the message from Smith and Carlos at the time. “The history of using celebrity to raise social consciousness, conversation and action -- there’s precedent behavior for that. The question this time around, is this going to be different? I personally think it is going to be different.”
But Parham is quick to discourage the idea that the burden of activism does not only fall on the shoulders of black NBA players. Though deliberating on how to strike the right tone and messaging will “add another layer of stress” to players, the problem of racism won’t be solved in Orlando.
“I want to be real clear, this is an opportunity for everybody to step up,” Parham says. “Racism, if I can be real clear, cannot be cured by Black folks. It can’t be.”
Thoughtful response is the bedrock of Parham’s many mantras. The psychologist has focused on the positive attributes of a coronavirus lockdown. He fervently believes the seclusion will be therapeutic on some level.
“We have sufficient distractions to not have to get into our stuff,” Parham says. “When you are forced into shelter of place conditions, all of that isolation unwraps that box that you don’t want to open. That gives you the time and the opportunity to look at with a fresh pair of eyes the part of the journey you’ve taken in this life.”
This is in direct contrast to the very nature of NBA players. By definition, they are almost constantly on the move. They run, slide and jump on the court. They fly around the country. They pop up on your TV, your Instagram and your Twitter feeds, but for the last three-plus months, they’ve been confined to their homes.
Rarely do they get a chance like now to stop and look within. On this, Parham repeats one of his mantras:
“A person will never see their reflection in running water. It is only when still when the reflected image begins to emerge.”
In at least one case, the stillness provided a life-changing opportunity. Last Thursday, San Antonio Spurs guard Lonnie Walker IV revealed in a post on his Instagram that he was sexually abused and harassed as a child. He spent years bottling it up and not knowing how to manage. In the post, the 21-year-old is shown cutting his long hair, which he used as “a cloaking device” since the fifth grade, writing: “As of recently I wasn’t at my best. Previous History popping up in my head and it sucked mentally “demons”...... because of this virus, I began to truly look at myself in the mirror and see who I truly was even behind closed doors.”
Though Parham didn’t speak on any direct communication with Walker, he says players sometimes mask their trauma by throwing themselves into basketball and hope the dark experiences will simply disappear.
But what happens when the basketball stops?
“For people like Lonnie (Walker), who have had those traumatic experiences, what happens in these pandemics, whatever safeguards they are using to contain that horrific past, those safeguards are just obliterated instantly,” Parham says. “They’re forced to reconcile and make a decision. Do I want to unload or pack it back in?”
Now, players on those 22 teams head for Orlando will be forced to confront a different type of stillness. No longer confined to their homes, NBA players will be around their teammates again, be able to hoop and compete again. But they will be largely confined to the Disney campus in Orlando, at minimum, for nearly two months.
Parham applauded the effort by both league office and NBPA leadership to come to terms on health and safety protocols that outlines the rules and regulations of player and staff conduct in Orlando. A 113-page document was delivered to teams earlier this week and an additional 31-page player handbook was also issued for guidance.
Giving the players these manuals with three weeks to go will help them mentally prepare for what they’re about to endure. They won’t be allowed to have any guests in their rooms, including teammates, until the end of August, but players can start to plot their daily routines and habits. They are able to schedule regular FaceTime or Zoom call time with family. They can identify pockets of time to practice meditation or throw themselves into a book. They can build a modicum of control.
In the health and safety protocols, the NBA stated each team must have access to an on-site mental health clinician or ensure telehealth access to one. The NBA is also exploring the idea of providing a psychologist on the grounds for counseling.
The NBA is allowing players to partake in some stress-relieving social activities like fishing, golf and swimming under strict hygiene and social-distancing rules as well as providing the opportunity to play ping pong, NBA2K, cards and dominoes at a player lounge or game room at each of the three hotels located on the Disney campus.
But even in those activities, there will be restrictions. To eliminate communal or shared objects, the manual states, individuals must discard the pack of cards at the end of each game. One-on-one ping pong, allowed. Doubles ping pong, not allowed.
How many rules are too many rules? Roberts herself initially likened the bubble idea to “incarceration” before easing off that characterization last week telling the Boston Globe, “this isn’t involuntary servitude.” While the extensive rules may seem restrictive at first, Parham believes order and structure will help players feel safe and give them a certain level of autonomy within that structure.
“We thrive on having the ability to select what we want, but being forced is an issue,” Parham says. “But what’s more important is one’s response to the challenge. While we can’t direct the wind, we can certainly direct the sail.”
Players have practiced sailing in recent months, so to speak. The lockdowns around the country have provided a training camp of sorts for the NBA bubble. Social distancing may not have been a household term six months ago, but it sure is now. Zoom may not have been an app on a player’s phone a year ago, but it almost assuredly is a useful tool in their toolkit.
Parham thinks there will be some fear of the unknown and stress from the restrictions, but he expects the actual basketball to provide a rush of positive force upon arrival.
“I think there’s going to be an emotional release from these guys, in a healthy way,” Parham says. “This notion that they’re going to be doing that which they love to be doing since they’ve been little boys at the playground.”
The quarantine won’t be easy for NBA players. There are a lot of unknowns. But for athletes that are constantly on the move, this extended time of seclusion and stillness may be an opportunity to find their voice and share it.
“Just when the caterpillar thought the world was coming to an end, it changed into a butterfly,” Parham says. “Even though you’re cocooned in disarray and cocooned into chaos and uncertainty, that cocoon experience has the potential of having you fly out, far more talented, more engaged, more centered than you were before you entered.”
As NBA players confront the stillness and restrictions of the Orlando bubble, they have an opportunity to create change, not just in the world around them, but in themselves, as well. As with the archer and his bow and arrow, great tension can also propel NBA players forward.