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The Mixed Messages Surrounding Michael Beasley

10/20/2009

For the last two days, I have done little but talk to basketball people trying to better understand the current state of Michael Beasley.

It's a tricky job, and doing it properly could take ten times as long.

Suicidal Tweets
The baseline of my thinking about it comes from what I wrote when we first learned Michael Beasley was reportedly getting treatment: If he has been thinking about killing himself, then nothing else matters. He needs treatment for severe depression, and if he's not getting that, job number one is to fix that problem.

Monday night I talked to ESPN analyst and trainer of NBA players David Thorpe at length.

"There is absolutely no point," Thorpe insists, "in anyone worrying at all about how quickly Michael Beasley will return to the court, what effect this will have on the Heat, free agency, or anything else. I'm not an expert on mental health, obviously, but if this is a case of severe depression and suicidal thoughts, then all that matters is that Michael's here with us in five and ten years to enjoy his life. If he never plays basketball again, that's OK. People will say 'oh he needs basketball, and the comfort of the routine' and this and that. But we don't know that basketball didn't help to create the situation in the first place. It's an enormously stressful existence, being an NBA player, in a way that is hard for people to appreciate who haven't seen it up close."

Depression, Drug Addiction or Something Else?
On ESPN's First Take, Drew Pinsky M.D. echoes the same key point ... saying that freestanding chemical addiction centers do not treat depression, and would be no place for someone genuinely threatening suicide. (Pinsky then infers, from the fact that Beasley is reportedly in a chemical addiction facility, that he is not depressed and is a drug addict.)

Worrisome, right?

From all of the above, we have really one especially inflammatory tweet ("Feelin' like it's not worth livin' ... I'm done") and people who care a lot but have no knowledge of how those tweets came to be.

TrueHoop reader James has experience as a mental health worker and addiction counselor. His reaction to the news of Beasley is to applaud: "We vilify so many athletes for making bad choices, and somehow going into rehab is being painted as a bad choice, and it's not."

All we really know is that he's getting some kind of treatment for something, and that those close to him paint a picture that it's not about severe depression, and it seems increasingly likely that the treatment he's getting now was instigated by the NBA, not Beasley or the Heat.

A More Complex Picture
The more you dig for real information about what's going on right now, the muddier the picture becomes.

One group of sources swear that Beasley's off-court life is disastrous. They talk of compounding poor judgment with cars, guns, women and money. They talk of money spent on cars, houses and supporting those around him that far exceeds income. Many tell stories of appointments broken and opportunities lost to a player who seems unable to focus. When word came that he was entering some kind of treatment, several sources said things like "I'm not surprised at all," and "it could get worse before it gets better."

Beasley's college coach, however, Kansas State's Frank Martin, said he did not know the state of things currently, and was unwilling to speculate, but shot down the notion that Beasley had ever seemed troubled when Martin was around. This notion is echoed by other sources who have spent time with Beasley, and insist he doesn't have any challenges that aren't common to NBA players.

Doing Well Last Month
"I was with him at the end of July," says the Kansas State coach, "and he was doing great. I haven't been there since and don't know what happened, so it's not right for me to open my mouth about what's happening now. But I was his number one fan when I was recruiting him, I was his number one fan when I was coaching him and will forever be his number one fan. All he ever has to do is call me and I'll do whatever I can for him."

Asked if Beasley was a harmless goofball, or something more serious, Martin denied that he was either. "Ask anyone on my coaching staff. He has a heart the size of the earth, and was as easy a kid to coach as I have ever had. He'd listen. He'd do what he was told. He was very coachable," says Martin. "He never did anything to hurt anybody. And if you ask his professors at K-State, I don't think they'll tell you he was a goofball either."

Other sources, who did not want to be named, have said that now that he's in the NBA, there is not one responsible adult who has a meaningful relationship with Beasley, and that in self-serving ways, his family and those around him have been sources of stress and instability instead of solace and wisdom. This would seem to be something of an indictment of Beasley's mother, Fatima Smith.

Smith has been a very public champion of Beasley, even writing her own blog on the local newspaper website when he was at Kansas State.

Martin, for his part, says this of Smith: "She's a working mother. I believe she has five children, and raised them all by herself. If you have a son who's 6-9 and 230 pounds in the tenth grade, you might find you need a father figure around. Probably one reason he did some mischievous things was that father figure wasn't there."

At age 12, long before Beasley became an elite player, D.C. Assault A.A.U. coach Curtis Malone took the youngster under his wing. Malone and his wife, Monica (an amazing story involving her), were parent-like figures in Beasley's childhood, until a reported falling out last summer. 

These days, people close to Beasley tend to fall into either the Malone or the Smith camp -- it's hard to know who is telling the most accurate version of the truth.

But just as there are those suggesting Beasley is a lost soul surrounded by self-centered hangers-on, who may be a danger to himself, there are also those who are adamant this is much ado about nothing much.

One insider suggested that there is nothing wrong with Michael Beasley other than garden variety poor judgment that has caused the Heat or the League one embarrassment too many. In this version of events, either the league or the
team shipped Beasley to the program in Houston less out of concern for his well-being and more out of conviction that fans would want to see a strong reaction to Beasley's Twitter photo incident. (In this scenario, Beasley's suicidal-seeming tweets were merely exasperation at those turning a silly photo into forced rehab.)

Stress
Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel cites sources
close to the situation saying Beasley's stay in Houston is about treatment for drug addiction. But Winderman also quotes Beasley's father who seems to be saying almost the opposite -- that Beasley hasn't been using marijuana, but has been under a lot of stress, especially since the birth of his first child:

Speaking on both WQAM and 790-The Ticket, the elder Beasley strongly denied recent marijuana use by his son, but did address how off-court and on-court issues, including the recent birth of a daughter, have created a stressful environment.

"It went from being fun to a job now," his father said of the transition from being the No. 2 overall selection in the 2008 NBA Draft out of Kansas State. "So I think the demands of playing 82 games, making appearances, I think is taking a toll on him.

"I was surprised, because I didn't know that it was to this extent."

He also mentioned the impact of the May birth of his single son's first daughter, Mikaiya.

"I think it's the overwhelming responsibility of being a father. I think that caught up to him," his father said. "I know he's under a little stress."

Thorpe, who is close to many NBA players he trains, says it is not uncommon for players to be especially stressed this time of year.

Many NBA players are counted on to support an ever-growing cast of family members and friends, especially those with children. What may be manageable during the season only gets trickier in the summer, when the paychecks stop (they don't start again until mid-November). The situation demands tools like money management skills, and the ability to draw strong boundaries with loved ones. Few 20-year-olds are properly equipped.

Meanwhile, no one likes the feeling of going into debt, but many players do.

Being an NBA player is stressful in many ways that are not obvious. For Beasley, money is one potential factor that many may find surprising for a young millionaire.

Watch for Yourself
One quick and imperfect, but readily available way to assess the man, Michael Beasley, is to watch Beasley, Fatima Smith, Curtis Malone and the like, on video, in a series of mini-documentaries made last summer.

Having watched them all, I certainly come away with the feeling that Beasley has a tremendous silly streak (you have to see this video of Beasley and the ipod), and for that matter the occasional party. Do you see profound instability there? My main thought was: Stephon Marbury's recent video exploits are worrying. This? Not so much, to my way of seeing things.

A final thought is that perhaps it doesn't matter how we got here. Beasley is apparently in drug treatment now, and presumably the people in charge know what they're doing.

Again, TrueHoop reader James, who has seen this process play out many times, says that drug rehabilitation can do wonders: "This is Beasley's chance ... Few people work harder than addicts trying to keep sober. It's about habits, mindfulness, metacongnition, structure, systems, routines, all things that Mr. Beasley the basketball player would seem to benefit from. While many reports are focusing on the negative, there's just as much a possibility for this event to have a long-term positive outcome on his career."