Commentary

The purpose in Jerry West's public pain

By going public about his depression, West can help countless others who suffer

Originally Published: October 20, 2011
By Roy S. Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

We know they're human.

Even as we cheer them, praise them and idolize them. We know the men and women who rise to the highest levels of sports, those who coach them, even those who own and run their teams, are not immune to the frailties that affect the rest of us.

We know because our sons or daughters might have played alongside or against them. Maybe we watched them in our youth and identified with them because they were just like us -- except they were so damn good!

But as we watch them grow and rise and excel, we forget.

[+] EnlargeJerry West
AP Photo/Damian DovarganesIn basketball, Jerry West has pretty much done it all. But he's battled depression for most of his adult life.

We forget as they thrill, entertain and, yes, even aggravate us.

Until they remind us that, despite their prodigious gifts, they, too, are, well, human.

They hurt. They suffer. Just like us.

Jerry West, the NBA Hall of Famer and one of the most respected figures in sports, is the latest sports icon to go public with his pain.

Mr. Logo recently confessed that he suffers from depression, that he has gone one-on-one with that debilitating mental demon throughout his life as a preeminent player, coach and executive.

"I've been so low sometimes, and when everyone else would be so high, because I didn't like myself," he told "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" in an interview coinciding with the release of his strikingly revealing autobiography, "West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life" (Little, Brown & Company).

West's revelation is not unique -- not in sports, not in life. According to the Centers for Disease Control, depression affects one in every 10 Americans, so chances are that someone on every sports team in the nation is grappling with it, diagnosed or not.

Many have come forward. Elite athletes in football (Ricky Williams), baseball (Zack Greinke, Scott Schoeneweis, Joey Votto and Justin Duchscherer, among others), tennis (Jennifer Capriati), and other sports (Olympic skier Picabo Street, Hall of Fame jockey Julie Krone) have all shared with us their struggles with depression or anxiety disorders.

But many others keep their battles to themselves, sharing only with those closest to them until their enemy is revealed after their death, often by suicide or something equally inexplicable.

In that vein, this year has been one of the most tragic ever in sports.

[+] EnlargeMike Flanagan
AP Photo/Patrick SmithOrioles fans mourned the loss of former player, coach and executive Mike Flanagan in August.

This summer, two former NHL players -- ex-Vancouver Canuck Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard, a former enforcer for the New York Rangers -- died at the ages of 27 and 28, respectively. In August, Rypien was found dead in his home, apparently by his own hand. In May, Boogaard was found dead in his Minneapolis apartment, reportedly from an overdose of the painkiller oxycodone and alcohol. His family has donated his brain to the Boston University School of Medicine, which will examine it to determine if he suffered from a degenerative brain disease -- the kind that can cause depression.

In July, just two days after U.S. freestyle skier and Vancouver silver medalist Jeret "Speedy" Peterson shot and killed himself after a long battle with depression, former Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu was found dead in his California home, also an apparent suicide. Irabu, one of the first high-profile Asian pitchers to sign with Major League Baseball (but who never lived up to the lofty expectations thrust upon him), is said to have long suffered from depression.

And in late August, Mike Flanagan, a former Cy Young winner and general manager of the Baltimore Orioles, killed himself with a gun in the woods near his Maryland home.

"Everybody told me that he was really despondent about the Orioles and the fact that people were blaming him," said former teammate and neighbor Ken Singleton. Police said Flanagan also was upset over financial matters.

It stops us cold when an iconic sports figure reveals his fragility in such a shocking manner.

But it can lift us, even move us to action when they stand before us, before it's too late, and say they truly are just like us -- maladies and all.

Next month, it will be 20 years since Earvin (Magic) Johnson stood behind a podium and announced to the world that he was HIV-positive. Just a year later, tennis legend and humanitarian Arthur Ashe, faced with the prospect that his illness would be revealed by a reporter, told us he had AIDS.

[+] EnlargeJohnson
AP Photo/Mark TerrillIn 1991, Magic Johnson put a public face on HIV when he announced his retirement from the Lakers.

Johnson's announcement was a seminal moment in our nation's long battle to combat AIDS and HIV. I've long said that on that day, Johnson took AIDS out of the closet and put it on the kitchen table, helping to de-stigmatize it.

In February 1999, former Chicago Bears great Walter Payton held a press conference to tell us he was suffering from a rare liver disease and needed a transplant. He later learned he had contracted cancer and was thus ineligible for a transplant. He died in November of that year.

Two years later, his then-teenaged daughter, Brittany, launched "Youth for Life," to elevate organ donor awareness among teens. The organization is credited with helping to make Illinois one of the leading states for organ donation. In 2001, Brittany told ESPN that prior to her father's death, the state had ranked 47th in organ donation.

Earlier this month, according to rankings compiled by Donate Life America, which tracks and promotes donor registration, Illinois was 16th in the percentage of citizens over 18 (57 percent) who had registered as organ donors. (To register, go here.)

More recently, Tennessee Lady Vols head coach Pat Summitt -- the winningest basketball coach in history, male or female -- told us she has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, which usually leads to Alzheimer's.

It was a shock to the many who have been touched by her during all her seasons in Knoxville. Yet anyone who knows Summitt was not surprised by her tone at the announcement.

"There's not going to be any pity party and I'll make sure of that," she said.

West speaks similarly about what motivated him to write his memoir.

"I'm hoping [it] will be inspirational," he told The New York Times, "because you can overcome a lot of things in life and do something that makes you feel good."

Indeed, the message that resonates from Magic to Summitt to West and through other sports icons who have revealed their maladies to us is clear: Live.

Through it all, live.

Just like them.

Roy S. Johnson is a veteran sports journalist and media consultant. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.

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Roy S. Johnson

Contributing writer, ESPN.com

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