DeMar DeRozen, now with the Chicago Bulls, made history with a tweet in 2018, quoting the lyrics of a rapper, in which he acknowledged, “This depression get the best of me” (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

During their respective NBA playing careers, both Dennis Rodman and Ron Artest were known for emotional outbursts that sometimes turned violent. Most famously, Rodman once kicked a sideline photographer during a 1997 game and, in 2004, Artest jumped into the stands of a Detroit arena, helping to spark a wild brawl between players and fans.

But in the years since, Rodman and Artest (who now goes by Metta Sandiford-Artest) have also become outspoken advocates for mental health, openly discussing their own emotional issues and neurological disorders. After current NBA superstar Ja Morant engaged in troubling behavior, some episodes of which involved firearms, he stepped away from basketball to seek counseling. That outcome probably wouldn’t have been possible without Rodman and Sandiford-Artest’s willingness to publicly disclose their struggles and the ways in which they each dealt with them.

These examples and others have put the NBA at the forefront of athlete mental health fitness, something that’s been widely discussed in the media in recent years, with top-flight stars like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles exiting high-stakes competitions to address their respective emotional issues. Leaders of the National Basketball Players Association, the NBA players’ union, have developed mental health programming to help its members live healthy lives off the court and perform at their best while on it. One of the ways the organization’s mental health counselors do this is by helping the players develop and maintain a sense of purpose, which is what William Parham, Ph.D., director of the NBPA’s Mental Health & Wellness Department, discussed with Sean Gregory, senior editor at Time magazine, during a fireside chat at From Day One’s March virtual conference focusing on strengthening employee purpose within companies.

Ultimately, the NBA is a corporation not unlike many others around the globe, whether they’re in tech, consumer goods or other industries. Like those groups, the league has a product to sell–the sport of basketball–and workers who produce it: the players.

“We’re not here for no reason. We have a purpose, a design, a place that we need to go, and it can be a struggle getting there,” said Parham. “But once we really feel it in our spirit, that we know what we’re here to do, and we are laser-focused on that North Star goal, everything else becomes secondary.”

Without naming him, Parham recalled one player from about 20 years ago who was performing at a particularly outstanding level. Fans and fellow NBA personnel were in awe. But the player was only devoting so much time and effort to his craft as a means to avoid personal struggles. Parham believed that if the player were able to unburden himself of his “emotional baggage,” that maybe he would achieve even greater heights.

“We would see an exponential increase in his own individual talent, an exponential increase in team chemistry, and team-against-team competition, an increase in excitement of the fan base who’d purchase paraphernalia,” Parham said. “In other words, everybody wins when you invest in the health and wellness of athletes.”

Thus, a mantra at the Players Association, he said, is “Your mental health is your mental wealth.”

Moderator Sean Gregory of Time magazine, left, and William Parham, Ph.D., of the National Basketball Players Association (Image by From Day One)

That kind of encouragement, to prioritize mental health and not feel shame over openly discussing potential struggles, can lead to a breakdown of cultural stigma. It’s what helped other NBA players, like Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozen, also speak out about mental health issues.

“It is important, always, for HR folk and for others to really acknowledge that you’re looking at a human being, that all that glitters isn’t gold, and that there’s something hidden that you aren’t seeing that, nonetheless, is camouflaged by the brilliant expression of their talents,” Parham said. “So knowing that, putting resources together for them to take advantage of when they’re ready, is one of the important things to do.”

When people understand their purpose–oftentimes closely associated with their work–they emerge better equipped to communicate with confidence their outlooks and perspectives, contributing to a team with more impact and helping generate discourse and connectivity between its members. But interpersonal relationships are also always two-way streets.

Parham observed that if one were to switch around the letters of “listen,” the word “silent” can also be spelled. “When you are silent, you then position your sensory, visual, your hearing everything to come alive and you really absorb both the direct and indirect messaging [from others], but it takes intention,” Parham said. “Put aside your biases and assumptions and really want to know what the other person is asking of you. Because at the end of the day, you’re building trust—allowing them to know that this is confidential, that it’s safe, that you really see them, that you’re invested in making them visible, and that you’re here for the long run, not just for the short term. I think that is important messaging.”

And when a person is struggling with challenges, particularly connected to emotional well-being, that struggle could be a signal of good health. It means that they are at the very least in touch with their bodies and minds. But, Parham noted, they still must be addressed.

“Stars don’t come out at night,” Parham said. “It’s the darkness that illuminates the stars.”

Michael Stahl is a New York City-based freelance journalist, writer, and editor. You can read more of his work at, follow him on Twitter @MichaelRStahl, and order his first book, the autobiography of Major League Baseball pitcher Bartolo Colón, at Abrams Books.