Brian Grant: An Inspiration
The former NBA big man is determined to lead the fight against Parkinson’s disease.
by Nima Zarrabi / @NZbeFree
Brian Grant looks at the two ice-cold beers placed on the table and instructs me to pick up one of the frozen sparkle-themed mugs and I do, sipping on the Blue Moon slowly between bites of the best apple crisp pie in the world. He pushes play on the remote and a DVD starts on the massive television screen. Brian wants to show me his favorite day of 2010.
Two and a half years ago, at the age of 36, he was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s, a degenerative neurological disorder caused by a loss of dopamine-producing cells in the brain—a biological chemical that allows the muscles of the human body to move in a coordinated and smooth manner. After coming to peace with his diagnosis, Brian chose to live with his condition publicly as an advocate for Parkinson’s research and education.
The video begins with dancers storming the dimly lit Rose Garden from all angles, surprising the crowd with a crazy burst of energy. When they complete their performance, comedian Gary Owen starts to warm up the crowd with his hilarious stand up routine, clowning some of the stars in attendance. “Thanks for deciding to dress up, Sheed,” Owen says, as the camera cuts to a casually dressed, indoor-shades-rocking Rasheed Wallace, laughing tough.
Portland Trail Blazers President Larry Miller appears and he makes it very clear that Brian will always be a part of the Blazers family. Soon after, Pat Riley emerges from behind the curtain to drop an eloquent speech about a player he deems a favorite among the countless men he has coached over the years.
Brian narrates the action. He is very proud that his foundation was able to put together a successful event in a short time. “I’m telling you, we transformed that place,” he says. “People couldn’t believe they were sitting in the Rose Garden.”
During his 12-year NBA career, Brian Grant was a beast on the boards and defensive end, building his reputation as a physical post player good for a double-double every night. Even though he had great success as a collegian at Xavier, Grant had to earn his spot in the NBA lottery, fighting traditional thinking by deciding to showcase his talent in an 1994 NBA pre-draft camp to cement his spot in a forward-laden top 10. Sacramento selected Grant with the 8th pick in the draft and he cracked the starting lineup immediately. Following three good seasons with the Kings, Grant opted out of his contract and signed a free agent deal with Portland prior to the 1997-98 season.
In Portland, Grant found his true home. He made an immediate impact through his charitable efforts—he seemed to always go out of his way to support good causes in the Portland community. His character and ability to relate to others also stood out both on and off the court. Blazers fans were proud to have him on their squad and teammates believed Brian was the heart and soul of the great Blazers teams of the late 90s.
They loved his toughness and ability to take on any challenge. On many occasions, the 6-9, 250-pounder was needed at the center position, giving up length to taller foes but never complaining about being out of position—he just balled. He was beautiful and powerful on the court—long dreadlocks flowing everywhere as he banged in the paint.
Portland fell in love with his Rasta look and big smile. He established the Brian Grant Foundation in 1998 to help at-risk youth and terminally ill children. Grant was determined to have a long career in the lovely Northwest city, but another opportunity at free agency in 2000 was too good to pass up.
During his speech at Brian’s fundraiser, actor Michael J. Fox gave the audience a powerful description of what it’s like living with Parkinson’s. “It’s not like you step off a curb and get hit by a bus,” Fox explained. “You get put in the middle of the street with cement shoes and you can hear the bus coming, and you don’t know when it’s going to get there.”
When Brian retired in 2007, he knew something was wrong with him because he felt a little tremor in one of his fingers. He tried to ignore the movement but as more time passed, he was overtaken by depression—the tremor was beginning to derail his retirement plans. With his basketball career over, Brian had planned on making a transition into broadcasting. He was very confident that he could succeed as a commentator, similar to Charles Barkley. “I had all these expectations and I was going to try out for TNT and CNN—I had the interviews all lined up,” he says. “But it’s hard to interview when your arm is shaking and you don’t know what it is. As soon as I walked in they would have said ‘Sorry, but we just can’t have that on camera.’
“At least that’s what I thought. I missed out on a lot of TV interviews and getting to know the new Blazers because I didn’t want them to see my hand tremor. In my mind I thought they would look at me like I was weak. Like something is wrong—he’s broken.”
Similar to his rookie deal in Sacramento, Grant had a player option in his contract with Portland that allowed him to test the lucrative free agent market in 2000. Big men have always come at a premium price in the NBA and Grant was no exception, inking a 6-year, $86-million deal with Riley and the Miami Heat. Riles was convinced that his team would be very difficult to beat with Alonzo Mourning and Brian clogging the lane. Grant had his best NBA season during his first year in Miami, posting per game averages of 15 points and 9 rebounds, but Mourning’s kidney ailment temporarily halted his basketball career and Riley’s dream of Zo and B-Grant patrolling the key for many years was shattered. After four good seasons in Miami, Brian was traded to the Lakers in 2004 as part of the deal for Shaquille O’Neal. A bone-on-bone knee condition forced him to retire two years later.