Brian Grant: An Inspiration
The former NBA big man is determined to lead the fight against Parkinson’s disease.
Retirement can be a difficult transition for any athlete. NBA players make a huge investment in themselves, beginning in their formative years, training hard for a college scholarship and eventually a shot at the L. Often times, their professional careers end with more than half of their life left to live. For Brian, retirement was especially harsh due to the other factors that followed. “I got hit with so many things at once,” he says. “It was piled on. Retirement. Depression. Divorce. Parkinson’s. All that happened over a year. I’ve seen people go crazy over just one of those things. Times get tough and times get hard, but I was able to definitely tough it out. Got to—what are you going to do?”
Depression caught him by surprise. Brian had always been a positive and upbeat person. Immediately after leaving the game, he went through nine months of darkness. “The first eight months, I was in denial,” he says. “I didn’t want to believe I could be depressed. To me, depression was something that happened to people who are weak-minded. And I was wrong. It can happen to anybody. I’m talking about true depression. The kind that grips you and doesn’t let you go.”
It put a major strain on his relationship with his wife Gina. “Nobody wants to live with someone who is depressed and in denial,” he explains. “The more people that love you and tell you that they can help, the angrier you get at them. Like, ‘I don’t have a damn problem!’ Finally, I went and got checked out and sure enough after 10 minutes, the doctor said, “Um, you’re heavily depressed.”
Brian also met with Dr. John Nutt of Oregon Health and Sciences University. After a 20-minute examination, Nutt believed Grant had early on-set Parkinson’s. “The only way to know for sure is to have a brain scan where they can check the dopamine levels in your brain,” Brian says. “I did it and mine were depleted.”
As he began to understand his condition, Brian realized that his depression was a result of Parkinson’s. “They go hand-in-hand,” he says. He began visiting with a psychiatrist three times a week. “It really helped,” he says. “It’s amazing when you can trust yourself inside to allow yourself to let it out to someone else. We as people have egos. As a basketball player, I definitely have an ego. To the point of ‘I don’t want to tell this person this. How can I trust you?’ But when you do trust them, boom it all comes out. That is one of the biggest reliefs—when it comes out. You’re not cured right then, but at least you can make sense of it and some of the answers make sense. Versus trying to tell your wife, cousin, best friend who might be like, ‘Let’s go fish and chill, that will clear it up.’”
The next step for Brian was explaining his condition to his children. A father to six kids of varying ages, he didn’t want them to be overwhelmed by sadness. “Anytime I was down, I tried not to be around them,” he says. “I just wanted them to think I had a thing that causes my hand to shake a little bit and that’s it.”
Brian eventually decided to take his 12-year-old son Jaydon to a Parkinson’s event in Los Angeles, put together by Michael J. Fox’s foundation. “He realized what Parkinson’s was when he walked in and got to meet Michael,” Brian says. “He came back and he told his brothers and sisters about it and we started to talk more. I met Muhammad Ali and his daughter wrote a children’s book about Parkinson’s. I gave each one of them the book. It was a way for them to learn about their dad.”
Once he was diagnosed, there was a sense of relief that came with finally understanding what was happening to his body. He contemplated keeping his condition private, not letting the public in. “Being known in Portland, I didn’t think I’d be able to hide it,” he says. “People would have wondered why I shake or if I had a nerve problem.”
Brian was also encouraged by others who suffered from Parkinson’s. He met many people who lived under completely different circumstances. “I saw how some of these people were living,” he explains. “They couldn’t tell anybody they had Parkinson’s because they feared losing their job. They didn’t have the means to do things. Then I thought that would be pretty selfish of me to not go out and tell the world that I have Parkinson’s when I might be able to do something as far as raise money somehow, or be a voice for those people.”
Brian contacted Lauren Forman, who had served as the Executive Director of his foundation when he was with the Blazers. He wanted to resurrect his foundation with a new mission statement and purpose. Since Fox’s foundation focused mainly on raising money for research, Brian decided that his foundation would become an advocate for education and awareness to the public about Parkinson’s. Together with Kathy Calcagno and other members of his foundation, Brian began laying the groundwork for a charitable event in Portland that would raise money for Fox’s foundation. In six months time, Brian and his team put together a two day event that featured a dinner gala and day of golf. Held this past summer, the event was dubbed: Shake It Till We Make It.
Brian’s close friends and family immediately stepped up to help. The Blazers provided the Rose Garden as the venue for the gala and helped contact former players to attend the event. Brian’s dear friend Barney Hyde who also suffers from Parkinson’s, helped secure the beautiful Pumpkin Ridge golf course nearby. Ali and Michael J. Fox committed to attend as did numerous former and current NBA players. Bill Walton, Rasheed Wallace, Greg Oden, Brandon Roy, Pat Burke, Eddie House, Charles Barkley and Bill Russell attended the two-day event on their own dime. “We had tremendous support,” he says. “The Blazers were incredible. Kathy Calkagno sold tables. Rob Leftko at my agent’s office, Priority Sports, volunteered a lot of his time to get me in touch with the NBA, who put me in touch with a lot of the retired players. Pat Riley took one call from me and said he would be there. Charles told me he was coming and I called him to make sure the night before and he was like ‘I told you I was coming!’ It was a lot of love.”