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NBA’s scary secret: Job stress is destroying the health of some of the best coaches

Clippers coach Doc Rivers watches his team play a preseason game against the Rockets.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers watches his team play a preseason game against the Rockets.
(Marco Garcia / Associated Press)

Three winters ago, Doc Rivers was ready to be done.

He was throwing up constantly. His energy evaporated. Pounds dropped off his body. Rivers needed to get IVs before he coached the Clippers.

He no longer looked like the tough-as-hell guard who made a name for himself on defense. He looked frail. And tired. And miserable.

“It was awful,” he said. “That was a tough stretch. I almost thought about quitting because I had no energy. … And I thought it definitely affected my day-to-day ability to coach — and to live. You’re always tired. This job is tiring. And then you’re sick on top of it. I didn’t do any favors for myself.”

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Rivers didn’t quit — he didn’t even take the leave of absence he was sure he needed. But his health scare — it was eventually diagnosed as a parasite — reinforced an NBA-wide issue. At a time when teams know and monitor the most minute details about their players’ health, the men charged with coaching often neglect their own well-being.

“It’s a mammoth issue. It really is,” Rivers said. “I think we do a terrible job. I can see it all the time. I can see it in other coaches where I can tell that they’re going through it.”

Just this week, Rivers was watching a game and saw a coach who looked frayed (he declined to say who). He picked up the phone and called, confirming what his eyes told him — that this coach was going through a difficult stretch.

Prisoners of a lifestyle that tempts coaches with a constant barrage of food and adrenaline, little sleep and an overflow of stress, the NBA’s coaches battle wellness problems that they all easily could succumb to.

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“By the end of the season, if you were 6 feet tall when it started, now you’re 5-foot-2,” Washington coach Scott Brooks said. “It just wears you down and you just have to somehow focus on yourself and your health.”

In discussions with more than half a dozen NBA coaches about a wide range of health issues, lack of sleep has people most concerned. On the road, that means late-night flights poring over game film. At home, it means trying to battle the emotional extremes that competing in an NBA game bring with it.

Milwaukee Bucks v Dallas Mavericks
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle looks on during a preseason game against the Bucks at American Airlines Center on Oct. 11.
(Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

“Do you stay in the office and watch the game? Do you go home and try to get some sleep right away? That can be difficult because games are stimulating,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “Sometimes it takes a while to get to sleep anyway. If you [sleep] and save the film for the next morning, you might also have to prep for an upcoming game.

“Management of time is really an important aspect in the health of all coaches in the NBA.”

The food is also a challenge. After every game, there’s a buffet either inside or next to the locker room. On the road, a player might order his favorite local pizza, barbecue or cheeseburgers. And, if there’s a long flight, food will get served again.

Players, who are calorie-burning machines, essentially can eat whatever they want. Coaches don’t have the same luxury.

Some coaches have postgame rules to help guide them through the comedown period after a game.

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Rivers no longer drinks after games. Portland coach Terry Stotts will go home and watch a show like “Madam Secretary” with his wife. Brooks’ training staff told him to quit eating a giant bowl of cereal before his late-night film sessions.

“The biggest challenge is to take care of yourself physically,” Brooks said. “Like everything else, you have so many things on your plate and you forget about yourself.”

But just as a healthy player is likely to perform better, a healthy coach is likely to coach better. It’s why Rivers has returned to meditating on game days. Brooks, when he’s at home, likes to run past Washington’s monuments.

Dwight Howard put himself in a category with NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain in 2018 when he turned in a rare 30-point, 30-rebound game.

As a way to recover from double hip replacement in 2013, Stotts takes long walks wherever the Trail Blazers are playing. And Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said he tries to spend as much time as he can in the weight room.

“I do better in the season because I’m around guys that are working out, the weight room, the training staff and all those things. I’ve found that I work out more,” Budenholzer said. “… I think it’s a good way to connect with your sports medicine staff. You don’t want to overwork them. The most important guys aren’t us.”

The mental and physical benefits are clear. But when it comes to staying healthy, coaches can experience professional benefits too.

According to NBA insiders, there is a belief that coaches who are in shape are much easier to hire and more credible in a room full of athletically gifted players in peak physical condition.

To be considered for jobs, coaches often are advised to lose weight and buy nicer clothes because appearances matter. And some believe any hint of an issue with mental wellness would torpedo a prospective coach’s candidacy.

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There are signs that the stigmas are shifting. Tyronn Lue, who had to take a leave of absence to be treated for an anxiety disorder while coaching Cleveland, was offered the Lakers’ job last summer. Lue is currently an assistant on Rivers’ staff and should get interviews for more head-coaching jobs in the offseason.

In recent years, the NBA Coaches Association has partnered with groups to provide free physicals and heart screenings for its members during the Las Vegas Summer League. And with teams’ medical staffs getting more and more robust, there are in-house options available too.

“Generally speaking, we have the tools for success. It’s just a matter of the choices you make and learning what helps you function best,” Carlisle said. “If head coaches don’t lean on their medical and training staffs for help with issues that come up, both small and large, they’re making a big mistake.”

It seems like coaches are making their wellness more of a priority as awareness continues to go up.

“You know that you have to carve the time out,” Brooks said. “You can never get everything done.”


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