In 2003, it seemed like New York Knicks rookie Mike Sweetney had every reason to be happy. He was the ninth overall pick in one of the best draft classes of all-time and living his NBA dream after a dominant collegiate career at Georgetown.
However, Sweetney was in a very dark place. He was mourning since his father, Samuel, died just before the start of New York’s training camp and he was also battling serious depression. After struggling to find peace and refusing to ask for help out of fear of being judged, he attempted suicide.
“I remember the night,” Sweetney told HoopsHype. “We were in Cleveland one night and I just took a bunch of pain pills, hoping it would take me out. But I woke up the next morning thinking, ‘Well, it didn’t work.’ That’s how bad it was.
“I didn’t like basketball and I just didn’t like life at the time. I went from being a star at Georgetown and having my father at every game, to losing him and not even playing in the NBA. I knew I wasn’t going to be given a chance as a rookie because my coach told me, ‘Hey, I’m not going to play you.’ I had a lot of things going on that were rough for me to handle. I had dug myself into a really deep depression and, at that point, I was really scared to tell anybody. At that time, you had a guy like Ron Artest and people would just say, ‘He’s crazy.’ In reality, he just had some issues that could be resolved. But people were quick to call him crazy and I was suffering from something similar, so I didn’t want to tell anyone. Even after I tried to commit suicide, nobody really knew. I was suffering really bad. I was in New York, battling this while the media was writing articles about me, and I felt like I had nowhere to go. I just kept digging myself into a deeper hole of depression.”
Despite dominating at Georgetown – averaging 22.8 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 blocks and 1.5 steals while shooting 54.7 percent from the field as a junior – he would play just four seasons in the NBA (two with the Knicks and two with the Chicago Bulls). During his four-year NBA career, he averaged 6.5 points and 4.5 rebounds in just 15.5 minutes per game, while shooting 48.5 percent from the field.
Sweetney’s battle with depression continued and ultimately contributed to his NBA career coming to an end. Once he was out of the league, his problems only worsened.
“I left the NBA in 2007, so around 2008 is when things got really bad and my wife told me that I really needed to get some help. It was to the point that I had moved out of my house, left my family and I was sleeping in parks or cars,” Sweetney said. “I felt like a failure. I just didn’t want to be around anybody and I felt terrible. Then, in 2009, that’s when I got to a point where things started heading in a better direction. I knew I had to pull myself out of that and get myself together. It took some time, but my family and friends had my back and helped me get through those really tough times.”
These days, Sweetney speaks to children who are battling some of the same issues he faced. He uses his story as an example, proving that it is possible to dig yourself out of that deep hole and get to a point where you’re truly happy again. Soon, Sweetney is even starting his own foundation in an effort to reach more children and families with his positive message.
“I speak at schools and I mainly work with kids who have battled depression or are in suicide prevention,” Sweetney said. “I’m actually in the process of starting my own foundation. I have some great people around me who are helping me out, including Linda Diaz. She has a non-profit called Lauren’s Law. Her daughter committed suicide and now she tries to help children and families so that they don’t have to deal with the pain she dealt with. People don’t realize just how many children commit suicide; this is a really serious problem. I just want to give back to the community and tell kids my story. You know, ‘Hey, I was the ninth pick in the NBA draft – the same class as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade – and people looked at me as being a potential All-Star and whatnot. I didn’t live up to that, and a big part of that was because of my depression. I kept digging my hole deeper.’ I try to tell these kids, ‘At the first sign of depression, get help. Go talk to someone. Don’t hold it in.’ For me, it got to the point where I was holding it in and I gained so much weight that I lost my NBA career.
“I just really wanted to make my story into a positive. When I go talk to kids, I use my life as an example. I tell them, ‘Google my name. All you’re going to see is a bunch of fat jokes and bad stuff about me. You won’t find anything positive.’ A lot of these kids get cyberbullied, so I try to use myself as an example to help them get through it. I tell them what I went through, show them articles that were written about me and make it clear that everything is going to be okay – even if they don’t understand or believe that right now. And one thing I’ve realized is that a lot of the people who cyberbully others are going through something themselves, and are unhappy with themselves, so they pick on other people. I’ll never mention the person’s name, but about a year ago, a writer reached out to me. He wrote a really bad article about me awhile back – it was just terrible, going in on me and mocking my weight – and he found out that I’d suffered from depression. He called me to apologize and said that he was suffering from depression too and he felt that picking on other people would make him feel better. I didn’t hold any of it against him; in fact, we still keep in contact and we’re good friends now. People go through things. But that’s where, again, I can point to my own story and tell kids, ‘It’s not you. It’s more likely that the other person has some issues they’re working out.’ Fortunately, I think my talks have been helping people. I’ve had a lot parents and kids give me positive feedback. One parent told me, ‘Your story changed my kid’s life.’ That right there gives me joy.”
After seeking help and spreading positivity, the 34-year-old is doing very well these days.
“Right now, my life is just great,” Sweetney said. “I have a wife and three kids and all of my relationships with my friends and family are so strong. Of course, I would’ve loved for my NBA career to have continued, but I think everything happens for a reason and I’m in a great place. I’m excited about where I’m at – mentally and physically – right now.”
DeMarr Johnson, who became close with Sweetney in high school and was one of his Knicks teammates during that difficult rookie season, had no idea that his friend was depressed.
“I think it’s awesome that he’s reaching out to kids and telling his story. It’s crazy because I didn’t know about everything he went through until not too long ago,” Johnson said. “I never knew about any of that stuff. I always thought that Mike was a happy guy. He never seemed down around me at all. He was one of the best high school players in the world, one of the most successful college players in the world, and then a lottery pick. You just never know what people are going through and I’m glad he’s using his platform to help others out. I know people who have dealt with depression and I just think it’s great that he’s doing this and helping others.”
In recent years, Sweetney and Johnson have become teammates once again. For two years, they played on the same squad in The Basketball Tournament and they reached the semifinals. Now, they’re teaming up in the BIG3, which is Ice Cube’s new three-on-three league that tips off on June 25. Sweetney and Johnson are on the same team as Allen Iverson, Ruben Patterson and Andre Owens. Johnson was the team’s co-captain along with Iverson, so he was able to select his good friend.
“I drafted Mike onto our BIG3 team,” Johnson said. “I made sure we got my guy. Over the years, we’ve remained close. I’ve played in his [charity] game and he’s played in mine, and we played on the same team in The Basketball Tournament over the last few years. We know each other well. In the BIG3, I’m excited to team up with him because he can do a little bit of everything – shoot, pass and dominate down low. I think he’s really going to help us.”
Sweetney first expressed interest in the BIG3 when his close friend Joe Connelly III became the league’s director of basketball operations. Connelly was previously a developmental coach for the Washington Wizards and he coached Sweetney and Johnson in The Basketball Tournament. He also let Sweetney crash on his couch back in 2008 when he was sorting things out and preparing to get help for his depression. As the league grew, Sweetney became even more interested. Soon, Roger Mason – another friend of Sweetney’s – was on board as the league’s commissioner, Ice Cube was involved and a bunch of big names were joining as players and coaches.
“I had to be a part of it,” Sweetney said. “I thought, ‘Wow, this could be really big.’ Joe and Roger are good friends of mine, and their involvement made me realize it was serious. Then, you see Ice Cube attached to it and you know it could be huge. And when I found out about the other former NBA players and the Hall of Fame coaches, there was no way around it, I wanted in! They selected 16 captains and co-captains and then there were about 80 guys who showed up for the tryout, which was awesome for the first year. The rosters are great and I think they’ll keep getting even more players going forward.”
It’s worth noting that while Sweetney’s NBA career was short-lived, he went on to play overseas in China, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Uruguay. His most recent stint was last season, so it’s not like he’s returning to basketball after a long absence.
With that said, Sweetney has undergone a lifestyle change and dropped nearly 60 lbs. over the last year. He has been training twice-a-day, five days a week to prepare for the BIG3. This includes working with one of his old high school coaches doing “old-school workouts like running hills” every evening.
“I’ve lost about 60 lbs. so I probably look like a different person than the last time you saw me in The Basketball Tournament,” Sweetney said. “It was really about getting my mentality right. The main reason I did it was just my life, to make sure that I’m around for my children. I did it for that and then, the next thing you know, some good opportunities basketball-wise started falling into place. It was really about being more disciplined. It wasn’t just about going on a diet, it was about changing my lifestyle. In the past, I would go on a diet and lose weight, but I’d always gain it back. This time, I changed my lifestyle by cutting out red meat, pork and alcohol completely. I’m eating a lot of chicken, fish and vegetables, and drinking a lot of water. I knew I had to change my life.
“There will still be people who have stuff to say – I’m not ripped with a six-pack – but I’m just at a point where I can say, ‘It is what it is,’ remain happy, have fun with this great opportunity and go win games.”
Not only is this a chance for Sweetney to be part of an up-and-coming league and compete at a high level, he also understands that the nationally televised games could help grow his platform and allow more struggling children to hear his message.
“By playing in this league, I think I can reach even more people,” Sweetney said. “That’s the goal. I want to keep sharing my story and spreading my message because I think it can help save lives.”
If you know someone who is considering suicide or battling depression, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255. The help is confidential and free.
Article, Top, Allen Iverson, DerMarr Johnson, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Metta World Peace, Mike Sweetney, Roger Mason, Ron Artest, Ruben Patterson, Stephen Jackson, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks