Through his teen years and his entire adult life, Keyon Dooling pushed forward, played basketball and plowed down a secret that stayed alive no matter how many shovels of dirt he threw on it.
Two years ago, that secret seized up on him and brought him to his knees. Yet, from that low point, Dooling managed to look his demons in the eye and stare them down.
This summer, Dooling has shared his troubling yet uplifting story in a book, “What’s Driving You??? How I Overcame Abuse and Learned to Lead in the NBA.” Ultimately, it is a book about the former NBA guard’s healing and his desire to help others heal, too.
“I went through some things in the last two years,” Dooling said on the phone recently. “So I wrote a story. It’s a great story, it’s a basketball story, it’s a life story, it’s a social story. It’s a story of triumph. I just want to make sure I get the message out there.
“I had bottled up so many emotions. I talk about my NBA experiences to connect the audience with the ball-playing side. But the story itself is totally different from the basketball experience. A lot of people don’t talk about this subject.”
Published last month by TriMark Press, the paperback memoir recounts a life that some NBA fans might recall only from some unnerving headlines a couple years ago. It covers Dooling’s career as a hoops overachiever, from starring in high school in Fort Lauderdale and showing enough in two years at the University of Missouri to be picked 10th in the 2000 Draft, to playing 12-plus seasons for seven NBA teams.
More than that, though, the book traces struggles in his life to the sexual abuse he endured as a boy at the hands, initially, of a teenaged neighborhood friend. Later, there were adult men and women who preyed on him.
“You have to put yourself in a vulnerable place to relive and tell and inspire and motivate. It’s very tough to do,” Dooling said. “I had to get a lot of therapy to have the tools to manage all the different emotions. But I’ve done my work. I’ve dealt with it.
“I’ve packaged up healing in this project. That’s really what my goal is, to allow people to see a piece of themselves in the story so they can find healing.”
This new, healthiest time in Dooling’s life was triggered by an incident in June 2012 in a Seattle restaurant that took him back to his darkest memories. A patron in the men’s room made an inappropriate advance. Dooling had just wrapped up one of the most satisfying seasons of his career, helping the Boston Celtics reach Game 7 of the East finals. But the anger that confrontation uncorked wasn’t going to just blow over, as he writes in the book:
At three o’clock in the morning, I decided to go for a walk outside to try to lose the rage. I practiced breathing techniques to calm myself down – when that didn’t do the trick, I tried calling on the Lord to help me. Nothing was working. Finally I called my wife, Natosha (she was back in Florida and probably still asleep) and told her about what happened at the restaurant that night. I still hadn’t told her about what happened to me when I was a child.
I had no words for that.
After talking with ‘Tosha for a while, I started to feel more relaxed. She prayed with me and told me everything would be all right. A little ray of light started growing inside me then thanks to her.
Still, I couldn’t hide what was happening from myself.
An emotional vault that had been locked inside me for years had unexpectedly opened…
Dooling’s breakdown landed him in a mental-health facility in Boston. He turned to then-Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who spent long hours with him there, a place that — given the severity of other patients’ mental issues — struck Rivers as unsafe. He and some medical officials enlisted by the National Basketball Players Association helped get Dooling moved to a better environment.
“He was in this emotional state and he kept apologizing about letting the team down,” Rivers told the Boston Globe last year. “I kept saying, ‘We’re going to survive.’ You just knew emotionally, he wasn’t right. I didn’t know what was going on but I just knew emotionally he was in a bad place, and even a dark place. I was concerned for his life.”
The treatment Dooling eventually received put him on his path to recovery. But when he abruptly decided to retire from the NBA (despite a one-year extension with Boston) , family, friends and fans were puzzled, unaware of the secret he harbored.
The story of his abuse came out after Dooling sought and found the therapy he needed. By late 2012, he was comfortable speaking about it, and he and Natosha even appeared on Katie Couric‘s talk show.
But there was no one-and-done to this type of thing, Dooling learned. Any time he had cracked open the lid on his secret previously — he wrote a letter to himself back in 2011, when he was with Milwaukee, full of questions that elicited no answers — he had backed away. Facing and living with his issues was going to come incrementally as well.
“There’s no blueprint to deal with the emotions, because people who survive it usually don’t tell,” Dooling said. “I had people in my family who didn’t believe me, that created one emotion. I had other people who did believe me, that created another emotion of support. I was insecure about some of the things and then, I was angry about some of them as well.
“It took time to learn how to deal with those types of emotions that, as an athlete, I didn’t even allow myself to feel.”
In April 2013, a month shy of 33, Dooling signed with Memphis in hopes of resuming his NBA career. He played in seven regular-season games down the stretch, then averaged just 1.9 points and 8.1 minutes in 14 playoff appearances for the Grizzlies. His game essentially was gone.
His life had changed. It was getting better. So much that Dooling rarely has any what-if reflections.
“At this point, I still would have been able to play if I hadn’t had that breakdown. That was my doom as far as being a player in the NBA,” he said. “Personally, I would have been in a better position if I had gotten my work done earlier. Because I’m such a better person from doing that work.”
Today, back home in South Florida, Dooling is a certified life coach as well as a published author itching for his next project. He works with people of all stripes, including some NBA players, but declines to offer details in deference to sensitivity and confidentiality.
His family — Natosha, daughters Deneal (13), Gabrielle (10) and Jordan (7), and son Keyon Jr. (4), who is on the cover of the book with his dad — are healthy and happy, Dooling says, thanks to many hours of therapy for them all. Some in his extended family still are grappling with the issues he revealed.
His book is the centerpiece of his Web site, www.whatsdrivingyou.net It features artwork that complements his story and provides links to purchase the book and to download music from iTunes that provided the soundtrack of Dooling’s recovery. Portions of the proceeds from the book are donated to the Respect Foundation at www.RespectFoundation55.org.
Once a month, Dooling said, he opens up his Twitter account at @AmbassadorKD to anyone “still in the closet” about being molested or those — particularly men — who need someone with whom they can speak freely (via Twitter’s private DMs), if therapists, clergy or others aren’t current options.
“I knew I had to go through my test to get to this testimony,” he said. “I would be doing an injustice if I didn’t become a witness and help them get through some of their issues.”
Dooling, in time, would like to return to the NBA as a coach. His playing experiences and exposure to multiple systems have him covered on the basketball side. He gained leadership skills as a player and a union vice president. But the life lessons, what he can share in coping with personal pressures and problems, might kick his resume to another level.
“We’ve been treating the symptoms,” Dooling said. “You see it sometimes in guys who get DUIs. You see behavioral issues with guys maybe having multiple children out of wedlock. Guys overspending, overeating, masking with liquor or drugs.
“So often, we’ve been treating the symptoms and not the real issues. My whole thing is, let’s talk about some of these things we went through in our past so it doesn’t affect the future.”