ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan is putting together an excellent series this week on mental health in the NBA, and today’s piece focuses on how players decide whether or not to medicate, a decision often loaded with myths and stigmas. Shane Larkin, who played backup point guard for the Celtics last season and now plays with Turkish squad Anadolu Efes, detailed how he managed his obsessive compulsive disorder over the course of his life. The story leads off with an anecdote from Larkin at age 8:
As he starts to get dressed for school — a ritual that can last a few minutes or sometimes hours, depending on the number for the day — he notices an image of Ray Allen flickering on his television screen. Allen, it seems, hit eight 3-pointers in a game the night before. Suddenly, a sensory message makes a beeline for Shane’s brain and informs him of the number for the day: eight.
“And then I know,” Larkin tells ESPN, “that I have to wash my hands eight times.”
After scrubbing fastidiously, Larkin carefully picks out his clothes. But if his shorts touch the carpet by mistake, he not only has to toss them in the hamper and replace them with new ones, he must retreat to the bathroom again to wash his hands.
From there, Larkin attempts to navigate breakfast in a kitchen that is a cauldron of potential germs. He engages in a deft obstacle course as he sidesteps errant spills, a soggy sponge, a dirty dish. As he approaches the front door, with seconds to spare before he misses the bus (again), the family dog patters up to him, tail wagging, and licks his hand. Larkin has no choice: He heads back to the bathroom for eight more cleansings. By the end of the day, his hands are so raw from the obsessive washing, he falls into bed with bloody open sores.
In high school, Larkin would wash his laptop or phone if someone happens to sneeze nearby, causing his devices to break. His symptoms continued through college, leading him to apply for an NCAA medical waiver so he could get closer to home and transfer from DePaul to Miami without missing a season. They persisted well into his NBA career.
When Larkin attended the NBA combine prior to the 2013 draft, he was bombarded with questions: How can you function in a locker room environment with these issues? Are you on medication? Are you cured? “I didn’t blame them for asking,” he says.
MacMullan checks in with Larkin at the end of the piece and notes that he’s found a way to manage his OCD without medication; though he does still use his elbows to turn on faucets and still must keep his hands clean, “his days of obsessively washing are behind him.” That Larkin could only talk in detail about his struggles while getting his paychecks outside the NBA—and that at least one “NBA star” in the piece chose to comment anonymously, out of concern for his career—speaks to the persistent difficulties of open and fair dialogue around mental health in the league.