The four boys are spread out along the end of an otherwise empty football field, running around and sweating in the heat of a summer Portland sun.
“Cut and change direction,” Matt James yells at them. “Good. Slide, slide, don’t run. We’ll run in a second. This is exactly what you need for lateral movement and changing directions. Give me five seconds, all you’ve got. Set. Go. Good, good. See, you’re better, and we’re going to keep working on that.”
James is a master trainer for Nike and putting the boys, who range in age from 14 to 17, through an endless barrage of agility and conditioning drills. James is more used to putting professional athletes through their paces but has been hired by the boys’ father, who sits on a grassy hill off to the side.
“This is how our workouts went down, as I recall,” he says to the father.
Brian Grant laughs. For 12 years, Grant ran the courts of the National Basketball Association, enduring the ruthless pounding and punishment of games thanks in part to the same relentless conditioning drills that James is now putting his sons through.
But things are different now. It’s a new era.
“You going to do this one, daddy?” says Anaya, Grant’s 10-year-old daughter, who’s passing the time by riding her bike and doing cartwheels over on the side.
“No, baby, my knee won’t let me.”
He pushes himself up off the grass with a slight groan.
“But I’ve got to get in shape,” he says. “My knee’s been acting up and I haven’t worked out in a month. I used to weigh 268, now I’m 300 ponds. I hold it well, but I’m 300 pounds right now. I’ve never been that heavy.”
He looks down at his knees, which are decorated with the scars of seven surgeries. The disintegration of cartilage in his right knee eventually left bone painfully scraping against bone and forced him to retire. As he gets up to encourage his sons, though, the most noticeable physical difference isn’t his weight or his knees. It’s his left arm. It shakes. Endlessly.
Five years ago Grant was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a neurological disorder whose symptoms include the uncontrollable tremors that now dominate his left arm. The man who made a life out of his remarkable physical abilities and motor control is slowly being robbed of that gift.
But the disease has also given him something else in return—something more: A new direction, a new focus, a new life. While many athletes struggle to reinvent themselves and find a new calling after their playing days end, Grant has found his: helping others. What he couldn’t find when he was told he had Parkinson’s was basic information about the disease. What does this mean? Am I going to die? What will my future look like? What can I do to help myself? If he had those questions, he says, then others must have them as well. So he started a non-profit organization to raise money and educate the 60,000 people who are diagnosed with the disease each year.
Using his fame and personality, he has led the organization in raising more than $1 million and put it in a position to become a prominent player in the Parkinson’s world alongside the foundations created by the disease’s most identifiable victims, Michael J. Fox and Muhammad Ali.
For the moment, though, all that is secondary to what his sons are going through on the field. James has one last drill for them, a 300-yard shuttle run—down the field, back and down again in less than 60 seconds.
“This is exactly what they need,” Grant says.
They line up for their 300-yard dash.
“This ain’t no walk,” Grant shouts at them. “You’ve got to go all out on these.”
James looks over at Grant. “This is some Pat Riley stuff.”
Grant smiles and nods.
“When I was with the Miami Heat,” he says, “we had this drill that we had to do at training camp. We had to go baseline to baseline 10 times in 65 seconds. We had to do three of them. You got a two-minute rest in between and you could bank time, so if you did the first one in 59 seconds, you had six seconds in the bank, because by the time you got to that third one you were shot. You had to do it every morning until you made it. I got mine done the first day. We had this one cat who did it four days straight. He was messed up.”
The boys begin to get weary.
“Stride it out. Last one. Stride it out.”
They finish in a youthful 48 seconds.
“I know this is hard work, fellas, but I’m telling you right now, you do this twice a week and with all the other stuff you’re doing, you’re going to see a big improvement in your quickness, lateral speed, everything.”
As the boys gasp for air and James encourages them to control their breathing—in through the nose, out through the mouth—Grant begins to pack up. He lifts Anaya’s bike into the back of his red “rasta rig” pickup truck. Anaya jumps in the passenger side.
The boys decide they’re headed for a post-workout fast food feast. He nods. They’re old enough now to head out on their own. It’s a new era. So he reverses the truck out of the parking spot, shifts it into drive and turns toward home.
• • •
• • •
The home has five garages—three attached to the main house and two detached off to the side. His beloved boat, which has carried him through countless hours of fishing on Portland’s many waterways, rests in between.
The garages are filled with the kind of supercharged fun one might expect from the wealthy and athletic—jet skis, four-wheeled ATVs, testosterone toys that he tows to his cabin at the foot of Mount St. Helens about an hour to the north.
It’s a transition house, one in between his old house along the edge of the Willamette River, which stayed with his former wife, and the new one he’s moving into on Lake Oswego this fall when he remarries and becomes a father for the seventh time.
Like the boys undergoing the training, this, too, is the start of a new era for Grant. Life is finally back on the upswing after a year and a half of what he describes as pure hell that started in 2008 when he retired from the NBA, got divorced, suffered a deep depression and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
For any professional athlete, being told you’re past your prime at an age when most people are just getting into theirs is a severe shock. Although the NBA offers seminars on life after basketball, Grant says, there’s really no way to adequately prepare someone for exiting what he calls the “vacuum of non-reality” that is professional sports.
“The life that you live, once you’re in the NBA, it’s just not real,” he says. “Normal people don’t live their lives the way we do. I don’t mean that in a bad or good way, it’s just the fact. The fact that you have so much money that you can do what you want to do. You go places and get in. And when you retire, it’s like smacking into a brick wall. ‘Oh, this is what’s real. This is what the majority of the world goes through.’ You were just in that small class of non-reality. You begin to think about retirement, but nothing can prepare you for the actual retirement.”
The reality throws many athletes into a depression, and it did so for Grant. He would stay in bed, unmotivated to do anything. And the trouble making the transition was multiplied not only by marital problems, which eventually led to a divorce from Gina, his wife of 14 years, but also unknowingly because of the Parkinson’s.
“Once I hit retirement, instead of sliding into depression, it was like jumping off a cliff and not being able to find my way back up until I went and got professional help,” he says. “I went into a deep depression for eight months. But part of it was also because of Parkinson’s. My brain had depleted so much dopamine that once you don’t have that amount of dopamine, you’re always teetering on being depressed.”
Although Parkinson’s manifests itself through tremors in the arms and legs, it’s actually a neurological disease. The brain stops producing dopamine, the chemical the body uses to coordinate movement. For most Parkinson’s patients, the symptoms begin to show in their late 50s. For others, like Grant, Fox and Ben Petrick, who played four years of Major League Baseball with Parkinson’s, symptoms start showing as early as their 20s or 30s. Grant was 36 when he was officially diagnosed in 2008, but he noticed changes a few years earlier.
“My last year in the NBA, I noticed that I couldn’t jump off my left leg,” he says. “I was a little uncoordinated. I’m like, Wow that’s my good leg. I just thought it was what happens when you’re going into your 12th season and the body starts breaking down. There was an excuse for it. I also had this little skin twitch in my wrist. I asked about it, and they said it’s normal.”
He wasn’t fully diagnosed until moving back to Portland at which point he began trying to research what life was like with Parkinson’s. His research turned up nothing. Fox’s foundation deals with raising money for research. Ali has a foundation that helps those with advanced stages of Parkinson’s. No one touches on information for new patients—what does it mean, what to expect, how to manage your health. So he filled the need.
“I didn’t want to start dipping into the same pot that was already being filled,” he says. “I said to myself if I could have something available to me when I was first diagnosed what would it be? And it was a website that could give me direction on nutrition and exercise or could help me find a psychologist who could help me talk to my kids, things like that. I wanted to answer how to maneuver through life with the disease, because your problems are not going away.”
His work, in many ways, fills the gap between Fox’s research and Ali’s eldercare, putting him in a prominent place within the Parkinson’s community—a place, perhaps, equal to the others and one that, ultimately, may leave him even better known than for his basketball skills.
“If that happens, great. If it doesn’t, that’s OK, too,” he says. “I’m not really concerned about how I’m remembered. I’m concerned about reaching people and it being a useful tool for Parkinson’s patients, especially newly diagnosed patients. I just want to help people.”
Helping others, though, is nothing new for Grant. In 1999, the NBA gave Grant its J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award in recognition of his outstanding community service and charitable work.
“I think helping underprivileged kids comes from being underprivileged myself,” he says. “And I think sick children just appeal to me. When I was in second grade I had double pneumonia and was in the hospital for two months. One day the Ruth Lyons Fund came by and gave out presents. I got one of those little Tonka trucks. I always remember that. So when I would go visit a little kid. I would always tell myself, ‘Remember how you remembered that moment. These kids are going to remember that moment, too.’ Whatever I have on me, not necessarily monetarily, but who am and the way I speak to them or their parents is going to stick with them the rest of their lives. I think that’s where that comes from.”
• • •
Grant walks into the house and eases into a chair in the living room. Three framed movie posters adorn the walls behind him—Bruce Lee, Shaft and Super Fly. They are, he admits, man-house decorations and have a limited life-span outside of the basement or garage once he gets married. For the time being, though, they dominate the room.
He pulls out his phone and calls up an app that allows him to control the room’s built-in sound system and begins scrolling through his music collection.
“When I was at Xavier, we lived in the Manor House,” he says, “and I was in the same building as Erik Edwards and DeWaun Rose. It was the battle of who had the biggest tower speakers. They were constantly blowing things up.”
He scrolls down until he gets to Bob Marley on the list and hits play. Reggae fills the room.
Hey, get up, stand up, stand up for your rights/Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight.
Grant subtly sways with the song, which he knows intimately. When he was with Sacramento, he and Gina went on vacation to Jamaica and ducked into a little hole-in-the-wall bar one evening. Marley began playing on the jukebox, and the music and lyrics immediately caught his attention.
“Who is this?” he asked the owner.
“Dis is Bob Marley, mon. You know Bob Marley, right?”
“Umm. I think I might have his ‘Legends’ album.”
“You don’t know Bob Marley? Hey, get this mon a 12-pack of Red Stripe. We need to educate him.”
The education ended at 5:30 a.m. but the lessons have lasted a lifetime. When Grant got back home, he got a tattoo of Marley and the word “prophet” inked on his right shoulder. He also began growing the dreadlocks that made him one of the most identifiable if not iconic players in the NBA. When Marley’s kids were touring the U.S., they invited Grant onto their tour bus.
“The way you play,” Ziggy Marley told him, “you represent Daddy good.”
It was the ultimate compliment. Marley changed—and in many ways defined—Grant’s life. Specifically, he says, it was his song “War,” the one he heard on the Jamaican juke box.
Until the philosophy which hold one race superior and another inferior/Is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned/Everywhere is war/Me say war.
Until there is no longer first class and second class citizens of any nation/Until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes/Me say war.
The lyrics resonated strongly within his soul, taking him back to his childhood in Georgetown, Ohio, and the racial wars he repeatedly had to fight.
The irony of Georgetown is that it is the home of Ulysses S. Grant, the Union general whose military mastery helped win the Civil War for the North and abolish slavery in the South. And yet despite the freedom created by its best-known son, the small, southwestern Ohio town still hadn’t lost its grip on racism 100 years later when Grant was growing up.
He was always getting into fights as a youth, defending himself against the racial taunts and insults that were hurled in his direction. It was just one of the many challenges of growing up in rural Ohio, where money was scarce and life was hard. Instead of playing away the summers, Grant spent his picking and stripping tobacco on the local farms, digging potatoes and baling hay.
The physical labor made him strong, though, both physically and mentally. And it gave him a sense of what was important and a perspective on life that many never develop. It’s what pushed him to strive for something more, something better, and what prompted him to tell his mom after hearing a commercial for a college on the radio that he was going to go to college and get out of the country. He didn’t know how. He didn’t know where. But he was going to get there. He promised.
• • •
The first time Dino Gaudio came to Georgetown High School to watch a basketball practice, he sat in the stands and was filled with uncertainty. Someone had anonymously been calling Xavier about Grant, and the Musketeers’ assistant basketball coach was there to make sure that the calls weren’t just some sort of prank. Practices, after all, often reveal more than games.
When the practice was over, Gaudio walked into the office of the team’s coach, Tim Chadwell, a former Xavier player himself who graduated in 1980.
“Who knows about this Grant kid?” asked Gaudio.
“No one,” said Chadwell.
“Let’s keep it that way.”
Until that time, Grant was considering an offer from an NAIA school—the smallest of colleges. It wouldn’t be stardom, but at least it would be college and Grant would be able to fulfill the promise he made to his mom.
Based on Gaudio’s recommendation, Xavier’s head coach Pete Gillen went to see this unknown kid from the country for himself. Xavier only had one scholarship left. Gillen offered it to Grant. It was a gamble.
Grant didn’t disappoint, though, earning a starting spot as a freshman and going on to become a two-time Midwest Collegiate Conference Player of the Year and honorable mention Associated Press All-American. He was inducted into the Xavier Athletic Hall of Fame in 1999 and became one of only four players to have his jersey retired by the University. His selection as the No. 8 pick in the NBA draft is still the highest Xavier draft pick ever.
In his 12 years in the NBA he played for five teams—Sacramento, Portland, Miami, Los Angeles and Phoenix—scoring just shy of 8,000 points and earning a reputation for his lockdown defense, earth-shattering picks and willingness to play against guys much bigger than him, guys like Shaquille O’Neil and Karl Malone. It was his willingness to stand up to the Hall-of-Fame center Malone, in fact, that made the basketball community stand up and notice Grant. In Game Five of the Western Conference semifinals in 1999, Malone sent Grant flying with a powerful elbow above his right eye. Grant bounced up, bloodied, and held a nose-to-nose, profanity-laced discussion with Malone in the middle of the court, informing him that he wasn’t intimidated.
In the next game, Grant walked out onto the court, a Band-Aid over his eye, to what he calls the most deafening crowd he’s ever played in front of, many of whom were wearing Band-Aids over their eyes in a show of solidarity.
Grant held Malone to just eight points in 44 minutes, and the Trail Blazers advanced to the conference finals. Grant endeared himself to an entire city that night. Everyone was happy.
Except Malone. “I don’t like him,” he said of Grant, “and he don’t like me.”
• • •
Karl Malone called.
“Heard you were sick,” he said. “How can I help?”
When Grant set up his first fundraiser, Malone suggested they auction off a hunting and fishing trip with the two of them to Alaska. Four people paid $100,000 to join the former NBA players on the excursion.
Michael J. Fox called.
Grant’s neurologist is on Fox’s board of directors and told the actor about his newest patient, who was just diagnosed with Parkinson’s and trying to figure things out. Fox knew of Grant from his days playing for the Los Angeles Lakers.
“I’m a movie buff, so I was kind of star stuck,” Grant says. “His words were uplifting. He’s got a really great outlook on life. He’s been dealing with it for a long time. What he told me, though, was that I had to lose my vanity. He said, ‘That’s going to be hard for you because you’re an athlete. It’s hard for me because I’m an actor, but until you lose that vanity, you’ll struggle with things.’ I’m slowly starting to lose it. I’m a lot better now than I was before. I used to go into a room at an event and just leave because I would get so much anxiety thinking that people were looking at me or thinking, ‘Oh my God poor him’ or something.”
Mark Starkey called.
Who? Starkey is a former basketball player at Wright State University in Ohio who was creating a TEDx event in Portland and wanted Grant to speak about Parkinson’s and his life. The theme of all the talks was all of the “What if…” moments in life. Even though he was a communications major at Xavier and spoke to the media countless times, public speaking was new—and terrifying—to Grant. As he began to recount all of the “what if” events in his life, though, it became less daunting because he began to realize how all of the moments in his life fell into place—like dominoes, one tumbling into another. What if one of his high school teachers hadn’t given him a second chance on a test so he could remain eligible for basketball? What if someone hadn’t anonymously called Xavier? And what if he hadn’t gotten Parkinson’s and been told to lose the vanity?
It helped bring it all into perspective: The foundation never would have been formed. He would still be depressed. And there would be people out there today who would still be struggling about what to do and where to turn for information about their Parkinson’s.
“There’s been major results” he says.
This year he expanded the foundation’s mission to include an exercise program with the Portland-area YMCAs specifically for people with Parkinson’s.
“Exercise has been shown to slow the progression of Parkinson’s. Right now we’re just local, but we’re expanding to Seattle and Tacoma, and if that’s successful in a year we’ll have our meeting about going to a national program.
“But what I would love to do is build a wellness center here in Portland, where we have an on-staff neurologist, physical trainer, yoga, psychologist, where it’s a one-stop shop. So when you’re diagnosed, you can take a three-day trip to Portland and have everything available to you right there in one place.
“My second goal is to go on the road and hit three cities a year where we’re doing a symposium that highlights all of these areas, and partner with groups in those cities to let people know you have this place that is doing a wonderful exercise program, or you have one of the top neurologists in this area. Those are my goals.”
The doorbell rings. The house that was momentarily quiet once again becomes a flurry of activity. Grant unfolds his 6-foot-9 body from the chair and excuses himself to take care of some personal matters. About 60 percent of his time these days, he says, is spent on personal issues—taking his kids to personal training sessions, getting his daughters to dance—with the remainder spent in conjunction with the foundation.
If he doesn’t go into the downtown Portland office on any given day, he’s on the phone making decisions or handling details. It may be the most demanding job he’s had. But it’s worth the effort. His fight with Parkinson’s, after all, has not only given him a new venue to help others, it’s given him something more: A new life.
More videos of Grant
Climbing Mount St. Helen Interview on Live Wire radio