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It is Only as hard as it is

David Yon, June 18, 2018 revJune 22

I have a great friend who has excellent taste when it comes to magazine articles “to pass on” – especially articles from Sports Illustrated.  Nevertheless, I am sure there was some doubt whether to send the article on retired NBA player Brian Grant she found in the May 7, 2018 edition of Sports Illustrated.  Writer Chris Ballard did a superb job telling the story of Grant’s battle with Parkinson’s Disease and it should be shared with everyone.
Parkinson’s Disease is hard to define precisely. It can be difficult to diagnose (especially early in its onset) and it can be extremely difficult to predict what symptoms will occur and when they will occur. It has matched wits with some very smart researchers before leaving them disappointed and lost. It remains, for now, incurable and progressive.  And yet, almost every symptom manifested could be the result of some other disease, and many seem to be very similar to the aging process, only being driven by a turbo charged engine.

Very few of us are NBA stars, as Grant was, but there is plenty to learn from his experience. I don’t know if he had any experience with Parkinson’s Disease before writing this piece, but Chris Ballard demonstrated a remarkable understanding of how the disease impacts people. And how the disease is affected by the people it invades. Ballard recognized that to understand the disease you really must understand something about the person with the diagnosis.  After all, a common theme in the Parkinson’s community is: “If you have treated one person with Parkinson’s you have treated one person with Parkinson’s.”

In his article, Ballard sets the stage by taking the reader along the pathway Brian Grant followed to become an NBA star who thrived on themes of hustle and desire. He was “the hardest working guy in the league.”  At age 7, double pneumonia almost killed him. By age 11, however, Brian was bailing hay, digging potatoes and dropping tobacco sticks. An undersized basketball player who refused to back down when he was needed to defend against much larger players like Karl Malone or Shaq or battle them for rebounds, he became the much beloved Rasta Monsta to the hometown fans in Portland.   There were serious bumps along the way, but Grant’s persona was of a man who outworked and out hustled everyone else; a tough guy who would not back down.  His twelve years in the NBA included 10 surgeries, a lot of pain and pain killers. According to Ballard, these were all marks of honor to Grant.  Wounds suffered in battle; wounds to be proud of.

Not so when Parkinson’s began to show its destructive nature. To the contrary it was, according to Ballard “a frailty thrust upon him not earned, one that came with no honor, and less control.” One that embarrassed him hm and left him depressed. Less than 5% of the 60,000 people diagnosed annually are under the age of 40.  Grant was diagnosed at age 36 and only after Parkinson’s got a big head start, taking advantage of Grant’s retirement from the NBA to sink Grant into a dark hole of depression. Again, as Ballard wrote: “…while Parkinson’s is commonly thought of as a malady of the body, it’s also a disease of the mind, infiltrating the brain and messing with the control levers. Neurons begin to malfunction and then die off, reducing the supply of dopamine…”
Grant’s depression certainly found an accelerator in his retirement from the NBA.  Before being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, he began wasting away his days on the couch watching television and overeating.  He stopped leaving the house and became “ornery” and snapped at his wife, while ignoring his kids. As his condition continued to deteriorate, he got an ultimatum from his wife – get treatment or I am gone and I will take the kids.  Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.  With help, Grant would work his way out of the deepest holes of depression and begin to live a better life.
It was not easy however, as Ballard noted: “It was as if every morning there was a part of his brain telling him to go back to sleep, to just chill, because there must be a good movie on. And once he let go, it was hard to get back.”  There is one symptom of Parkinson’s that is common to almost all who suffer the disease and that is fatigue. A fatigue that is relentless.  We learn the response must also be.

One day, Grant received a phone call from Michal J. Fox, perhaps the most famous person diagnosed with Parkinson’s.  He has had some major crashes learning to deal with the disease but has been a major force for research and education.  I loved the message Fox delivered to Grant as related by Ballard.  “You can’t defeat Parkinson’s any more than you can defeat golf.  There are no wins and losses, just a lot of no contests and draws on a daily basis.”  There are daily challenges and meeting or exceeding those challenges become the beginning to learning the best way to handle the disease.
It is not that it is the worst thing ever. Fox goes on to say “someone will say ‘that must be twice as hard for you to do,’ and I will say, ‘No, it’s not twice as hard for me to do, it’s just as hard as it is.’ My reality isn’t constantly compared to a reality without Parkinson’s. it is compared to the last episode with Parkinson’s.”  He also says, “My experience isn’t worse than other people’s experience. My experience is just different.”  For Grant it was scrambling on a basketball court and then having to learn to live without that grind. 

For me, it is being able to run with a comfortable stride and without breaking down. More success – reach the starting line and the finish line. Triumph? Finishing without a PW.