By Kim Constantinesco
It doesn’t matter if you’re a 6-foot-8, 290-pound power forward in the NBA. Severe depression doesn’t discriminate.
In the same draft class as LeBron James, Carmello Anthony, and Dwayne Wade, Michael Sweetney, 34, was selected ninth overall out of Georgetown University. At the time, he was being compared to Patrick Ewing, and rightfully so. The New York Knicks signed him with the intent of bringing another legendary big man to the Big Apple.
However, during Sweetney’s rookie season, he lost his beloved father, Samuel, to a massive heart attack, and fell into a depressive state so severe it cost him his NBA career.
“It was the first time I had some real adversity in my life,” Michael told us. “The person I would lean on the most, my dad, was taken away from me. I didn’t know how to handle it.”
Michael turned to food for relief and ate himself out of the sport he loved. He also temporarily left his wife to live in his car for months at a time.
“I felt like I was a failure to my family and my friends,” he said. “That’s when I just packed my stuff up and stayed in my car. I felt so bad, I didn’t want to be around anybody.”
His dark days lasted over a decade, but he eventually found his way out of life’s gutter. Now, he’s sharing his story with others, telling them that they, too, can fight for their right to lead a happy life.
Eating Feelings Away
Michael grew up in Oxon Hill, Maryland, and his father, who played basketball at a junior college, was his biggest fan.
“He introduced me to the game of basketball and I fell in love with it because of him,” Michael said. “He was one of those dads that never missed a practice or a game. He was always there.”
“There” was watching as Michael was named the All Met Basketball Player of the Year by the Washington Post. It was being in the stands at Georgetown University, where Michael was in the top 20 in scoring and rebounding — the only player to achieve that in the country at the time. It was keeping a close eye on the 2003 NBA Draft, where Michael was selected just eight picks after LeBron James.
However, during Michael’s first NBA season, Samuel suffered a heart attack and died at 52 years old. It leveled the talented rookie. He quickly fell into a deep depression and never got the proper help for it.
He found happiness, although fleeting, in food. Late night pizzas, burgers, and chicken wings caused his weight to spike, but it was the only thing that made him feel better.
“Food was my drug,” Michael said. “It gave me comfort. You eat a lot, and next thing you know, you fall asleep. It gives you that comfort, and then you sleep your feelings away.”
He was teased with all the fat jokes and food one-liners you could think of. He would laugh along, but on the inside, he was a bucket of tears just waiting to spill over. He cut off communication from people he was once close to, and he cried “for no reason at all.” No one within the NBA knew about his severe depression. If they did, they never said anything to him.
“While I was playing in the NBA, I tried to take some pills one night; a bunch of Advil,” Michael said. “I was hoping I wouldn’t wake up the next morning. That was the only time I tried to take my own life.”
After his second season with the Knicks, he was labeled a ” draft bust” and traded to the Chicago Bulls. He spent two years in the Windy City, but after averaging only 3.2 points per game, his NBA career essentially ended.
Success In Uruguay
He played a little overseas, but in 2009, he hit rock bottom. He left his wife, India, for months at a time to drive to places where no one would recognize him. He kept to himself and often slept in his car. Then a job offer came along to play ball in Uruguay.
“It was one of those things where I could get away from everything here and just start over,” Michael said. “Uruguay was one of those countries I had never been to. People wondered why I went there, and it was because it was peaceful for me. I could start working on myself.”
He began seeing a psychiatrist in Uruguay who he really connected with. That’s when he was officially diagnosed with and treated for depression. He didn’t take medication because he felt he could fix his situation with daily cognitive-behavioral approaches. So, he and his doctor went to work.
Since 2009, Michael and India have had three children. He’s lost 74 pounds and continues to play professional basketball overseas. However, when he’s in the U.S., he makes bringing awareness to mental health as much a priority as his family. Why? Simple. He’s trying to end the stigma and help others out of their dark holes.
“Everybody hits low points in their life,” Michael explained. “Some people might come out of it quicker than others. Some people might have an illness. I’m one of the biggest guys out there and just because I had it, doesn’t make me soft.”
And that’s the message he’s sending to teens in his area. He partnered with umttr (which stands for Your Life Matters), a local organization that aims to end bullying, and make depression and suicide acceptable to talk about.
“I tell kids, ‘Don’t hold it in, don’t hide it,'” Michael said. “‘The more you hold it in, the longer it takes to get better. I suffered in silence for years, and I can tell you it never got better. Only once I opened up to people, that’s when it improved. I lost my career over it and I almost lost my family.”
He’s also educating youth on the signs of emotional suffering.
“I tell them, ‘If you see someone struggling, don’t brush it under the rug,'” Michael said.
The New York Post initially published a story in 2015 on his bout with depression. Since then, numerous athletes who battle the illness have approached him with their stories. According to Michael, professional teams and leagues can and should cater to athletes who struggle.
“I think if teams keep bringing awareness to the issue, and if they have counselors on board, or on call, and let guys know what’s said stays between them and the counselor, more athletes will be willing to open up about their problems,” Michael said. “If not each team, each league should have a program like the Players’ Association where guys can express they’re having a problem. It’s about letting guys know it’s okay to talk to somebody to get the proper help.”
If Michael’s story leaves a lasting impact on the NBA, and they do in fact offer those services, then that’s as valuable as any of LeBron’s three Championship rings.