From NBA player to concussion advocate

NAME OF PLAYERNoah Graham/Getty Images

Former first-round pick Paul Grant now advocates concussion awareness.Paul Grant was fast asleep, drooling on himself in a Motor City movie theater. A first-round pick of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Grant had gone to catch a movie with some teammates after a preseason road game.

But he couldn't stay conscious.

His teammates would wake him up, but Grant would soon be back asleep. "They just thought, 'Oh well he’s tired, let him sleep,'" remembers Grant.

It wasn't just a bad movie. Unbeknownst even to Grant at the time, he was feeling the effects of a concussion he had suffered on a jump ball with Bison Dele earlier in the night. “We went up to get the ball and our heads rammed into each other,” says Grant, “and I got knocked on the corner of my forehead.”

The referees stopped play as Grant tried to collect himself. He walked around to shake off the cobwebs, and stayed in the game though he could hardly see out of his left eye. “It was all bright colors flashing,” he says, “all the colors of the rainbow.”

Grant knew enough to keep his legs moving and, thinking it was just a bump in the head, played his usual minutes. “The thing with my vision was going on and off the whole game,” he said. His swollen brain made his movements a split-second slower; the complex decisions that NBA players instinctively make every second took real effort.

“I didn't feel like myself,” he says. “I really needed to concentrate, and the more I concentrated the more I felt really not all there.”

Likely because he did not get proper medical attention and continued playing, the effects lingered, Grant says, for two or three weeks.

When he says, “it was messed up,” you can hear the frustration in his voice years later.

An unknown danger

Back then, Grant was a role player working hard to stick in the NBA. He would play just four seasons before becoming a college coach and, through his friendship with "Head Games" author Chris Nowinski, an advocate for concussion education. Grant now works on behalf of the Sports Legacy Institute, a non-profit organization that works to spread the word of concussion caution in a time when new research is exposing the dangers of mismanaged concussions and the possible long-term effects of repeated blows to the head.

During his playing days, Grant says he didn’t even know what a concussion really was.

“There was no education,” Grant says. “It was like, ‘Well you didn’t get knocked out, so you don’t have a concussion.’ And that was the thinking by me and the general consensus I think in the league: Unless you get knocked out cold, we’re not going to talk about a concussion.”

But, he says, of course concussions have long been a part of basketball: "There are inevitably times when you get your legs taken out from under you, you get pushed in your back, you fly into the backstop, you hit your back on the floor then your head hits the floor, you dive on the floor and run into another player’s head. This type of stuff happens frequently enough that it needs to be addressed so that when it does happen players and organizations aren't at risk of losing these guys for an extended period of time."

He may not have known that he was concussed after cracking heads with an opponent in mid-air, but he did know that he didn't feel right. Why didn't Grant seek attention from his training staff?

“The overall thinking in the NBA was that you don’t make the team in the training room," he explains. "You got to do whatever you can to get on the court.”

So he did what he had to do, which was keep his mouth shut about his symptoms. Of course, Grant didn't really understand the danger that he was in. He didn't know that if he suffered another concussion while still recovering it could jeopardize his career. He didn't know that just playing, even without suffering another bump, could lengthen his recovery time.

Educating the current generation

Grant wants today’s NBA players to know these things. He is pleased that the NBA has begun to take the issue of concussions more seriously with new efforts to diagnose and treat concussions.

Grant sees player education as a major part of making sure that those who do receive concussions get the necessary treatment, something NBA players say has also been happening more than in the past. For instance the Hawks' Zaza Pachulia, asked about head injuries by TruthAboutIt's Kyle Weidie, recently said that "every year" the NBA tells players "it's not an easy injury, it's something you've got to pay attention to. You've got to be very careful."

“The player’s not going to be honest about what’s going on," Grant declares, "especially if he’s not educated.”

A key issue is a player's reputation -- players want to be seen as tough.

After getting concussed by an inadvertent elbow from teammate Austin Rivers in just his second NBA game, Anthony Davis was raring to get back on the court even though team doctors said he was not ready.

It’s Grant’s opinion that if a player like Davis had been properly educated, he’d have been more cautious about coming back too soon. Currently, every NBA player and coach is required to watch a one-hour educational video on head injuries. Grant, who gives such presentations to athletes from the youth to professional levels, believes that every player in the league should receive intensive training on the risks and realities of concussions, and that rookies in particular should receive more aggressive training.

But Grant also recognizes that rookies are going to take after their peers and the players they look up to. He recommends a public service announcement of sorts featuring a respected veteran like Gerald Wallace, who has suffered at least four concussions in his NBA career. Says Grant, “If I have someone who’s not only in my profession but I look up to and he’s telling me, ‘OK, take it seriously,’ it’s really going to sink in.”