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NY POST: Keyon Dooling had to hit bottom in NBA to confront abuse demons

For a quarter of a century, Keyon Dooling – a self-proclaimed “Macho Man,” an NBA star, a survivor of a rough south Florida neighborhood, a players union leader – kept his secret.

Somewhere, deep within his heart and mind, Dooling buried a torment from his past. As an innocent 7-year-old, he was abused sexually by a teenaged family friend. He kept the secret from his family, later from his wife. Carrying that weight for 25 years took a dreadful toll. As a pre-teen, he started carrying a knife for protection. He drank. He smoked. Above all, he kept quiet.

“I was embarrassed about it, so I literally pushed it so far down in my mind it really didn’t exist to me. [Carrying the secret] was a lot harder than I gave it credit for,” said Dooling, now 34. “I didn’t even self-evaluate until I got away from ball and got into a mental institution and found the healing I needed. I needed basic, traditional therapy.” 

Dooling, who spent two seasons with the Nets, throughout his silence presented the perfect picture of an NBA player: smart, sharply dressed, smiling, accommodating to the media. In the summer of 2012, after his 12th NBA season, it all exploded. Dooling’s breakdown after a confrontation in the restroom of a Seattle restaurant, where he believed a customer made inappropriate advances, led to his temporary commitment to a mental hospital in Boston.

“I didn’t think things that happened in my life could come back and haunt me,” said Dooling, who had just finished a run to the Eastern Conference Finals with the Celtics and then was in a mental ward, over-medicated, paranoid, hallucinating.

Keyon with his wife, Natosha
Keyon with his wife, Natosha

“The bottom floor,” Dooling said. But it began his rise to the top again. Doc Rivers, then the Celtics coach, gave invaluable assistance. But the trigger to turning his life around was admitting his secret to his wife, Natosha. “It was like the weight of the world was off my shoulders. What I didn’t realize is I had more weight to get off,” Dooling said. “In doing that, I was able to go to a different level of healing.” That is Dooling’s message. He wants to help others, not just children who have suffered sexual abuse, but adults who have buried the pain and the memories, burying their lives along with their secrets. 

He has set up RespectFoundation55.org with its multi-tiered website to offer help. There are national, regional, local hotlines for support groups of sexual abuse victims. Dooling goes on speaking engagements, has told his story on national TV. He targets kids – but offers support to all ages.

“It’s a wide range, because sexual abuse happens so frequently in our younger days, but what I’m finding as I go out more and more is we’re dealing with adults who don’t know how to embrace what I’ve been able to do,” Dooling said. “I want to let them know there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I believe you have to seek healing through mental wellness, therapy, support.”

He has been spreading the word, did so especially in April, Sexual Abuse Awareness Month. And he is preparing for the mid-June publication of his book, “What’s Driving You? How I Overcame Abuse and Learned to Lead in the NBA.” It comes with artwork from an abuse victim and music from an award-winning producer. Dooling is big on the arts as a form of healing.

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SUN SENTINEL: DOOLING’S BOOK

Former heat guard Keyon Dooling has finished his book that will be published in July, What’s Driving You? How I Overcame Abuse and Learned To Lead in the NBA. Included is a look at life on Fort Lauderdale streets far different from sun-splashed spring break, and of how Pat Riley, Stan Van Gundy and Doc Rivers helped mold, shape and salvage a basketball life that spun out of control into mental anguish amid tortuous recollections of childhood sexual abuse. The spoiler alert is that there is no spoiler alert, Dooling coming out of the other side of depression to now serve as the NBA advisor to incoming and young players with seminars planned at the Orlando and Las Vegas summer leagues that the Heat and numerous other teams will attend in July. There are plenty of Basketball revelations, too, firm street ball as a youth in Fort Lauderdale, “I even had drug dealers betting on me because they know how good I was getting,” to how Van Gundy successfully “pushed me in a way I had never been pushed by a coach… I was only at the Heat for one season but I got a lifetime’s worth of discipline, focus, knowledge and understanding.”

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 SLAM: Q&A WITH KEYON DOOLING

It was August 2012 and Dooling had been on medication in a psychiatric hospital for five days. After being weaned off the medication, he hadn’t slept for two nights, growing dizzy with thought.

Dooling had been with his good friend Avery Bradley just outside of Seattle in July. The two distributed nearly $40,000 in food to the city’s hungry. Out to dinner at a restaurant one evening, a man groped Dooling in the restroom. The 13-year NBA veteran was suddenly overcome with an anger he didn’t know he possessed. Memories of being sexually abused as a 7-year-old flashed through his mind.

The incident sent him into a tailspin that ultimately landed Dooling in the mental facility. Wearing only a green hospital gown and staring at the room’s clean, white walls, he tossed and turned trying to clear his mind.

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