CLEVELAND — Kevin Love can’t remember being this freshly shaven, gliding his fingers over his smooth cheeks and chin while glancing at a large mirror.
The reflection doesn’t pain him anymore.
From the outside, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ All-Star forward appears to have it all: A model’s striking looks, a multi-million dollar contract and dream job. At 30, he’s in the prime of his career, and maybe for the first time, truly happy.
“I’m getting there,” he said, his voice conveying determination. “It’s still a work in progress.”
Nearly a year ago, Love suffered a panic attack during a game against Atlanta. The desperate, life-altering event eventually led to revealing his long-term battle with anxiety and depression.
Now Love is hoping to break down stigmas about men’s mental health. He has partnered with Shick Hydro on a website series called “Locker Room Talk,” holding candid conversations with Olympic gold-medal swimming icon Michael Phelps, former Boston Celtics star Paul Pierce and Cavs teammate and close friend Channing Frye.
No topic is off limits.
The first episode with Phelps premieres next month and coincides with fundraising efforts for the Movember Foundation, which promotes men growing moustaches during the month to raise awareness for prostate cancer, testicular cancer and suicide.
Love recently filmed the sit-down talks with Phelps, Pierce and Frye on Cleveland’s east side while his Cavs prepared to open their first season in five years without superstar LeBron James, who signed with Los Angeles this summer. While Love knows his 11th year as a pro will be challenging (Cleveland fell to 0-4 on Wednesday night), his focus was on the series, which he views as an important step in his personal development and a natural progression toward a broader platform for more mental health initiatives.
Love’s discussions with the three athletes cover a wide range of topics, including “masculinity, traumatic events, women and their roles in our lives, thoughts of suicide, anxiety. Everything.”
“We’re changing the paradigm of locker room talk where it’s not just about sports anymore,” he said. “It’s life.”
In their talks with Love, Phelps and Pierce open up about their past struggles with mental health. Frye brings a perspective of coping with loss and tragedy following the deaths of his parents within weeks of each other in 2016.
Love hopes the frank discussions will touch people to seek help and maybe encourage them to address their problems. It took a distressing experience for Love to take the first steps in his journey.
During the second half of a game on Nov. 5 against Atlanta, Love’s career took an unexpected turn and it may have saved him. He suffered a panic attack so severe that Love said he felt like he was dying. He felt trapped, gasped for air and with his heart and mind racing uncontrollably, Love frantically scrambled from room to room deep inside Quicken Loans Arena before finally collapsing on the locker room floor.
He was taken to the Cleveland Clinic for tests. Love already had a sense of what was wrong.
He had struggled since childhood with depression and mood swings, which he said was passed down through generations in his family. As a teenager, he would often descend into “my dark place” for weeks and experienced fits of rage.
“I was angry and would break stuff,” Love said. “I would never hurt anyone, but I would act out against authority and rebel. I didn’t know why I felt that way.”
He subsequently sought counseling. But after another panic episode, Love felt compelled to go public after some teammates questioned why he left another game early. Love began his personal admission with a powerful essay for the Players’ Tribune entitled “Everyone Is Going Through Something.”
“In the immediate aftermath of Nov. 5, I didn’t want anyone to know. I still don’t know how I came out and played 48 hours later. I wanted to hide. I was so afraid that people were going to find out what had happened. All those events that then followed allowed me to get to a point where I was like, ‘OK, now it’s time for me to tell my story’ and I wanted to tell it in my own words.”
Love remains overwhelmed at the outpouring since revealing his struggles. He and All-Star DeMar DeRozan are the most noteworthy players to express their issues, but Love said barely a day goes by that he’s not approached by someone inspired by him.
“I can’t tell you how many guys around the league have come up to me and said, ‘How did you get there?’ or ‘How did you get out of it?’ And I’ve had people ask, ‘Hey, can you help me?’
“Not just becoming a sounding board but a way to help them,” he said. “It’s become just a great community, not just in the NBA but everywhere I go.”