Vernon Maxwell, a name that reverberates with both NBA and Houston Rockets fans for his incredible skill, fierce competitive spirit, and clutch performances, is now championing a new game off the court: mental health advocacy. This past week, Maxwell hosted his first mental health symposium and golf tournament to headline athletes mental health.
Over the past few decades, the stigma of mental health in pro-sports has drastically changed in a very big way. Before the turn of the century, mental health was often looked at as something to keep under wraps and avoid talking about it at all costs.
This is what Maxwell had to go through during the 80s and 90s era of the NBA. Referred to as “Mad Max,” Maxwell was known for his fierce competition and often erratic nature on the court. Although this tenacity was integral to the Rockets’ first championship in 1994, the flipside dictated his slow NBA downfall the following season.
This past week, I got the chance to learn more about the highs and lows of his career as well as his important cause he’s pushing for the stigma of mental health.
A Man on a Mission
Maxwell’s mission has become increasingly vital in an era where mental health is often relegated to the background, especially in the world of sports. I had the privilege of sitting down with him at Texas Southern University to delve into this topic. The discussion was enlightening, revealing both the historical context and the promising future of mental health advocacy in sports.
In his post-basketball life, Maxwell has channeled his energy into a newly-formed mental health LLC. Its objectives are straightforward yet incredibly meaningful: to raise money, build awareness, and facilitate conversations about mental health. One of the innovative means he has chosen to achieve this is a golf tournament, which is something “he would love to do,” where the invitees are not just any players, but friends and foes from his NBA days.
A Long-Awaited Partnership
Among those names, the relationship with Metta World Peace stands out as especially poignant. “Me and him definitely have stories to tell and it’s going to be a really good thing,” says Maxwell, acknowledging that they’ve considered working together on this sensitive issue for many years. This relationship has materialized at a crucial time when conversations about mental health are breaking through societal stigmas and reaching public discourse.
Maxwell also explained more about the significance of his golf tournament:
“We wanted to create this golf tournament so we can bring more awareness to mental health and let people know it’s okay to talk about it. If you need some help it’s okay to get some help. It’s not a curse. If I had done it a long time ago I would’ve saved myself a hell of a lot more.”
Maxwell is also in full support of this cause for individuals outside of the sports world. Specifically, individuals who desperately need it, especially if they are going through a tough time.
Revisiting the Past: The Stigma That Was
When I brought up Kevin Love‘s impactful revelation about his own struggles with mental health that he shared a few years ago, Maxwell expressed unreserved admiration:
“It was needed, especially for the NBA landscape. It’s needed on that platform where he played. For being an NBA ballplayer like myself me, Mad Max, strong, tough guy…for me to even come out and say it…us guys, you know, macho guys..we don’t wanna come out and talk about things like that.”
The era that Maxwell played, most men in sports were told to “be macho” about their emotional and mental struggles. The unspoken rule was to sweep it under the rug, to hide behind a façade of physical prowess. Today, Maxwell vehemently opposes that archaic viewpoint. He firmly believes that anyone, athletes included, should have easy access to mental health support.
A Cautionary Tale: The 1995 Incident
During the interview, Maxwell was especially candid about his struggles with anger and frustration during his career. One of the most poignant episodes in Maxwell’s career was a 1995 event where he lost his cool and slapped a heckling fan during an away game against the Portland Trail Blazers. The fallout was severe: a fine of $300,000, a 10-game suspension, and a trade that brought in Clyde Drexler which inevitably diminished Maxwell’s role on the team, changing the trajectory of his career.
“It hurt me a lot in my life,” Maxwell admitted openly. But it’s this very personal experience, among others, that has fueled his current passion for advocating for mental health.
Despite facing such setbacks, Maxwell remained a fiercely competitive player known for his fighting spirit. When I questioned how he managed to sustain this competitiveness amidst his struggles and at a time when mental health was largely a taboo subject, he pointed to the locker room’s brotherhood as his sanctuary. While it offered emotional sustenance, Maxwell acknowledged that it couldn’t substitute for professional mental health care—a gap he hopes his advocacy will now fill.
A Glimpse into the Future: The NBA of Today
In the following segments, Maxwell shared his thoughts on how he would fare in today’s NBA, bringing a much a lighter tone to our conversation. Confidently, he stated he’d be a multi-time All-Star and a “$100 million man,” thanks to the current rules which he feels makes the game “so easy these days.” He half-joked about how he’d likely foul out frequently due to his natural tenacity on the court. His humor continued when he compared his shooting to that of two-time MVP Stephen Curry, albeit “without the handles.”
Words of Wisdom for the Next Generation
In today’s sports world, mental health is appreciated more than ever. The downside? There’s been more direct scrutiny on professional athletes, no thanks to social media. I asked Maxwell what advice he would give to a young professional athlete making his way to todays NBA. Maxwell answer indicated that he is keenly aware that today’s aspiring athletes face a different set of pressures, many magnified by fans on social media. His advice? Patience. “Take time to reflect on yourself and your life,” he advises. The journey to professional sports isn’t just about physical training; it’s also an emotional and mental marathon that needs attention.
A Rival’s Endorsement: Derek Harper Weighs In
I also spoke with his longtime friend and rival, Derek Harper. Harper, who spent the majority of his career on the Dallas Mavericks and New York Knicks in the 90s, played against Maxwell a number of times, especially against him in the 1994 NBA Finals. Harper offers a unique perspective on Maxwell’s mental health initiative. Not only does he wholeheartedly support the Mental Health Symposium Golf Tournament, but he also paints Maxwell as one of the “greatest competitors that’s ever played in the NBA.” Michael Jordan himself, Harper mentions, would vouch for Maxwell’s prowess and tenacity on the court, especially against him.
“Maxwell challenged Jordan as well as he’s ever been challenged on the court.”
Following their careers, Harper continued to maintain a long friendship with Maxwell, which still holds strong today.
“Maxwell is one of the guys that’s raw and real. You want to see Maxwell do well this represented mental health. I think we can all relate to that, unless you are un-human. It’s a great cause, a great guy (Maxwell) hosting, so that’s why I came from Dallas to Houston to support him.”
To this day, Harper also jokingly laments to Maxwell to give back his championship, a callback to the friendly competition between them during the 1994 NBA Finals.
Sharing similar answers to Maxwell, Harper believes that teamwork is all about a collective effort, and was the one thing ballplayers held onto, mainly because it was difficult to be publicly vulnerable .
In Conclusion: Changing Lives One Swing at a Time
Advocacy for mental health is indeed a team effort, transcending even the fiercest of court rivalries. Maxwell’s initiative is not merely another charity; it is a platform for profound change. It aims to break barriers and encourage dialogue in a field that has long avoided it. As society evolves in its understanding and acceptance of mental health issues, initiatives like Maxwell’s are not just timely but critically necessary. With the backing of fellow NBA players and close friends, Vernon Maxwell is not just revisiting history; he’s making it. And he’s setting an important precedent for the world of sports, one that could change lives, one swing, one conversation at a time.
Jeremy Gretzer is the Social Media Director and Editor for Back Sports Page. Along with receiving his MBA in Marketing, he has two years in sports marketing and journalism. Gretzer has interviewed various NBA figures such as Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy, along with former and current players such as Derek Harper, Vernon Maxwell, Trevor Ariza, Jarred Vanderbilt, Jabari Smith Jr. and Alperen Sengun. Gretzer has a podcast on YouTube called Cut The Nets which airs every Tuesday night along with his co-host Brian Ramos. For more on Jeremy, his Twitter is @Jr_Gretzer and Instagram (@J.r.gretzer).
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