I played alongside Jordan. I’ve seen the pressure on athletes like Naomi Osaka

Sport

When I saw the news of Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open I thought of two people: my former teammate Michael Jordan and my 13-year-old daughter, Imani.

With all due respect to the greatest basketball player of all time, family comes first so I’ll deal with him later. So on to Imani. As much she has enjoyed me sticking up for my former teammate Kwame Brown’s struggles with the media, she thought it was just as important to defend Osaka.

Imani is a huge fan of Osaka and it’s easy to see why. Not only is she a brilliant player, she is also an advocate for social justice. I remember the pride Imani felt last summer when Osaka wore masks at last year’s US Open displaying the victims of police brutality, and encouraged people in Japan to join a march in support of Black Lives Matter.

Now, I could dive into the hypocrisy of the French Federation Tennis president Gilles Moretton fining Osaka for not taking questions from the media … then having the audacity to refuse to take questions from the media about why he fined her. I could discuss the irony of people wanting athletes to shut up and dribble, but then complaining when they do.

But it was Imani who saw the humanity in Osaka, who has spoken of her battles with depression and anxiety. Imani explained to me that Osaka uses techniques to deal with her anxiety such as wearing headphones before matches and listening to her pulse to calm herself down. She played me a video where Osaka, through a forced smile, told the media at a press conference that she was “so sad right now” and followed her words with a deep breath.

As Imani asked me: “Who in their right mind can’t tell that she is struggling with depression? Is it just that they don’t care?”

I told Imani that the hard truth: many times the media – and, indeed, the wider public – don’t care about what a player is going through, they just want the story. I still remember when I first realized this. I played alongside Jordan for two years with the Washington Wizards. As an NBA player, I was used to a certain level of game but the scrutiny Jordan was under was on a completely different level.

I remember when he was going through his divorce. One day, I came in early to get some treatment and saw MJ turned toward his locker, just sitting there, looking at nothing. He didn’t even hear me walk into the locker room. After practice, one reporter asked if a divorce was inevitable, and he cut them right off, telling them it was none of their business. I turned to our teammate Christian Laettner and said: “Why would they ask him that?” Laettner looked at me and said: “Because they don’t look at us as humans.”

It was tough enough for Jordan to deal with those questions at the time but he was in his late 30s, had been one of the most famous people on the planet for more than a decade and was not, as far as I am aware, dealing with any mental health issues. When we played, answering questions at press conferences was a dull, occasionally annoying, part of the job. But imagine dealing with those questions when, like Osaka, you’re 23, prone to depression and, as Japan’s most famous athlete, the face of the Tokyo Olympics. No wonder she wanted to step away.

If there is one positive from this situation it is that there is more awareness of mental health issues among athletes than when I played. A torn knee ligament or broken hand was understood. But depression or anxiety? No way.

It’s absurd for a person who has never dealt with any mental health issues to even comment on how someone like Osaka should conduct themselves. So I asked Chamique Holdsclaw, who played in the WNBA for 11 years and is now a mental health advocate and the subject of the documentary Mind/Game: The Unquiet Journey of Chamique Holdsclaw.

“I am so proud of Naomi for prioritizing her mental health on the world’s stage,” she told me. “As a mental health advocate who found the courage to speak out against the stigma and shame of mental illness after I retired, I admire her fortitude being one of the most notable athletes today, to advocate for self care and knowing that her mental and physical health are both incredibly important. No matter how the media portrays this situation or whether or not people agree with these outdated rules and regulations, she has made a powerful statement that will positively impact the next generation of athletes and young people about mental health.”

Hopefully what comes from this is a shift toward viewing athletes as humans and not robots or video game characters. It is great to see the outpouring of support Naomi Osaka is receiving from athletes such as Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, Serena Williams, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King and Laurie Hernandez.

But I’ll leave the final words to someone I know well: Imani Thomas of 13U Metro Volleyball East. She wrote: “Naomi Osaka is a very strong woman. By leaving the French Open, she taught women of all ages, all around the world that taking care of yourself is more important than anything.”