Walking away: Dooling on retirement, family and his Celtics friends

Walking away: Dooling on retirement, family and his Celtics friends
September 27, 2012, 4:30 pm
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Keyon Dooling could have continued playing in the NBA.

At 32 years old, he still has miles left in his legs and plenty of shots to hit. He could have entered his 13th season if he wanted to. But he doesn't anymore.

A wave of surprise hit the league last week when the Boston Celtics announced they had waived Dooling and he would be retiring from the game. But why? Why would a passionate player who loved basketball and, more importantly, the Celtics organization and his teammates hang it all up when he had the opportunity to play on a squad he believes will win it all this season?

Sometimes the biggest factors in an athletes life have nothing to do with the sport he or she plays. In this case, Dooling's decision to leave the NBA didn't have much to do with basketball at all.

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Laughter bounced off the beige walls of the Dooling household as his loved ones filled the rooms with warmth and happiness. On this particular late September evening, Dooling, his wife Natosha, daughters Deneal (11), Gabrielle (9), Jordan (5), son Keyon Jr. (2), cousin Kevin (17), brother Cedric Johnson, and god brother Harry Turner had gathered together. These were the people who, over the last 12 years, Dooling had left every few days for a road series. These were the people who had shared his attention with the demanding NBA schedule.

"The average career is four-and-a-half years and I tripled that almost," Dooling told CSNNE.com as he settled into a brown leather chair at the marble high top table in his dining room, his usual three-piece suit traded for a tailored button down shirt and jeans. "The grind of the NBA just has taken its toll on me, on my body. More so than that, my family -- I've missed birthdays, school conferences, dropping my kids off, school plays, school dances. I've missed just being daddy so much. I have enough. I have all the resources I need, I'm a blessed man. I'm not limping away; I was able to walk away."

Dooling, the 10th overall pick in the 2000 NBA Draft, contemplated retirement five years before actually leaving the game. Then a member of the Orlando Magic, he underwent tests that revealed a degenerative hip. At the time he was only 27, too young to stop. Besides, no one wanted him to either.

"I really wanted to retire as soon as I found out," Dooling explained. "But I played ball for everybody else, for my family, and I still loved to play. I was still willing to go through that grind. I've taken medicine, I've gotten shots, I've done a lot of things to be able to go out on that court, but I couldn't let my family down. They love to see me play ball."

Dooling's career was never about himself. That's not the way he lives his life. The needs of others have always come first, whether it is a close family member, a teammate, or a distant friend of someone knows.

His willingness to help those around him made him one of the most accessible players in the NBA. From All-Stars like Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo to players including Trevor Ariza, Courtney Lee, and Jameer Nelson who met him early in their careers, Dooling, the First Vice President of the NBA Players Association, has spent personal time with countless athletes around the league, listening to their stories, offering advice, and providing a shoulder to lean on and a place to turn.

He also extended the same generosity and commitment to every community he played in (Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, New Jersey, and Orlando). Dooling felt his community outreach and desire to help always went unnoticed in the NBA, yet he continued to give back without the recognition other players receive for their charitable deeds.

Who was Dooling leaning on? For over 30 years, he took on everyone elses problems and internalized his own. The pillar of resiliency had cracks, too. He was just too strong to notice them as he focused on his career and the needs of others. But after re-signing with the Celtics in July and beginning preparations for another season, Dooling realized he didnt want to play any longer.

"I was talking about it with my wife and with my pastors and all the people that are in my life, and nobody wanted me to retire. Nobody wanted me to retire," he said. "It took literally a meltdown for everybody to see how serious I was about not playing ball anymore. For so long I've always denied myself and what I feel for others, in particular my family of origin and my wife and my children and my friends who I really trust.

"It just got to the point where it was like, they don't know how much pain I'm in. They don't know how lonely the road can be. They don't know the stuff that comes along with being an NBA player. They don't know how many people call my phone begging for money every day. They don't know how many people call me asking for advice. They don't know how many people rely on me to be happy when they're down. They don't understand the grind that mentally I have to go through to be this man I am every day.

"I just gave out too much and I wasn't getting enough back. Nobody ever really, with the exception of the Celtics organization, nobody ever truly appreciated me until this year."

Years of repressed emotions came rushing back during this realization. Moments Dooling had blocked out hit him like a tidal wave crashing ashore. Too much. It was just too much. He had a meltdown. Dooling was hospitalized this summer and received professional help.

"It just all came to a head," he said. "To be honest with you, I blocked a lot of things out of my life. I'm a man who's been abused, sexually, emotionally, mentally. I've been abused in my life, and there's so many guys around the NBA who have been abused and I know it because I've been their therapist. I didn't even have the courage because I blocked it out so much that I couldn't even share that."

Dooling says his strong mindedness allows him to block out pain, hurt, and anything else he doesnt want to feel. But at 32, he unearthed the memories he had buried deep inside and faced them head on. Dooling had been abused by both strangers and those he knew as a child. He refuses to harbor hate for those who have hurt him.

Instead, he wants to share his story as a way to help others in similar situations cope. Dooling once had a fear of being judged for his past. Now he believes there are many players in the league who could benefit from it to build a stronger future for themselves.

"I used to think I had fear and anxiety, but I had the wrong concept of that," he said. "It wasn't fear and anxiety. It was actually power if you would embrace it. (Voice drops) I just couldn't embrace it at that time. I just wish I had the courage to talk about my abuses, and I'm not putting anybody out there because that's neither here nor there. I was abused by some random people and some familiar people and it happened not frequently, but it happened. One time is too many. I just wish I had the courage because so many of our guys have been abused."

Dooling knew this was the right time to walk away from the game and contacted Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge and head coach Doc Rivers. He loved playing for the Cs and had turned down more money from other clubs to re-sign with them this summer.

"I had to come back for Rondo, Kevin, and Doc," he said.

The expressive Dooling had developed a close relationship with the two most enigmatic players on the Celtics. He sat next to Rajon Rondo in the locker room and shared many talks away from the court. Over the course of the season, he saw a side of the 26-year-old point guard few are familiar with.

"I see the leader that he is, that he's becoming," said Dooling. "I see the way he treats his teammates. Our guys spend so much time at the Rondo family home. His wonderful wife cooks meals for us and the ladies, they vibe, and were downstairs with the fellas playing cards, talking trash, watching sports. Rondo's wife found this place for us. Rondo and I met each other in Toronto to go see Drake along with Kevin Garnett.

"Rondo is my friend. I want my son to play ball like Rondo but shoot like me. That's my brother. It pisses me off to see the way the media treats him because hes strong. They're scared of strength and he's honest. It's okay to be strong. What's wrong with that man being strong? He's earned his right. He's come from nothing, he's come from nothing. He's the second-best player in the league. He didn't make the USA Team, sometimes hes a replacement for the All-Star Game. He's the epitome of an unselfish player. He rebounds the basketball, he affects the game in five statistical categories. He shoots a higher percentage than all the point guards and they always talk about how he can't shoot."

Dooling continued, "Not only do I think he's the second-best player in the NBA behind Kevin Durant, but I think he is an amazing leader. I think he doesn't get a fair shake in the media and I wish they knew my friend the way I did."

Dooling got to know Garnett during the NBA lockout last summer. He, like most players, was not a fan of Garnett on the opposing team. A meal in the basement of a restaurant changed everything. By the time he was traded to the Celtics that winter, Dooling was reuniting with a new friend.

"I'm probably the only guy that can be a hundred percent transparent with Kevin and him respect it," said Dooling. "I love him. He's a brother to me. I hated him before I got here. During the lockout we went to Philippe's and we ate in the basement and we just talked and wow. I was like, 'I didn't realize how much alike we are.' Me and Kevin are just alike in so many ways.

"He's a true intellect and he knows everything. We just get along so well and I'm so honest with him and I give him a different perspective. He gave me the last little lesson that I needed about toughness and being firm and how to empower people. Kevin Garnett is a genius. He is literally a genius. He knows everything. He stays up all night researching everything. The commitment that he has to the game of basketball is ridiculous.

"He's probably the best player of this time, of this generation. If you look at the way all the bigs play, they don't mimic Tim Duncan. They mimic Kevin Garnett. If Kevin was coached by Doc (Rivers) a long time ago and if Kevin played with five other All Stars and all these great players in this great system, I'm sure he would have the same amount -- see our game is a little bit weird. The best players don't always win, and Kevin Garnett at the end of the day is probably the -- if you don't want to call him the best of this generation, you can definitely call him the most influential just because Kobe (Bryant) was like Mike (Michael Jordan). Derrick Rose and all these guys, it was other people who came before them like that. And when Kevin came into the league, he was different from Bob McAdoo, he was different from all those players who fit that mold.

"The Darius Miles and all these young kids who come up, the Anthony Davises, all these kids are more Kevin Garnett than anybody else. They mimic Kevin Garnett more than anybody else. Kevin Garnett has motivated more players to get better than any other player in our time because of the way he approaches the game and how he talks to them. But he's not doing it to belittle them, he's doing it to drive himself. Kevin is awesome. I love that guy to death. I feel that way about a lot of our guys but those two guys in particular, I wanted to be there for them."

Dooling will still be involved with the Celtics this season. He plans to keep his home in the Boston area and has been invited by Rivers to travel with the team to road games. Dooling would like to do community service in the cities the Celtics play in through his charity, the Gametyme Foundation.

He also intends to keep his position with the NBA Players Association through the All-Star Break in February. He cites his relationships with the players in the league and NBPA executive director Billy Hunter as reasons to stay on the board for the first half of the season.

"The guys don't want me to quit," said Dooling. "I've got to be there right now for Mr. Hunter and I'll probably step away after All-Star Break because Mr. Hunter is an amazing man. He's an amazing man and he's a stand-up guy. It's a shame what happened between him and (NBPA President) Derek (Fisher) because both of them have been my role models. It's a shame because I know how much they used to love each other."

He continued, "I just really want some unity. I want them to embrace Mr. Hunter for what he has done, really what he has done for our players, and how he has protected us. Any player who wants to take advantage of the Union, I challenge them to go and tap into all the resources. You have free audits, you've got supplemental health care, you've got 401Ks. More people have made more money under Mr. Hunter than any other time. If we would have stayed together, we probably could have fought a little harder. But it's okay. I think the NBA and the owners were more together than us, and that's why we lost to a worthy opponent. I don't want to say lost because everybody wins, but I just don't like where our union is with Derek and Billy in the middle of that because they're both amazing guys."

Once his tenure comes to an end, Dooling would like to see new faces step up and join. He mentioned Garnett, Rondo, and Philadelphia 76ers center Spencer Hawes by name as players he feels are qualified to serve on the executive board, with Garnett as president and Rondo as first vice president.

"I think we need men of integrity, honesty, well thought out men, men who aren't controlled by their agents," he said. "There are some great guys out there."

As for the next step in his career, Dooling is considering his options as he enjoys the beginning of his retirement. One NBA organization alone offered him four job positions, including front office, player development, and scouting. He had to put them on hold for consideration. Dooling would ideally like to take on a role that allows him stay with his family, which is why he has no interest in coaching.

"I don't have any ambition to coach," he said. "I would have to be away from my family too much and that's the big reason I retired."

Dooling is also involved in several business ventures, including his role as a distributor for Ritter Dental, a dental company, and Livingston Lures, which manufacturers fishing lures. He and Natosha also run the sports lifestyle website Sportsality.

First and foremost, though, is his role as a family man. Dooling is enjoying taking his children to school and helping his wife around the house. After years juggling life away on the road, he is ready to be home.

"I have to be a better husband and I have to be a better father to my kids," he said. "I have to cut off all my friends out there and just be their friend, not their provider. Not only financially, emotionally. That's where I was drained."

The father of four encourages other players to focus on their families first, then basketball and charity. As he begins the next phase of his life with his family, he thinks back to how his parents, Brenda and the late Leroy Junior, raised him in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"My dad always told me I was the best in the world," said Dooling, batting back the tears from his eyes. "He always told me how great I was and how I could do everything. He always told me I was a president, he always told me I was the best basketball player, he just loved me for who I was. He would be proud of the man that I am, of the father that I am, the husband that I am. The basketball career he'd probably be like, 'They held you back,' because he always would say that. You can't see it, but I see it.

"Both of my parents were amazing. My siblings, my big brothers were amazing to me. I think God for my family of origin, and when I made it to the NBA it was a great moment because I was able to change their life to give them a better life. But now as I close my NBA chapter, its like a new chapter for me with my family, my wife, and my children and they're the primary focus. Now it's time for me and my family to grow together organically."

After 12 years and 721 games in the NBA, Dooling now has the opportunity to make that happen.