Former New York Knicks lottery pick Michael Sweetney suffered from a depression so deep that he attempted suicide during his rookie year with the team. Sweetney, who lost his father just weeks after the standout Georgetown product was selected No. 9 in the 2003 NBA draft, was dealt from New York two years later, and wrapped up his NBA career in 2007.
Sweetney previously discussed the depths of his illness in great detail in 2015, and he recently revealed his suicide attempt in a discussion with Alex Kennedy at HoopsHype:
“I remember the night,” Sweetney told HoopsHype. “We were in Cleveland one night and I just took a bunch of pain pills, hoping it would take me out. But I woke up the next morning thinking, ‘Well, it didn’t work.’ That’s how bad it was.
“I didn’t like basketball and I just didn’t like life at the time. I went from being a star at Georgetown and having my father at every game, to losing him and not even playing in the NBA. I knew I wasn’t going to be given a chance as a rookie because my coach told me, ‘Hey, I’m not going to play you.’ I had a lot of things going on that were rough for me to handle.”
The 2003-04 Knicks played two games in Cleveland that year, against the Cavaliers and fellow 2003 draft-mate LeBron James. In the first, New York’s fourth game of the season, Sweetney played single-digit minutes for what would be the fourth time in 14 initial NBA contests, missing two of three shots and pulling in a rebound in six minutes.
Midway through the season, beleaguered general manager Scott Layden was dismissed in favor of new president Isiah Thomas, who quickly went to work on a team that didn’t seem to feature an identity. Thomas dealt prospects and picks for Stephon Marbury, while the coach who told Sweetney that he was “not going to play” him, Don Chaney, was cast aside in favor of Lenny Wilkens.
That move didn’t come before New York’s Jan. 6 game in Cleveland, one that saw Sweetney fail to get off the bench in a loss in favor of the similarly shaped (yet quicker to contribute) veteran teammate Othella Harrington.
The Knicks won by 20 in Wilkens’ first game, beating Seattle with Sweetney contributing six points and two rebounds in five minutes of mop-up work, lowest on the squad. Wilkens amped up the rookie’s playing time, though, and by season’s end Sweetney had averaged an OK-enough 4.3 points and 3.7 rebounds in only 12 minutes a contest. Following his second turn in New York, a disastrous year otherwise in Thomas’ first full season as boss, Sweetney had become one of the underdog darlings of the burgeoning NBA advanced statistical community.
That’s not enough to break an illness, though. Sweetney stayed silent throughout his battle, which lasted well past his playing years, due to the stigma that strangled the air in the early aughts:
“I had dug myself into a really deep depression and, at that point, I was really scared to tell anybody. At that time, you had a guy like Ron Artest and people would just say, ‘He’s crazy.’ In reality, he just had some issues that could be resolved. But people were quick to call him crazy and I was suffering from something similar, so I didn’t want to tell anyone.”
Sweetney discussed Metta World Peace, and the era, in an interview from spring with the New York Daily News’ Stefan Bondy:
“Everybody laughed at him and called him crazy. I was just like, ‘Wow, no.’ It was huge that he had that help and somebody that got him through. He had a breakthrough with somebody,” Sweetney said. “People didn’t see it that way, they assumed he was crazy. I’m sure they don’t think that now, the stigma starting to be gone. But at that time, people laughed at him.”
“Even after I tried to commit suicide, nobody really knew. I was suffering really bad. I was in New York, battling this while the media was writing articles about me, and I felt like I had nowhere to go. I just kept digging myself into a deeper hole of depression.”
The early part of the 2000s hardly acted as a stone age, in its attempts to understand mental illness, but for some it certainly was a bad time to be caught sick. With two wars raging and the U.S. economy working through its first significant teeter in a generation, a tale of darkness from a newly knighted New York Knick wasn’t one that scanned well given the ignorance of the time, no matter how relatable.
Here is how Sweetney characterized his too-brief NBA stint, in 2015:
“I don’t think I was honest back then, but I’m now open to be able to say everything that happened was my fault and I own up to it,’’ the 6-foot-8 Sweetney said. “I was in a bad depression, didn’t eat right or work out enough and I ate myself out of the league. I’ve just owned up recently to the problems of depression. I think I was in depression mode for years and I didn’t get proper help. I was in denial.’’
This is what mental illness will do to a patient, in making the sufferer feel somehow at fault for not reaching out through his or her sickness for the treatment sooner, when it was the too-slow movement to educate that failed people like Mike Sweetney.
This was 2003. It may have been 2004. Was Sweetney stubborn in his mid-to-late 20s, and did he self-medicate with food? Surely, in ways you’ve likely excused members of your family (or ourselves) for ignoring their obvious issues with solvable physical health maladies, and preferred coping choices.
If we would have lost Michael Sweetney in the winter of 2003-04, the follow-up the next day would make mention of his father’s passing, prior to a series of quotes from friends and teammates detailing how cheery the 21-year-old rookie was. The next day’s papers and websites probably would have mentioned his limited play on the season, or potentially the DNP-CD Sweetney took in during the second Cleveland game. Things would have been left there by most outlets, a satisfaction typical of the era.
Depression and illness doesn’t drive people to end things after and because of DNP-CDs in Cleveland, as much as it drives people to end a life soon after parenthood hits or minutes after saluting a sold-out theater from a role at the front of the stage. There’s never a direct line to untangle. For as much as Michael Sweetney has gotten it together – he’s lost significant weight, he’ll be a part of this summer’s BIG3 league, his social media feeds are unashamedly replete with pleas to recognize suicide prevention outlets as a societal necessity – he probably won’t ever know in full what made him the way he was and is.
Facing retirement age at 27 couldn’t have helped:
“I left the NBA in 2007, so around 2008 is when things got really bad and my wife told me that I really needed to get some help. It was to the point that I had moved out of my house, left my family and I was sleeping in parks or cars,” Sweetney said. “I felt like a failure. I just didn’t want to be around anybody and I felt terrible.”
Now, full of clarity due to his ongoing recognition, he’s gone in the opposite direction in welcoming exposure, in support of something more lasting than message-board hate from 2007:
“I just really wanted to make my story into a positive. When I go talk to kids, I use my life as an example. I tell them, ‘Google my name. All you’re going to see is a bunch of fat jokes and bad stuff about me. You won’t find anything positive.’
“A lot of these kids get cyberbullied, so I try to use myself as an example to help them get through it. I tell them what I went through, show them articles that were written about me and make it clear that everything is going to be okay – even if they don’t understand or believe that right now.”
Belief in something, as yet unidentified, better to come. It’s something that Michael Sweetney needed, staring down that heap of little pills, back during the winter of 2003-04. He was lucky to get out alive, around to remind us that stigmas can’t be trusted to dissipate into a nasty memory – they have to get the hell out of Dodge.
In basketball news, a slimmer Michael Sweetney should dominate at times in the BIG3 league, as he works in a setting familiar to a one-time low post master with a feathery touch. It’s going to be cool to see Sweetney banging away in the low post again. It’s going to be fun to have that around.
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