Overcoming Trauma in Your Story, I: The Basketball Story

People often ferret out trauma in ordinary life. Kemba Walker did the opposite.

Posted Sep 03, 2020

People notice the inherent happiness that Boston Celtic basketball player Kemba Walker radiates. The New York Times reports:

“He has a smile that lifts a room,” said Coach Brad Stevens, who bonded with Walker following a dinner at Stevens’s home soon after Walker was signed. After eating, the two retired into what Walker called a “man-cave, office-type of thing” and watched game tape. It was an appropriate introduction for two people for whom basketball is an all-encompassing endeavor.

Walker likes what he does, playing basketball on a team. He lives in the here and now.

Walker just wants to win a championship, preferably in Boston. He has no other goals, he said. He is not concerned with his legacy. There are no awards he wants to win. He is not thinking about the bigger picture, at least not out loud.

Of course, you can’t play professional basketball forever. Not even for most of your adulthood. Coaching jobs are rare, and take special skills, which a good player may or may not have (many coaches were mediocre players themselves). 

But Walker does have future plans.

“I don’t want to be a coach. If anything, I just want to be maybe behind the scenes. Developmental. I want to be around the young guys, the rookies — the second- and third-year players — and help them grow their game.”

That goal should be realizable for Walker. In the meantime, he doesn’t have to hog the spotlight:

“I’m going to have my nights where the fourth quarter is mine, but I am willing to have the nights where I am just spotting up or I am the decoy,” Walker said. “It makes life so much easier and it’s so fun.”

This doesn’t mean that Walker’s basketball life has been without bumps. Walker was drafted into the NBA by the Charlotte Hornets. He liked it there. But it didn’t last. Nonetheless, he adjusted, making a good life choice for him, the Celtics.

Danny Ainge, who is the head of basketball operations for the Celtics, said in a phone interview that Walker was “one of those people who chooses to be happy,” adding: “He has human emotions like we all do. He just rallies and comes back to his smile.”

What’s Walker’s secret?

So you might be wondering: Why is Kemba Walker always so happy? From his telling, it has to do with where he came from.

When Walker was a high school student living in the Soundview section of the Bronx, he would travel to his basketball games with his cousin. Walker, then about 14, and his cousin stepped out of Walker’s family’s apartment in the Sack-Wern Houses to go shoot hoops and encountered a woman sitting on the stairwell. She had a needle sticking out of her arm.

This kind of sight was not out of the ordinary growing up, Walker said. After growing up in what he called a “tough neighborhood” — where he would sometimes hear gunshots on the court — now he lives in Brookline, Mass., an affluent suburb that neighbors Boston. 

“What’s there to be down about?” Walker said. “I’m doing what I love. Getting paid. I’m in a great place.”

Social trauma

Walker might be considered to come from a socially, or cross-generationally, traumatic background. For many people, this setting extends beyond childhood. When trauma reaches into adulthood, it is obviously something other than an ACE (adverse childhood event). It becomes the person’s ongoing reality.  

The Walker formula for overcoming trauma

To boil down how Walker escaped both the trauma of his early environment and that environment itself, we may deduce a five-part approach on his part:

Purpose: Walker found something valuable to do that he liked doing.

Aptitude: He was good at basketball.

Application. He worked hard to become successful at it.

Collaboration. He knows he plays on a team.

Appreciation. He focuses on his positives.

How to deal with quarantine — the Walker approach

While we’re at it, we might turn to Walker for how to deal with the pandemic. He has had to undergo quarantine, like many/all of us have. How did Walker respond?

“I loved it,” Walker, 30, said. “It gave me a chance to slow down. As athletes, our lives move very fast. We don’t get much downtime or things of that nature until the summer.”

Walker’s version of “trauma” therapy

For many people, therapy has become a matter of ferreting out the trauma they’ve experienced in what appear to have been ordinary lives.

But this trend hasn’t made Americans happy, according to Jeffrey D. Sachs, Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. Sachs authored the concluding chapter of the 2019 World Happiness Report:Addiction and Unhappiness in America.”

Sachs concludes: 

As I noted in last year’s World Happiness Report (Sachs, 2018), the long-term rise in US income per person has been accompanied by several trends adverse to SWB [subjective well being, or happiness]: worsening health conditions for much of the population; declining social trust; and declining confidence in government. Whatever benefits in SWB might have accrued as the result of rising incomes seem to have been offset by these adverse trends. This year, I propose a common driver of many of America’s social maladies: a mass-addiction society.

The future doesn’t look bright (and this was before the pandemic).

Sachs continues:

Consider the article in this year’s report by Prof. Jean Twenge (2019) on the rapid rise of adolescent depression, suicidal ideation, and self-harm after 2010, and a marked decline in SWB.

And nothing about the isolation and exacerbated social inequality brought on by the pandemic will reverse this trend. Rather, in my work with Zach Rhoads, Outgrowing Addiction, we emphasize that isolation and inequality are the core constituents of what Sachs labels as our current addiction epidemic.

Our modern focus on trauma in therapy will certainly not reverse this trend.