Michael Sweetney

The summer of 2003 were the best and the worst of times for Michael Sweetney.  The Georgetown forward declared himself eligible for one of the greatest drafts in NBA history following his junior year and was selected ninth by the New York Knicks.

But Sweetney’s life was shaken by a real life crossover similar to what former Hoya guard Allen Iverson did to defenders.  Prior to the start of training camp Sweetney lost his father and the grief took over his life. It was an unexpected turn that would ultimately derail his career and he nearly committed suicide.

“That’s why my NBA career didn’t go the way I thought,” Sweetney said.  “I suffered in silence and didn’t get any help and it ended up costing me my career.”

The perfect storm converged on Sweetney as he tried to work through the grieving process and meet the expectations that came with being a top 10 draft pick.  This was the same draft that produced LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony who have eight NBA championships and 10 Olympic gold medals combined. He was also under the media scrutiny of the New York press that put Patrick Ewing size expectations on him to help restore credibility to the storied franchise.  When he didn’t deliver it only compounded his problems.

“I was considered a bust and that was the hardest thing to deal with next to losing my dad,” Sweetney said.  “It got to a point where I didn’t want to live anymore.”

He was insulated in his own world of depression and grief. He couldn’t push himself through the emotional anguish to prepare himself mentally and physically for the grind of the NBA.  So, he fell out of shape and was branded as lazy after two years.  He was traded to Chicago and the change of scenery did little to change his mindset. His weight ballooned to 320 pounds. He was a shell of the Georgetown all-American.  After two disappointing season with the Bulls his career was over.

In his day, the perception of mental illness was not as compassionate as compared to now. Players facing psychological issues were seen as being in violation of the proverbial “man code” that permeates professional sports locker rooms where the perception of being soft was associated with depression.  Sweetney openly admitted that he wasn’t honest especially with New York general manager Scott Layden who drafted him.

“Back then mental health was not a popular thing to talk about but now there are commercials advising people to get help,” Sweetney said.  “I was scared of teams thinking I was crazy or cutting me.  If you’re in the limelight as an NBA player it’s something you really don’t want to talk about.”

He said his basketball family helped him recover from attempting to overdose using pills. However, it was his girlfriend India – now his wife – who helped him push through his suicidal time and gave him the motivation to get help.

“She was the only person who knew what I was going through at the time,” he said.  “She was all alone trying to help but I was too far gone”.

Sweetney is now a spokesman for mental health through UMTTR – your life matters.  Founded after the 2013 suicide of Winston Churchill basketball player Evan Rosenstock, UMTTR strives to create compassion and awareness for the symptoms of depression and support to families of suicide victims. The basketball family will rally around him again June 8 for the first Michael Sweetney Celebrity Basketball game at the University of the District of Columbia as a fundraiser for UMTTR.