Grant takes charge of Parkinson's battle
PORTLAND, Ore. -- With a huge black-and-white painting of Bob Marley peering over one shoulder and a half-dozen framed NBA jerseys visible over the other, Brian Grant took a deep breath, ignored his left hand shaking as if it were trying to put out a match, and let go of the secret that had tormented him for the last four months.
"I have young onset Parkinson's," he said.
That's Parkinson's, as in the disease that disrupts the brain's coordination and control of muscle movement and motor skills. A progressive disease for which the cause and the cure are unknown. A disease so rare for someone like Grant, 37, to contract that his case is identified as "young onset."
It is a disease rarer still for a man so adept at coordinating and controlling every ounce and inch of his 6-foot-9, 254-pound frame that he put together a 12-year NBA career by battling Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone and dozens of other bigger, stronger opponents.
Which makes this scene particularly surreal. Grant retired nearly three seasons ago but still has his trademark dreadlocks and goatee that complete the striking resemblance to Marley. His shoulders are still broad and massive, his calves still surprisingly marathoner-thin, his handshake still firm. In a short-sleeved polo shirt, khaki shorts and beach sandals, he looks like the typical NBA player in offseason attire in his game room. Outside the windows, friends and family are lounging in and around a pool with a waterfall and a slide. A barbecue grill is being primed. Across the glistening Willamette River is a chugging train and a dense hill of green forest.
Grant is not allowing his announcement to interrupt his day any more than, as of this moment, he is willing to let Parkinson's decide where he goes and who he sees. He sits in his game room, surrounded by ESPN's lights and cameras, explaining why he has ducked so many appearance offers and skipped his sons' basketball practices lately -- and why he won't any longer. As he does, the tremors noticeably diminish.
"My greatest fear," he said, "is losing control of me. Having someone have to take care of me. But that was at the beginning."
That was in January, after tests confirmed he had the disease, something he had suspected for a couple of months. He first noticed a recurring tremor in his left hand last summer while still living in Miami, where he played four seasons for the Heat. A neurologist attributed it to stress and expressed doubt that it was Parkinson's, a diagnosis Grant eagerly embraced. No one in his family had ever been afflicted, and he didn't know much more about it other than actor Michael J. Fox had it. That's all he wanted to know.
Besides, he was definitely stressed out. The bone-on-bone knee condition that ended his career kept him from working out. He was gaining weight and felt directionless. He'd never connected with people in Miami the way he had in the closer-knit, slower-paced city of Portland. So he moved his wife Gina and their four kids back last fall.
"Outside the Lines"
Watch Ric Bucher's report on Brian Grant's battle with Parkinson's disease on "Outside the Lines" at 9 a.m. ET Sunday on ESPN.
He felt instantly more connected. He helped coach his two sons' basketball teams. The Blazers and their cable telecast network reached out to him. But the tremors continued, so now the problem was, how to hide it?
"If I'm emotional for any reason, it's going to go," he said. "The sons and the boys on their team didn't really understand. So I'd start dribbling a ball or doing something to try to hide it."
Researching possible causes only increased his anxiety.
"It's a scary time because you don't know what to do," he said. "I found myself wondering, 'My feet are going to do what? My body is going to do what? I'm not going to be able to swallow?'"
Then the Blazers invited him to a Nov. 6 game against the Rockets to honor Kevin Duckworth, the Blazers center who had died of a heart attack at age 44 in late August. Grant wasn't going to miss it, even if he was filled with dread about being in front of a Rose Garden packed with fans and former teammates who had watched his every move for three seasons -- and knew a constantly jiggling left hand hadn't been one of them.
"I hadn't been in front of a crowd that big since I retired," he said. "I kept trying to think about how I could disguise my hand. And I knew the players were going to see it and wonder what was up. That's what bothered me the most. I did not want to be perceived by the players as weak."
He wore jeans, a white T-shirt, a button-down shirt over it and a dark blazer. It was a cold December day, but he sweated through all of it. Clutching his left hand with his right to keep it still only prompted other parts of his body to start twitching -- his head, his shoulders, his legs. He played it off as nervousness, admitting only to former teammate Jerome Kersey that it was a tremor and that he didn't know the cause.
He finally decided, though, to find out. He found a highly regarded neurologist, Dr. John Nutt, at the renowned Oregon Health and Sciences University. Nutt asked him to follow a program of exercise, stretching and an improved diet and then come back for another examination. That led to the January trip to Los Angeles for tests that conclusively determined he has Parkinson's.
After a week of coming to grips with his new reality, Grant went on the offensive. He called his agent and confided in former teammate Pat Burke, with whom he played during his last season in Phoenix. Since some studies suggest metals and minerals absorbed into the body are a potential culprit, he started eating only organic foods. He had the water at his house tested for levels of arsenic and other impurities. He changed his deodorant and his toothpaste and his soap. He reached out to both Michael J. Fox and Muhammad Ali, both of whom are well-known Parkinson's patients.
He also found a second physician, Dr. Daniel Newman, who combines traditional treatments with naturopathic and Oriental medicine. Now the game-room bar is Grant's laboratory, where he has been taking a precise concoction of vitamins, herbs, powders and cod-liver oil several times a day. The tremors, he says, have noticeably decreased. Nutt is the grounded realist and Newman the purveyor of new possibilities, but both agree that making Grant feel empowered is vital to sustaining his health as long as possible.
"Just me believing in a positive spirit will take me farther in the long run," Grant said.
His reclusiveness, though, was spurring wild rumors.
"I had people saying they'd heard I was debilitated, like in a wheelchair," he said. "I finally decided, 'I need to get in front of this.' Maybe there's somebody who is in their 20s and has young onset and is scared. We're all going through this together. I'm just stepping into it. But now I'm ready to step into it. This has given me a purpose."
Whatever doubts he might've still had were erased last week by three events -- an invitation from the Ali family to visit, a phone conversation with Fox and the cancer death of Wayman Tisdale, the man he succeeded as a rookie with the Sacramento Kings.
"Because I was coming in and he was leaving, it was always a good battle when we played after that," Grant said. "He was always encouraging back then. He had that smile and upbeat character until the end. When I got the message that he'd died, I looked at what he must've been going through and thought, 'What the hell do I have to get down about? Stand up, be a man and face this.'"
So he is -- first in front of a camera, now in the middle of his kitchen. He's teasing his mother-in-law, Kathleen, and a friend, Craig. Their combined effort to cook a turkey in a rotisserie on the counter has tendrils of white smoke seeping from the top of the machine. Gina, an international dance instructor, is in L.A. on a business trip. Outside, Grant's two daughters are splashing around in the pool. His two sons will arrive shortly from a lacrosse game. Grant says he had another nervous sweat going in front of the cameras, but neither his forehead nor his thin navy shirt show a hint of perspiration.
Instead, he's talking about how much Fox's insight has helped him.
"He told me you have to rule it, you can't let it rule you," Grant said. "There's no saying, 'If it's going this way, then I'm going this way.' It's going to be with you. But instead of letting it control you and take you under, you've got to say, 'OK, I know you're going with me but you're going to be back there.'"
There's a certainty in his voice, the same tone he often used talking about his plan to neutralize a bigger, stronger player. He pantomimes -- telling his disease where to go by thrusting his left thumb over his right shoulder. As he does, the left hand that rarely stops shaking is still.
Ric Bucher joined ESPN in January 1999 as a San Francisco-based senior writer covering professional basketball for ESPN The Magazine, and as an NBA reporter for "SportsCenter." Bucher also contributes to ESPN.com. Brian Grant is creating a Web site, www.briangrant.org, for people who might be afflicted with Parkinson's or who want to follow his battle with the disease.