Kevin Love, A Growing Leader in Mental Health and Cavaliers’ Locker Room
CLEVELAND -- Kevin Love wasn’t much of a talker when the Minnesota Timberwolves traded him to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014.
“He was more of the guy that would kinda stay quiet and kinda feel more reserved,” says Tristan Thompson, who has played with Kevin since the All-Star forward arrived in Northeast Ohio.
“When I first got here, he was more quiet, close-minded to himself,” adds J.R. Smith, one of Kevin’s closest friends on the team.
Quiet. Reserved. Close-minded. To himself.
Each of these characteristics could’ve accurately described Kevin’s personality… until now.
Today, Kevin is a different person—a people person who is unafraid to speak up and prepared to be a true leader of something bigger than basketball. He’s spearheading a movement to end the stigma around mental health and lend a helping hand to everyone who has been struggling with it.
“It just has empowered me to not only help people, but to pay it forward to the next person,” Kevin says. “Because with this, with mental health, on that side of things more than anything, I feel like it’s universal in our social climate—not only here in America, but everywhere.”
Right before the season started, he announced the creation of the Kevin Love Fund on the Today show.
According to a press release by Excel Sports Management—Kevin’s representation—the mission of the foundation is “inspiring people to live their healthiest lives while providing the tools to achieve physical and emotional well-being.” It also aims to encourage people to seek outside help.
The Entertainment Industry Foundation manages the Kevin Love Fund, which has partnered with the online health company Headspace to help Kevin “create mindful experiences and mental training programs.” The Fund has also built relationships with other mental health programs, including Bring Change to Mind and the Just Keep Livin Foundation.
Last month, the athletic department at UCLA—Kevin’s alma mater—became the Fund’s first beneficiary. As part of their arrangement, the Fund provided annual subscriptions to Headspace’s meditation service to 700 student-athletes and 150 coaches in Westwood. Additionally, each team of Bruins will have an in-person session with Lindsay Shaffer, Headspace's Head of Sports and Fitness, to learn about the importance of mental training.
Though Kevin has been largely out of the spotlight since late October due to a foot injury, he’s found other ways to raise awareness around mental health. Shortly after he was sidelined, he launched his new web series, “Locker Room Talk,” in which he discusses the meaning of “positive masculinity" with the likes of Cavs teammate Channing Frye, NBA champion Paul Pierce and Olympian Michael Phelps.
Knowing exactly how those affected are suffering, Kevin admits that he’s become more empathetic. It doesn't matter where he goes—whether to his hometown of Portland, Oregon, his offseason spots in Los Angeles and New York City, or just about anywhere around the world—Kevin will cross paths with someone to whom he can relate.
“I’ve had people come and share their stories, and come up to me and just be really transparent about what they’re going through," Kevin says. "So for me, I felt it was very fast, but it was time to make an impact from and for that community, so here we are today.”
Kevin’s inspiration to create the Fund came from witnessing his father, Stan, and relatives on that side of his family face the unfortunate reality of anxiety and depression. He first took this part of his life head-on while addressing his own inner demons in his now-infamous piece, "Everyone Is Going Through Something" on The Players' Tribune this past March. Once he understood how much his words could change lives on a global level, he felt better about making himself vulnerable.
Former Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue couldn’t be more proud of Kevin’s decision to reveal his experiences—not only because it’s led to others doing the same, but also because Ty has fought his own battles with mental health.
“Just for an All-Star—a perennial All-Star—to open up to the fans, to the world about mental health, I think it’s been big,” Tyronn says. “As a professional athlete, you always want to be tough, the tough guy. But to break down or open up about mental illness for Kevin I think was a huge step.”
Ty adds, “I think Kevin opening up and being that vehicle to younger people, younger generations [are] seeing that, ‘Kevin Love? Oh my god. He experiences it.’ DeMar DeRozan—I think it takes a tough, powerful guy to do that. By them doing it, it just raises awareness and hopefully can help a lot of people in the future.”
Cavaliers guard Rodney Hood sees Kevin’s mental health drive pushing the NBA’s constituents, and other sports professionals to share their everyday hardships with the public.
“It helps a lot, especially for a guy to come out and be courageous,” Rodney says. “Especially in our field where it’s all about masculinity and not showing weakness. He did a lot for the game. He did a lot for a lot of players. You’ll see a lot more players coming out and we can all relate to it.
“We all got different stresses in our life outside of basketball and things we can lean on him for. And we can be open to talk about it now since he’s came out and expressed it, so that’s something that’s gonna be talked about for a lot of years.”
Kevin Love and his “Little Star” Kellen at the Cavs' annual “Big Shots and Little Stars” event for Flashes of Hope and the Children’s Tumor Foundation. (Jim Sommers)
In the four-plus years Tristan has spent with Kevin, the former has seen his frontcourt partner undergo a personal transformation. But for an athlete to champion an effort spreading the word about a personal subject like this? In Tristan's eyes, that's exceptionally courageous.
“People just think we just dribble the ball and put our socks on and just go hoop,” Tristan says. “But we have real-life issues just like any one of you guys here. We all have that and it gets tough.”
Kevin's campaign to promote mental health, while still fairly new, has already shaped him into a sharper leader. On the floor, he is now responsible for a roster in wine-and-gold trim, even when he’s not in uniform. He’s more open and willing to talk with teammates than in years past, and took it upon himself to carry on LeBron James’ late-summer mini-camp tradition by summoning them to the University of Miami in September.
Away from the game, Kevin is a now role model for a vast population that connects with him on a level beyond basketball.
Tyronn sees the correlation, but understands the grander stage of a real issue outweighs something as trivial as playing a sport.
“I think it’s a lot harder—I think as far as the mental illness and the mental awareness—because you’re speaking to a mass of people, where being a leader in the game (with) 15 people, that’s easy,” Tyronn says. “I think being a leader to a whole world about mental health is very tough. And to open up to share that, I think is very difficult.”
“That’s leadership right there on its own,” J.R. says. “If you could do that with the public, it makes it easier for him, and it makes it easier for us as followers to follow the leader because he can come out and speak about his own issues. If you can do that, then I think people will admire that.”
Considering the growing worldwide audience the mental health community has, somebody is always listening—which is precisely why Kevin is here. He is willing to hear out anyone at any time.
“Knowing that this thing has legs, we're gonna be able to help so many people with this,” he says. “And this thing is universal. This is worldwide.”
Kevin with his “Little Star” Kellen at the event. (John Saraya)
When Kevin was a child, he knew there was something different about himself, but didn't understand what it was or why he felt the way he did. So as a 30-year-old braving the part of his life that has troubled him the most, he is making a point to reach out however he can.
“Don’t be afraid to speak,” Kevin advises. “It might not be us. It might not be a family member. It might not be a parent. It could be a cousin, uncle, brother, friend, counselor, teacher—anybody that you look up to, that you know, that you can bounce ideas off of and bounce how you’re feeling off of.”
Going from a young group with few expectations in Minnesota to a demanding, LeBron James-led squad, it took a while for Kevin to get comfortable with the pressure of competing for a championship every single season.
Lessons from LeBron, Channing and Richard Jefferson over the years fast-tracked the process. Whether it was a planned team dinner, a wine tasting or even just watching sports together, Kevin began to understand the importance of building relationships and camaraderie.
“I had to learn how to follow, and now I have to keep taking the steps in order to lead this team,” Kevin says. “I think in a lot of ways—not saying that I'm gonna have to grow up—but I'm gonna have to take the next step in my evolution as far as leadership goes.”
Kevin visits his Athletic Performance Center at UCLA (to which he donated) during the 2018 All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles. (Jared Zwerling)
“Since I first met Kev ‘til now, he’s taken so much steps forward in terms of just being more in the forefront,” Tristan says. “[In the] last couple of years he’s kind of found himself in terms of just being able to speak up, voice his ideas, be more at the forefront.”
“Now he's one of the biggest people persons I know,” J.R. reaffirms.
Mature. Open. People person. A leader.
“If you asked Kevin if he would come out and say that four years ago, there’d be no way in hell he would come out and say those kind of things,” Tristan says. “But he’s grown so much as a man that he’s able to just stand in front and say, ‘Hey, this is what’s going on and this is the reality.’”
That’s how you can describe this version of Kevin Love—and everyone, including himself, is better for it.
Spencer Davies is a veteran NBA writer based in Cleveland. Follow him on Twitter.