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Ex-NBA Star Grant Battles Parkinson's

This story was written by Senior Writer Ken Berger

The afternoon sunlight lets itself into Brian Grant's living room, a welcome guest these days. Playoff football is on the flat-screen TV, the Jets against Grant's beloved Bengals. He reclines in a leather lounge chair, a remote control and iPhone at the ready, his left hand shaking ever so slightly -- but always, always shaking.

This is the rhythm of Grant's life. Thirteen-year-old Elijah, wearing a basketball jersey and his dad's long, elegant dreadlocks, is getting ready for a game. Another son, 11-year-old Jaydon, is taking care of the dog before heading to a game of his own. A daughter, 7-year-old Maliah, is at dance class, and 6-year-old Anaya is busy, too. This week will be a good one.

"I will pretty much be Mr. Mom," Grant said.

The house, in full view of the Cascade Mountains on a clear day like this, is bustling with the kind of weekend activity that envelops homes across America. Even inside, the Pacific Northwest air is fresh and soothing. Relaxation and contentment are interrupted by the occasional, damning Bengals turnover, and also by the tremors -- a skittish, unruly metronome that can't be controlled or predicted.

Other than twitching and fatigue in his left shoulder, Brian Grant feels no pain. His 6-foot-9, 250-pound frame still looks capable of setting up shop under an NBA basket, there to hold its own against bigger, more hulking bodies. Emptiness comes and goes without warning, an uninvited visitor called depression. Another disease, Parkinson's, is more persistent. It's here for good. The tremors begin when Grant opens his eyes every morning and don't subside until his dreadlocked head hits the pillow for a night of sweet, glorious sleep.

Thankfully, the part of the brain where Parkinson's lives shuts down when you dream.

"When you've got to go out and bang against Shaq or go out and play against a David Robinson or a Karl Malone, it's like you see your opponent in front of you," Grant said. "You know that your opponent is flesh and blood and you know that they've got weaknesses the same as anybody. And so there's sort of an encouragement to that. But with this, there's no beating it. This is something that is eventually going to catch up to you. It's either going to happen quickly, or it's going to take a long time. It's like being in a fight that you know you can't win."

The fight began about a year ago, when Grant stood in a doctor's office, peering out the window, and heard these words wash over him: "You've got young-onset Parkinson's ..."

He was 36 years old when he heard that sentence -- a sentence in every sense of the word.

Grant (at left, battling Kobe Bryant), now 37, played 12 years in the NBA, becoming a fan favorite for his signature locks, as well as the lock-down defense and sheer grit that earned him one of the richest contracts in league history to that point -- a seven-year, $86 million deal he signed with the Miami Heat in 2000. None of it ever changed him like this.

He started unraveling soon after knee problems forced him to retire from the NBA in 2006 at age 33. His world stopped, and he drifted into a deep, unforgiving darkness he couldn't explain -- or didn't want to. His wife, Gina, would come home from a day's work as a Latin dance instructor only to find her husband right where she'd left him that morning -- in the bedroom, eating cereal and watching TV with the blinds drawn.

"I knew something was wrong, because this wasn't normal," Grant said. "I knew I didn't miss it that much."

"It" was playing basketball, something Grant did with a rare combination of brute force, recklessness and delicate skill. A relentless bruiser out of Xavier, Grant had been advised time and again to skip the 1994 pre-draft camp, which in those days was held in Phoenix. Nothing to gain, everything to lose, they told him. But one person believed in Grant -- his agent, Mark Bartelstein.

Today, Bartelstein is one of the most influential agents in the NBA, with dozens of clients. But back then, he was staking his reputation on Grant attending that camp and shining. Before the ball went up, Grant sought out guard Khalid Reeves and told him: "I will beat everyone down the floor on every play. Get me the ball and I'll get both of us drafted." Grant dominated the competition and was picked eighth by Sacramento. Reeves went 12th to Miami.

Monty Williams, now patrolling the Blazers' sideline as Nate McMillan's lead assistant, was selected 24th by the Knicks in that draft -- which earned him nine years of colliding with Grant's cement-like screens.

"Being a wing player running off screens and chasing around the top scorers, I always had to run through guys like Brian," Williams said. "He was kind of a throwback for me, he and guys like Otis Thorpe, Mark Bryant and Charles Oakley. When he set screens, you'd feel it in your back. It just jarred your whole body. Coming back up the floor, you'd get a salty taste in your mouth and then you'd realize, 'That's blood.'"

To a pillar of strength like Grant, the word "depression" was synonymous with "weakness" -- until he was diagnosed with it. What he learned later almost knocked him over: Depression and Parkinson's often go hand-in-hand, a brutal double-team that converges on you like two Shaqs. According to medical journals, many Parkinson's patients experience depression because of reduced dopamine levels in the brain. There is disagreement over which comes first -- in other words, whether depression contributes to Parkinson's or is merely an early symptom of the disease.

"The thing about it is, I'm always on the edge," Grant said. "I can feel myself wanting to slip back into it. That doesn't happen to everybody, but I recognize it. Some mornings I get up and can just feel it, and you've just got to tell yourself, 'No, I'm going to get up and do what I have to do. I'm going to take my kids to school. I'm not going to think about any negative stuff that's going on. I'm going to think about what I can accomplish today and that's how it's going to be.'

"If you think about it too long, you just start sinking into the chair and you don't want to go anywhere," Grant said, his voice drifting off to a deep, dark place. "And you're like, 'Damn, I'm almost in it. I'm going to get out of here before I'm in it.' Because once you're in, dude? It's hard to get out."

A believer in naturopathic medicine, Grant manages his depression with an herbal remedy and counseling sessions. He takes a host of other vitamins and minerals geared toward, among other things, reducing an unusually elevated mercury count. Medical doctors aren't ready to make the connection, but Grant believes that his body's inability to process mercury -- which collects in fatty tissue like the part of the brain linked to Parkinson's -- contributed to his early onset of the disease. The majority of Parkinson's victims are in their 50s or 60s when the disease takes hold; some health providers estimate that 5 to 10 percent of victims are under age 40.

There's a laundry list of treatments, procedures and eventually prescription drugs that will be available to help Grant slow the progress and mask the effects of Parkinson's. But the answers he craves -- how fast the disease will progress, and how widespread its impact will be -- don't exist.

"This opponent has a face, but you don't know what it's going to do," Grant said. "You have no clue as to how it's going to attack you. At times, that can put fear into me."

Today, Grant has emerged from the darkness that flooded his life in the months and years after retiring from the NBA. Last May, he decided to go public with his condition, announcing his Parkinson's diagnosis to a national TV audience. Close friends, like Blazers head athletic trainer Jay Jensen and other members of the organization Grant played for from 1997-2000, already knew.

"If you didn't see the symptoms from the Parkinson's, you wouldn't even know it," Williams said. "He doesn't walk around with a sad look on his face. He's always smiling, always going out of his way to say, 'What's up?' to the guys. A lot of former players get standoffish because they think the younger guys don't know who they are. Brian's not like that. He's a cool cat. That's the only way you could put it."

Getting diagnosed with a debilitating neurological disease that afflicts other celebrities has meant that Grant doesn't have to walk alone. He has met actor Michael J. Fox and iconic boxing champ Muhammad Ali, both battling Parkinson's. In November, Grant joined Fox in New York for a fundraising gala benefiting the Michael J. Fox Foundation. He met Ali in Phoenix last year at the dedication of an expanded Muhammad Ali Parkinson's Center.

Grant proudly posted photos of himself and Ali on his Facebook page, but the event also provided a cruel preview of what the future may hold. Ali, 68, the greatest, most flamboyant champion in the history of American sports, needed two people to help him walk. A giant of sports, a semi-automatic self-promoter, Ali could no longer speak. Not a single word.

"It can be a scary feeling," Grant said. "And even worse, not knowing how it's going to affect me. Am I going to not be able to walk or talk? Am I going to be so drugged up that I'm not going to be able to do anything with my kids?"

Parkinson's steals your dignity, one sentence at a time, unless you do what Fox told Grant was the single most important factor in learning to live with the disease.

"Lose the vanity," Grant said. "People are going to look. Your tremor is going to be your tremor. It will be there, but you kind of have to lose it all and put it all out of your mind. Don't let Parkinson's rule you. You've got to rule Parkinson's as best you can."

We go for a ride in Grant's SUV, dropping Jaydon at basketball practice. The sun seems unusually low in the sky for the middle of the day, barely 2 p.m. local time in the mountains. He takes me for a ride around town, and it doesn't take long to understand why he moved here from South Beach a few years ago. Here it is quiet, and the clean air and simple life are good for a family. Mount Hood watches over us in the distance, an inspiring sight like none you've ever seen.

We drive past his old home, a pristine mansion that he still calls his dream house, not far from where he lives now. Gina lives there, and the realtor's sign gives away the obvious. First depression and Parkinson's, and now divorce has come to knock on Brian Grant's door.

"I think my marriage was a victim of a lot of things," Grant said. "Gina is a wonderful woman. It's not just from the time I retired. That played a big part of it, but it was stuff throughout my career with me. Everything just came to a head -- past and present, both sides. And for me, it just happened at the wrong time. We're friends, and we do everything that we can to help the kids."

He has two other sons, Amani and Jonavan, and the energy he used to pour into boxing out and rebounding now goes to something much more rewarding. There are people in the world who care a great deal about Brian Grant, and it has nothing at all to do with the millions he earned or the thousands of points he scored on the basketball court.

"My prayer is that he could have people around him who support him and will be there for him when he has bad days," Williams said. "Because when you go through something like that, your bad days are frequent. And a lot of the times, you're the only one who knows."

The bad days come and go. The good ones are filled with rides to and from school and basketball gyms. The great days? In some ways, the great days are still ahead. Grant is busy planning a fundraising gala and golf tournament in Portland for Aug. 1-2, hoping to get commitments from Ali's family and from Fox. Former teammates, rivals and coaches e-mailed and texted after he went public with Parkinson's and said, "If there's anything I can do ..." One at a time, they're getting called on those offers. With the playoffs and summer league over by then, Grant is hoping for a big NBA turnout at his event, the first meaningful step in this new life -- his life with Parkinson's.

"It's just like anything else," Grant said. "You've just got to keep battling until you can't battle anymore."

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