Brian Grant is an unmistakable presence. Yes, he’s tall (6 feet, 9 inches), has thick, unapologetic dreadlocks and a dreamy smile. He also has a reputation for being a hard worker — on Midwest farms as a kid, in college at Xavier, on the court as an NBA star, in the community as a philanthropist (in 1999 he was awarded the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award by the NBA). Brian is the proud father of six children, ages 8–17, four boys and two girls.
Over the span of three years, from 2006–2009, he retired from the NBA, the only career he’d ever known, got the early-onset Parkinson’s diagnosis and went through a divorce from the mother of his children. Any one of these circumstances would have a tremendous impact on one’s identity and sense of self. Brian struggled with how to redirect his life onto new pathways and credits his faith and family for how he ultimately chose to remain optimistic.
Today, Brian spends his time and energy taking care of his kids and himself, bolstering the strength of the Brian Grant Foundation and advocating for others with Parkinson’s. His foundation is in full force to increase education and awareness of Parkinson’s disease, support caregivers and create an all-accessible portal for those impacted by Parkinson’s. In July, the Brian Grant Foundation will host its annual two-day fundraiser, Shake It Till We Make It, which includes a celebrity dinner gala and golf tournament. The event will raise money for more support, research and resources for Parkinson’s. Portland Family had the wonderful opportunity to be welcomed into Brian’s relatively modest home to talk about life, fatherhood, faith and Parkinson’s.
J: You just dropped your son off at school. How involved are you in the day-to-day lives of your kids?
B: I 50/50 co-parent with my ex-wife. When she’s in town, even if it’s her week, I’ll still help with transporting kids from school to dance, to basketball, to rugby. It works out pretty well. We are also fortunate to have our long-time nanny, Miriam. She usually takes care of the girls, making sure they’re back and forth to dance and then we handle the boys.
J: Seems like kids today always have somewhere to go. Did you have a lot of afterschool activities when you were a kid?
B: There weren’t nearly as many activities. There was basketball, baseball, football. We didn’t have lacrosse, rugby or dance. I grew up in a small country town so getting to and from practice was usually walking by myself a quarter-mile somewhere.
J: Do you think parents today over-schedule kids with too many activities?
B: I think they can. Right now I’m struggling with that. My daughters are beautiful dancers; tap, ballet, hip-hop, jazz. But it’s too much. They go from Monday to Saturday after school and don’t get home till 8 o’clock every night. When do you say enough is enough? Do they have potential to be great dancers? Yes, they do. At the same time, I see one daughter starting to get a little burned out. She wants to try sports and other things but dance takes up all their time. I suppose you just have to look at each individual child and their attitude.
For the boys, I almost feel like there are not enough activities to help them find something they really like. My oldest boy, Armani, has taken up rugby. My other two boys are into basketball and my youngest is into basketball, football and lacrosse.
J: Do you see a change in the way kids engage in sports today from when you were a kid?
B: I think the older they get, the lazier they get. When they were younger they wanted to play baseball, football, basketball, and swim. I had to tell them ‘No, pick and choose.’ Now that they’re older, I gotta make them get into the activity. It’s just a different generation, too. We have Xbox and Wii. That alone is really keeping kids on the couch and at home. Then add cell phones, texting, messaging. When I was a kid, if I wanted to find somebody I called the house. If they weren’t there, I had to walk around town to find them.
J: Remember the phone’s busy signal?
B: Now it’s just a quick text message. ‘Where are you?’ ‘Have you seen this person?’ You can find anybody anywhere. That quick.
J: Kids are too plugged in. There’s constant technological stimulation, texting and kids with buried faces in phones. In fairness, adults are equally as guilty.
B: I’m not as buried as my kids are. I wish I could pick it up a little better just so I could monitor them but the Internet is crazy. As a kid I used to sit around and wonder what it would be like to go to Europe or Asia. Kids go there now with a touch of a button. They can be in London through a webcam. Their imaginations don’t work as much anymore. If they want it, they can find it. I used to have to use my imagination.
J: How do kids get the spark of imagination now? How do we get them excited about things when they’re used to having everything immediately at their disposal?
B: They’re definitely plugged in and it’s probably one of my complaints, but I can’t really get on the kids because it’s what’s available. If it had been available to me as a child I would have indulged just as much.
J: Do you think you’d be where you are today, though?
B: I don’t. I would have lost that spark of imagining all these things I wanted. I wouldn’t have wanted it as badly as I did back then, because I grew up poor, in the country, in a small Midwest town. I worked hard cutting tobacco, bailing hay, digging potatoes if I wanted money. Those other things, I could see them a little bit when I’d go into Cincinnati, but even Cincinnati was light years behind most other cities.
So when I had a little bit of opportunity it was like … putting bait in front of fish. I latched onto it and pushed myself through that door until the next opportunity popped up. Kids today, unless they’re super pushed in a sport or something, that opportunity comes and they are sidetracked with this and with that. There’s not that drive that we had as kids. Because we had that imagination; we had to imagine a lot of things.
J: You were one of the hardest-working players on the court. Does this ease of access or sense of entitlement translate into today’s athletes compared to when you played basketball?
B: The same thing probably would have been said about my athletic generation, that came in from the Birds, the Magics and the Jordans. We were given too much. Probably compared to them, we were. Guys in today’s class of sports figures seem to have an easier journey. But athletes do what’s in front of them. If the norm is hard work, everyone is going to work hard. When Magic, Bird and Jordan were playing, no one missed a jump shot or a layup because they worked at it everyday. A 15-footer was like … missing a layup. My generation came in and you could miss a few and still be ok so long as you dunked it and looked like Jordan. He had swagger. Some guys today look skilled but the fundamental skills that only come from hard work aren’t really there. You can see it in European guys that come over because they’re still taught hard-earned skills. Our players here, I don’t see it as much.
J: Do you enjoy watching games or is it a surreal experience to be on the outside watching?
B: I enjoy watching some games with players that I played against. I like seeing Kurt Thomas because I played against him for so many years, and Steve Nash. Derrick Rose, Lebron James, Dwyane Wade are exciting to watch so.
J: Fans have a huge fondness for the Trail Blazers. Win or lose, it’s the city’s team, especially teams from the past that included you.
B: I’d go back a little further and say Jerome Kersey, [Kevin] Duckworth, Cliff Robinson, Chris Dudley, Buck Williams. As a rookie getting on that plane, coming up to Portland and playing, I felt like a gladiator putting on my stuff to get slayed, but I was going to slay a few cats too. The fans really loved that team. That’s why most of those guys stayed here. The fan appreciation here is unlike any other in the entire league.
J: Are the people one of the reasons you stayed in Portland?
B: That, and I’m an outdoor person. I like to fish. It’s a great community to raise children. It’s a city but it’s more like a big town. I’ve been to all the major cities in this country and they all like to say that they have their own identity. Most cities don’t, but Portland truly does. It’s got its own cultures and subcultures.
J: Are you happy raising your kids here?
B: I am. It’s a safe environment. Every city has its positive and its negatives. Portland is no different, but the positives far outweigh the negatives.
J: Between your career and parenthood, how did you move between the two worlds?
B: You’re always traveling, on the road, in a vacuum of non-reality. You’re exposed to things that are not real to over 99.9 percent of the population. Everything else becomes a little different, including being a father. I was having children, then on to the next game. I was still growing up; trying to keep my job and place in the NBA. I didn’t appreciate being a father as much as I do now. There are days I look at pictures of when they were babies, and I get upset because I feel like I missed out on that total experience of being a father to these little infants … that are now young adults.
J: Did the early-onset Parkinson’s diagnosis affect your relationship with your kids and their relationship with you?
B: It brought us closer together. I never laid anything heavy on them like feeling sorry for myself but there was a ton of stuff going on that wasn’t just my diagnosis. The whole family dynamic was changing. I was getting a divorce. Then all of a sudden there was no more basketball. That life is over, too. I retired in 2006, 2007. Diagnosed in 2008. Divorced 2009. So it was a lot of change. I had to step up and be a different kind of father than I was used to being. I wasn’t a single parent because I was co-parenting with my former spouse but I had to be a different type of individual. Any one of those things could take someone down. Dealing with all three was rough. But my kids helped me get through it.
J: How did you find peace or hope?
B: My faith and knowing that I had to be there for someone other than myself, my kids.
J: Many draw strengths from their family during difficult times. Did you ever break down and wonder, “why me?”
B: I think everybody who has Parkinson’s does. We try to retrace steps and say ‘What part did I play in it?’ I definitely wondered ‘why me?’ and as I moved through it the answers that came were because maybe God feels I can handle it and I have a platform to help other people.
J: Parkinson’s impacts the whole family. Part of the work your foundation does is to help caregivers by educating them about things to be aware of, what to expect, including the potential physiological by-products of things like depression or sleep deprivation.
B: Managing those things and the positive things you can do with health and exercise can have a tremendous impact on the quality of lives of those with Parkinson’s.
J: Two others who have used their platforms well to talk about Parkinson’s are Michael J. Fox and Muhammad Ali.
B: Now THAT is a mighty platform. There isn’t a place on earth you go and people don’t know who Muhammad Ali is. He’s done a great job of bringing Parkinson’s to the forefront. Unfortunately he’s unable to communicate now, but does a good job with his wife Lonnie of getting the message out. As for Michael J. Fox, as much as Ali put the word out there, Michael J. Fox’s efforts in Congress really got people to notice and talk about funding research. Research is very important.
The other important thing is living with the disease today. You just can’t sit and wait on the cure. You still need to function and live. I’m 40 years old; the last thing I can do is sit on the couch and wait for the cure. I want to be a part of funding and finding the cure, I also want to know what it is I can do today to help myself and my family get through this time until the cure is found.
J: What are some of things you do?
B: One of the things the Brian Grant Foundation does is empower individuals to live unique and fulfilling lives. We focus on three areas. One is health and fitness and the effects it has on Parkinson’s patients, caregivers and families. Another is helping patients manage their relationships — which is a big thing; caregiver-to-patient, patient-to-doctor, doctor-to-caregiver. Since there is no set way, hearing how one maneuvers through these relationships from someone who’s already gone through it can help. The third area is managing your healthcare; this means the doctor, family practitioner, neurologist, masseuse. This is your team and when you put that team together, those are the people who will see you through this for the rest of your life. So it’s important the way you put them together because everyone has a different opinion. You can have three neurologists who might agree on some things but disagree on others.
J: When you get a matrix of opinions do you ultimately follow your heart and what you think is best for your body?
B: You do. If I’m seeing two different neurologists, one doctor tells me one thing, the other doctor tells me another, I just weigh everything out. At the end of the day, you take information, process it and then make a decision. You never want to leave that decision up to your doctor or even a caregiver, but with a caregiver you want to be on the same page. They are the ones who will monitor you, because a lot of times you will be too messed up either from a new medication or the depression that might be hitting you, or an out of control system.
J: So would that be stated as trust or diligence?
B: It takes trust and diligence and on top of it some people don’t have caregivers. What do you do in that situation? We try to provide information for people who are in those situations and hopefully, right here locally, have seminars that are free and have patients come hear from a trained psychologist on how to deal with those situations.
J: Wave a magic wand, Brian, and you are able to utilize your foundation and realize your dream. What is that dream?
B: My realized dream is this: the next person that walks into a neurologist’s office, is examined and then told by the neurologist, ‘You have early-onset Parkinson’s’ or ‘You have Parkinson’s,’ and all those emotions and questions start flooding in, and they say ‘What do I do next, doc?’ My hope and dream is that that doctor says ‘Well, here are a couple of things you can start doing, but here is a place to go; the Brian Grant Foundation, briangrant.org. That’s a great place to start … ’ That’s my dream; that we will be that place where people start this journey.