The Quiet Genius

K.C. Masterpiece

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Keyon Dooling’s Secret

The 13-year NBA veteran on the sexual abuse he suffered as a child, the breakdown he endured after years of holding back the memories, and finding his calling as a public speaker and life coach.

It starts with the tapping. Staccato thumps on a knee or a table that let you know Keyon Dooling will soon disappear. Tap tap tap. He doesn’t mean to vanish into himself like this. Tap tap tap. Talking about this is healthy, he says. “Important.” He means it, but the stories that convey the most meaning also carry the most dread.

Right now it’s early July and he’s leaning forward on a couch in a suite high above Las Vegas. He’s hunching his shoulders and tapping a table and talking about things that make him hunch his shoulders and tap on tables. He has learned to deal with his triggers — “A lot of work,” he says — but they can still arise in the form of noises, photos, or even smells. And then there are the stories. Hundreds in his inbox, some vague and others graphic. Dozens whispered after meetings or before games. What happened to you, they say, happened to me too.

He wants to hear their stories. His NBA career over, Dooling is now a life coach. Absorbing others’ secrets is his job. But their stories are like his, and they force him to confront memories he spent decades trying to banish. So as he tells his story here, he taps and talks until his speech slows and he looks out the window. His eyes flatten. His voice goes soft. He’s gone.

After staring at the dead sky above the Vegas strip for a few seconds, he turns his head. “I’m good,” Dooling says. “I’m good. This is good.” Then he takes a deep breath and starts tapping and talking again.

The unraveling began on a summer night in a bathroom stall in Seattle.

It was September 2012. Months before, Dooling’s Celtics team had lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals to the Miami Heat, who were on their way to their first championship with LeBron James. Dooling had never been a star. He’d never averaged more than 10 points or 30 minutes per game and his salary never rose above $4 million per season. But 12 years after he’d been drafted, Dooling was still playing, still worthy of a spot on a contender’s bench. He was quick defensively and could create his own shot, able to back up either guard position for 15 to 20 minutes a night. But as capable as he was on the court, Dooling’s NBA longevity was due more to his demeanor in the locker room. “I was never an All-Star player,” he likes to say, “but I was an All-Star person.” He’d mentored young guards like Jameer Nelson and Rajon Rondo. He’d served as vice-president of the players’ union and captain of three teams.

Dooling had just re-signed with the Celtics for the veteran’s minimum, and here, days before the beginning of training camp, he’d come to the Seattle area for a charity event with teammate Avery Bradley, giving out household supplies in low-income neighborhoods in Bradley’s hometown of Tacoma. Throughout his career, Dooling had asked team staffers to keep him informed of opportunities for community work. It felt good to give back, but it also felt good to be onstage, to stand before a room, microphone in hand. Forget basketball  public speaking may have been Dooling’s greatest gift. He’d studied prominent preachers: Martin Luther King Jr., T.D. Jakes. He knew how to build tension and deliver jokes, how to pause at the perfect moment and leave the room eager to hear his next words.

The event went well. Dooling’s flight was the next day, so he made dinner reservations at his favorite downtown steakhouse. He ordered prime rib, then ate and laughed with teammates and friends. Finally, as the night wound down, he made a small choice that changed the course of his life. He decided to use the restroom.

He walked in. At the urinals, a man, tall and thick and white, was pissing  not just into one urinal, but all of them. He would start on one side, begin to pee, and walk down the line, letting his stream hit each bowl before he reached the end and turned back in the other direction. He was, Dooling surmised, quite drunk. Dooling did not like the thought of sharing space with a spewing drunkard, so he walked past the line of urinals and into an open stall. He left the door open. He unzipped his pants and began to pee.

A moment later, Dooling felt something. What the hell? He turned his head. There, right behind him, was the man who’d been pissing all over the urinals. Booze-breathed and giggling, the man looked Dooling in the eye. A glint of pubescent delight shone in the man’s doughy face. Dooling looked down. He’s touching me. The man’s hand was cupped around Dooling’s ass. He’s touching me.

In an instant, Dooling zipped his pants, buckled his belt, and turned. He reached his arms out wide and smacked his hands  clap!  inches in front of the man’s face. He’s touching me.

“Do you know,” Dooling said, “that I can kill you with my bare hands?”

Dooling wanted to intimidate. He touched me. He wanted the man to feel scared. He wanted him to walk out of the bathroom trembling, to leave the restaurant and never come back, to remember for years how a stranger in the bathroom had almost killed him right then and there. But as much as anything else, Dooling wanted to know the answer to one question. The question arose at this particular moment, but somewhere inside Dooling, some part of him had been waiting 25 years to ask it.

“What is it in me that you see,” Dooling said, “that you feel you can do this to me?”

The giggling stopped. “Dude,” Keyon remembers the man saying, “I’m just kidding. I do that with all my friends.”

“No!” Keyon shouted. “I’m not your fucking friend! Who do you think you are that you can treat me like that?” And again: “Do you know I can kill you right now with my bare hands?”

Keyon let the threat linger. Maybe if he weren’t an NBA player, he says now, he would have followed through. Maybe if he hadn’t just signed a contract, if he didn’t have four kids at home in Florida. In the moment, he says, there was just enough time to take inventory of everything at stake. Just enough time to pause, breathe, and walk away.

He returned to his table and struggled against his own rising anger. He ordered a glass of red wine. He touched me. Then he ordered chocolate soufflé. He wanted to let the moment pass, but seconds after he sat down, Keyon’s friends could tell something had changed. “What’s wrong?” they asked.

“Somebody grabbed my butt in the bathroom.”

“Nah,” said John Johnson, executive director of the Gametyme Foundation, which had sponsored the day’s event. “No way. That didn’t happen.”

Dooling shot back: “I’m for real.”

Now Dooling sat there and watched as their faces registered the extent of his rage. They were stunned, but not stunned enough. They were angry, but their anger didn’t match his. They didn’t get it, Keyon thought. It wasn’t just about this man. He touched me. It wasn’t just a random incident. It was a violation. It was an invasion of his body.

Dooling decided to go for a walk. “I don’t know what I’m feeling right now,” he said. “Let me get some fresh air.”

He walked outside. Seattle in the summer. Puget Sound in one direction, the Space Needle in another. This would make him relax. This would make him forget. But as soon as Dooling left the restaurant, he saw the man, right outside the door. The same guy  just sitting by himself on the curb.

Everything he’d told himself inside the restaurant now vanished: There’s too much at stake. Your family needs you. Think of the headlines. Don’t let your team down. Gone was Keyon the team captain, the doting father, the eager volunteer at damn near every charity event. Right now, Dooling’s world consisted of two essential truths: A man had touched him, and that man was sitting right there.

Dooling’s rage finally broke through. He walked to the man. He grabbed him by the throat. He can’t remember much of this now. The way he tells it, Dooling nearly blacked out. He remembers only that he had the man, that he could feel his windpipe inside his hand, that he could see the man’s fear and that this fear made Dooling feel safe. He remembers thinking, Nothing can stop me from killing this man.

But at that moment, a cab pulled up. Out jumped one of Dooling’s friends whose flight had been delayed. And a few feet away, two more of his friends were walking out of the restaurant. They pulled Dooling off the man and begged him to calm down.

“I gotta go,” Dooling told them, and he started walking to his hotel. Maybe, in the morning, he thought, it would all be OK.

Isaac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images

Isaac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images

In his hotel room, Dooling lay in bed and tried to sleep, but when he closed his eyes his mind kept flashing back to a summer day from his youth. He tried to clear his thoughts. He slowed his breathing. But the images kept coming back. It was a day he’d spent years trying to forget, a day he’d never discussed with another soul. But its memory had always been there, bubbling to the surface here and there, and now something in that bathroom stall had brought it back in force, consuming him as he lay in his bed.

It was summer. Rain was soaking his T-shirt. He was about 7.1 He wanted a soda, and so did his friend, so they walked toward the corner store until an apartment door opened and an older boy told them to come inside.

The older boy was about 14. Dooling knew him  he was friends with Dooling’s brother, Leroy Jr. So the two boys followed him into the apartment. The older boy put some music on and the three of them took turns freestyle rapping over the beats. Outside, the rain continued. Dooling didn’t even wonder if it was time to go home.

Then the big kid turned the music off and switched on the TV. On the screen, Dooling saw a man and woman having sex. He knew what it was. Dooling was young, but he had older brothers. He’d seen their magazines and VHS cassettes around the house. He didn’t enjoy porn, but he didn’t find it scary or bizarre. It was something for big kids, he thought. Maybe he’d understand it when he got older. The rain kept falling. The tape kept rolling. Dooling and his friend sat and watched.

Years later, when Keyon would finally allow himself to tell this story, he’d still have trouble saying what happened next. It gets easier with every telling, he would say. “It’s good to tell it,” he’d add. “It’s important.” He would tell his wife, sitting alone in a hospital bathroom. He would tell Doc Rivers, soon thereafter in that very same building. He would tell NBA friends, and he’d tell his children. He’d tell the whole country, doing interviews with Katie Couric and on ESPN. For some, he’d go into detail. For others, he’d hold back.

But that would happen years after Keyon left that apartment, after the big kid made Dooling and the other boy do things they knew even then they should not be made to do. That would happen after the scene that the three of them were all watching now, when the man in the movie ejaculated. It would happen after the big kid turned to Keyon and his friend and said to them, as if he had a secret to tell: “Know what? I can do that too.” He made them perform oral sex on him.

As soon as Dooling found the chance, he left the apartment. He walked outside. Maybe it was still raining. Maybe it wasn’t  all of these years later, that’s one detail Dooling can’t remember. But he remembers that he ran all the way home, and he remembers that he went inside and talked to no one. He went straight to the bathroom and got in the shower and let the water rinse him as he tried not to scream.

He decided that day: No one would ever do this to him again. He went to his father’s flower shop and he grabbed a knife. It had an orange handle and a long blade, and he wrapped it in tape and carried it with him  in his pocket or on his bike  always there for the next time someone tried to touch him the wrong way.

He wouldn’t tell anyone what happened. He couldn’t. What if his father tried to kill the kid? What if his friends all thought he was gay? These were the questions he told himself mattered. These were the reasons he used to hide in embarrassment and shame.

Now, when Dooling looks back on those years, he sees how he tried to cope with the trauma of his past. He sees himself in fourth grade, sneaking to his father’s liquor cabinet, pouring himself strong drinks and sipping them until the world was gone. He sees himself in middle school, smoking weed with friends, letting the drug ease the anxiety he’d felt since that afternoon. He sees himself at that same age, flirting with girls and then taking them home. The more girls he slept with, he thought, the more he proved that he was no longer that little boy.

Basketball helped. On the court, he could assert his dominance. With the ball in his hands, he never felt like a victim. He loved the power his talent gave him, the confidence that grew from knowing that almost every kid in his school and his neighborhood could only dream of doing what he could do on a hardwood floor. The first time he dunked  as a freshman, in a game  he felt invincible. As he grew older, the memory of that afternoon faded, but the coping strategies remained.

Back in Seattle, some hours after the incident in the bathroom stall triggered Dooling’s darkest memories, he fell asleep. The next morning, he got on a plane. Seattle to Los Angeles. Another event, another speech. This time the Gametyme Foundation was giving away food at the Salvation Army. Up onstage, in front of children and their grandparents, single mothers and gangbangers, once again Dooling delivered. Every word felt effortless and perfectly chosen. Every inflection carried its desired effect. Onstage he was soaring, carried by the crowd’s reactions.

But in the quiet of Dooling’s hotel room, the flashbacks returned. Not only of the abuse, but of other dark moments in Dooling’s life  the death of his father, his wife’s miscarriage, the gunshots he’d seen and heard as a teen. They invaded his thoughts, turned him paranoid. Every moment seemed filled with dread. He didn’t know how or why or when, but somehow, Dooling thought, soon he was going to die.

He tried to talk himself down. He told himself that his problems were spiritual, that he was being punished for his past sins. If he could get right with God, then he could make this all go away. Dooling had always considered himself a Christian, but as an adult, his devotion waned: He prayed less; he chose immediate pleasures even when he believed they were wrong. So now, alone in his hotel room, Dooling called out to God. He begged: for forgiveness, for relief, for anything that would restore his peace of mind and undo whatever that man in Seattle had done.

Three thousand miles away, Dooling’s wife, Natosha, sat at home in Fort Lauderdale and prayed too. She’d spoken to Dooling by phone, and in his voice she’d heard an unfamiliar panic. This was not Keyon, she thought. This was not her husband.

They’d bought their home, tucked within a gated community a few miles from the beach, just after Dooling had been drafted in 2000. Since then they’d moved all over the country: Milwaukee, Orlando, New Jersey. Some athletes live apart from their spouses during the season. Not Dooling. Everywhere he went, she and the children followed. Natosha had learned how to be a grown-up while Dooling was a rookie in Los Angeles. She’d given birth in California, New Jersey, and Florida. She could move with her eyes closed  pack and load and say good-bye all in a day or two. The life of an NBA family could be lonely, but it was the life they’d chosen. The joys and comforts far outweighed the strains.

Now summer was ending and it was time to leave Fort Lauderdale for Boston. Yet this season felt different. Dooling returned from Seattle and Los Angeles still slightly unhinged. His energy was there in spurts, but it often gave way to lethargy. “His spirit,” says Natosha, “had changed.” Maybe he just needed basketball, she thought. When Dooling got back to Boston, back to the team he’d been happiest to play for, perhaps then things would be better.

But Dooling did not want to go to Boston. He did not want to play basketball, not ever again. It was true  he’d loved the sport and it had changed his life in countless ways. Basketball had earned him a scholarship to Fort Lauderdale’s Cardinal Gibbons, the Catholic high school down by the beach, where he played with white kids who had cars and three-story homes. Basketball had given Dooling the opportunity to attend the University of Missouri, where he made second-team All–Big 12 in his sophomore year before declaring for the NBA draft. Basketball had given him that night, in June 2000, when he’d invited friends and family to a suite at the beachfront Marriott in Fort Lauderdale, where they all screamed as they watched David Stern call his name, 10th overall to the Magic. Basketball had given him 12 years as a globe-trotting millionaire. It gave his kids private-school educations. It gave him his house and many of his closest friends.

But it had taken, too. It had taken the cartilage from his hip, which had begun degenerating when Dooling was 27. It had taken his privacy and left him with burdens  strangers wanting pictures, relatives wanting money. Sometimes Dooling was happy to give, but other times the requests intruded on the most sacred moments, even at his father’s funeral. It had taken him away from Natosha and the kids, out on the road to face solitude and temptation. And it had taken him to Seattle. He wouldn’t have been on that trip if he weren’t an NBA player, right? In a way, basketball had taken him to that restaurant, to that bathroom stall.

So, no, Dooling didn’t want to play. He flew to Boston and went to the Celtics practice facility and told everyone who would listen that he was done. During a pre-camp workout, he called his teammates to center court. When they gathered around him, he looked in the eyes of a young guard who was serving as training camp filler, someone everyone knew would be cut before the final roster was announced. Keyon pointed at him. “I want you to have my spot,” he said.

Avery Bradley called John Johnson, his and Dooling’s friend who’d been with them in Seattle. “Have you talked to Keyon?” Bradley said. “Do you know what’s going on?” Johnson booked a flight to Boston to check on Dooling. When he arrived, Johnson found his friend paranoid and defiant. “Someone is following me,” Dooling told him. “Someone is coming after me and my kids.” No, no, Johnson said. There was no stalker, no danger. Dooling just needed to relax, pray, and try to clear his mind. Yet when Dooling’s paranoia subsided, mania took its place. Feeling delirious and invincible, Dooling walked into the middle of the street near his suburban Boston home and stood there, Johnson remembers, daring cars to hit him, positive he’d be protected from the pain.

Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images

Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images

The press release went out on September 20, 2012. “Keyon has decided that he has given the NBA 12 good years and that it’s time to pursue other interests and spend more time with his family,” Dooling’s agent, Kenge Stevenson, wrote in the statement. “He will never forget his time in Boston with the Celtics.”

Now, finally, Dooling felt he could begin to relax. Now he could live a normal life. Start a business, maybe. He liked the sound of that. And someday, down the line, he hoped to become an NBA head coach. For years, he had studied the men who coached him. He appreciated how Doc Rivers fostered chemistry by making sure his players knew they were loved. He admired Stan Van Gundy’s ability to solicit input from his team while still commanding its respect. When Dooling was playing with Milwaukee in 2011, he started making notes on his own coaching philosophy. Style of play: Up-tempo, unselfish, hard-nosed with organized freedom. His team would communicate and play smart and be full of energy and attitude, he decided. They would deny the first post entry and show on side pick-and-rolls.

Perhaps someday that vision would be realized, but in the meantime, the Celtics were offering him a next step in his career. He would stay with the franchise as a player development coach. He would continue to mentor Bradley and Rondo and the team’s other young guards. His family would remain in Boston, where the children had already begun school. And he would stay home when the team went on the road.

Dooling had already started planning his kids’ athletic development. His daughter Jordan looked like a tennis prodigy, and even though his son, K.J., was only 3, Dooling could already tell he’d inherited his father’s athleticism. He liked to put the kids through workouts  pushups and jumping jacks, followed by sprints around the neighborhood.

One afternoon, near the time he announced his retirement, Dooling took the kids outside. The day was cool, so they walked out to the street to catch some warmth from the sun, where they started slap boxing for fun. He crouched and put his hands up and he told his kids to do the same. They took turns lunging forward and smacking Dooling. He took some hits, parried some others, and also dodged and returned fire, tapping them upside the head when they were too slow to evade his strikes. Both Dooling and Natosha insist that the play fighting was harmless, like a dad wrestling with his kids on the living room floor. The kids laughed and squealed, and when they’d finished sparring, Dooling took them back inside.

A few minutes later, Dooling heard pounding on the door. He walked upstairs from the basement, confused. They weren’t expecting company. No one had ordered pizza. Besides, these weren’t typical knocks. These sounded emphatic  violent, even. As Keyon approached the door, he almost lost his cool. He shouted: “Who’s knocking on my door like it’s the goddamn police?!”

It was the police. Right there on his doorstep, large and uniformed and projecting authority. There were more officers in the street, their car lights flashing, waiting in case backup was needed. And now they were screaming, not at an intruder but at Dooling. “Get on the ground!” he remembers them shouting. “Get on the ground!”

He obeyed. He didn’t know why the police were in his home. They explained that they had gotten a call. A neighbor had seen Dooling outside and had called 911 to tell them he was hitting his children. Dooling felt that familiar panic, rising quickly now, and his heart ricocheted around his chest as he lay on the floor. The police demanded to ask the children what had happened. Only it was difficult to talk to the children, because now the children were crying, and it was difficult to ask Natosha to calm them down, because she was shouting over the officers at Dooling, trying to protect him.

“Don’t say nothing!” she screamed. “Don’t tell them nothing!”

Dooling had spent his life trying to avoid a moment like this. As a teenager, he never touched crack when neighbors started smoking it and friends started selling it. While many of his peers turned to gangs and drugs, Dooling stayed away from that life, focusing on basketball and school. He’d said yes, sir and no, sir whenever he spoke to police, and he made sure that there would be no excuse  not ever  for an officer to antagonize him the way they’d done to other kids in his neighborhood.

Until that moment, Dooling’s efforts had paid off. He had gone to college and made millions in the NBA. He’d become like any other successful suburban dad. Yet here he was, in his expensive home in his exclusive neighborhood, and for the first time in his life, Dooling was in handcuffs. And there was a man holding him down and restricting his space  touching him.

“Don’t tell them nothing!” Natosha said again. Her husband had done nothing wrong — she believed that. But she and Dooling had grown up learning that police were not to be trusted but feared. No matter what he told the officers, she believed, he could only do himself harm.

Only Keyon couldn’t stay quiet. The fears of the last few days returned, charging through him faster now, and as he lay on the ground he began to shout at the men holding him down. “You’re COPS!” he shouted. “Community Oriented Policing Services. You’re here to serve! You’re not here to hurt me! Why are you doing this?!”

Now his body rose and fell with every breath. The officers were asking questions and Natosha was shouting and his children were crying and he could hear some foreign sound, something high-pitched and piercing that had crawled through his ear and into his brain. An officer asked Dooling’s name, but he didn’t tell them. Not because Natosha had told him to keep quiet, but because in this moment, he truly didn’t know. He was blank. He didn’t know his name; he didn’t know where he was. Right now, he didn’t know why he had retired or what had happened in Seattle; he didn’t know about the memories that were wreaking havoc on his life. And he definitely didn’t know why these men had forced him to the ground.

All he knew was to ask for help. “Please,” he said to the officers. “Please take me to the hospital.”

The officers never booked him. After questioning the children, they realized it really had been a misunderstanding. They uncuffed Dooling, apologized, and took him to the hospital, as he’d asked. “Please,” Natosha said, “don’t take him in through the front door.” She didn’t want news of his breakdown to leak.

While Dooling spent the night in a psychiatric ward, Natosha stayed home with the kids. Rivers called to check on her. So did Danny Ainge. So did several Celtics players. She tried to convince them she was fine. Deep down, however, her fears were mounting. Since returning from Seattle, Dooling had not been himself  giving up the game and the teammates he loved, giving up a chance to make a seven-figure salary and further cement his family’s stability.

And now he was gone, locked away in the hospital. My life, she thought, is over.

While trying to eat that night, Natosha froze, unable to chew. She fell to the ground and cried. Deneal, her 11-year-old daughter, came into the room. She picked her mother up, and they held each other as they walked into the master bedroom. Deneal supported Natosha all the way to bed, and then she climbed under the covers with her. Deneal put a photograph of Dooling under her pillow and she lay next to her mom. Gabby, Jordan, and K.J. joined them. There, together, the five of them slept.

The next day Natosha visited Keyon at the hospital. She heard patients screaming as she walked down the halls. When she found Dooling, he looked cold, tired, and scared. They went into the bathroom for privacy. For the moment he seemed lucid. She saw a flicker of the man she loved.

Dooling and Natosha had met in high school. He took her to see Independence Day, and he draped his arm around her shoulder until it fell asleep, and he began wiggling his hand to revive it, to do anything to ease his discomfort without having to let go. They became high school sweethearts, then broke up during college, then got back together and had children and a wedding and all the joys and sorrows that come with sharing a life. No one else had known Dooling so deeply for so long. And yet whatever this was  whatever was going on inside him  Natosha had never seen a hint of it. She was every bit as confused as she was worried and scared. And she knew her husband needed help, but she believed that this wasn’t the best place for him to get it.

She looked at Dooling. “Is there anything I need to know,” she asked, “so that I can help get you out of here? Is there anything you need to tell me?”

Dooling nodded and said yes there was.

Over the years, every now and again, Dooling had considered telling Natosha about the abuse. Yet he always talked himself out of it. This is the woman I’m supposed to protect, he remembers thinking. How can she look at me the same way? How can she still think I’m strong when she knows I got taken advantage of by a man? Some part of Dooling knew these questions were unfair. He knew, when he let himself think about it, that he’d been too young to consent or defend himself. But he had held on to this pain for so long that it felt easier to dwell in his anxiety than to confront its cause.

But now he sat there, in the bathroom with Natosha, and he told her everything he remembered. He felt frail, terrified, and he waited to hear her response.

She told him she loved him. She told him she respected him. She told him he was strong, so strong, because he’d built this life for himself and his family even while battling the memory of that afternoon. Dooling felt his adrenaline spike as he listened to his wife’s words. “I’d felt so weak,” he says, “and all of a sudden I felt so powerful.”

Natosha checked with the hospital to see how she could get Dooling out of there. It was no problem, they said. Dooling had checked in voluntarily. If he wanted to leave, all he had to do was ask. A day later, they processed his release. He went home to his kids. Already, just by telling Natosha what had happened, he felt a sense of normalcy return. But he knew he still had work to do.

The Celtics and the National Basketball Players Association connected him with Dr. Timothy Benson, a psychiatrist who works with athletes and others in high-stress fields. From the first therapy session, it became clear: Dooling suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. All of his anxieties, all of his coping strategies, all of his paranoia and fear  it all traced back to that apartment.

Dooling met with Benson every day for two weeks. Some days, he stood and shouted, angry at the injustices that had befallen him. Some days he felt like he was back in that apartment, back on that summer day, and he curled up into a ball to hide from the world. Over time, Benson showed him all the ways he’d been managing his trauma. He taught Dooling about triggers. He gave him strategies to deal with the anxiety the next time it arose.

Together with Natosha, Dooling started marriage counseling. Keyon had been wounded, they were told, and that wound had strained their relationship. They also consulted a pastor for spiritual guidance. As part of his recovery from the breakdown, Dooling wanted to rededicate himself to his faith.

One day, Dooling and Natosha gathered their kids. They told them what had happened to their father and how it affected him. They asked if anyone had ever touched them the way the big kid had touched their dad, and they all said no. They taught their children, then and there, about how grown-ups should and should not touch them, about what kind of affection is healthy and what kind of affection is harmful. They told the kids that if ever, under any circumstances, someone breaks those rules, they shouldn’t wait the way their father did. They should immediately tell their parents.

Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images

Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images

Summer, 2014. It’s a Wednesday afternoon in North Miami, and once again, Dooling is holding a microphone. He has come to this community center, along with the Bucks’ Brandon Knight, to work with kids as a part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! program.

The kids, ages 5 to 14, have spent the morning running through basketball drills and learning about exercise and nutrition. Now they’ve piled into the gym, all seated in chairs surrounding Dooling, and they’re looking on as he walks back and forth around the room and tells his story.

“If you can hear me, clap twice!” he shouts.

They clap twice.

On three, yell, ‘Let’s move!

On three, they yell, “Let’s move!”

This sort of event has become routine for Dooling. When he first told Natosha about the abuse, he let her know that he wanted to keep that story private. Maybe he could tell a therapist, he figured, but besides that he wanted her to keep that memory between them. But Natosha rejected that idea. She wanted him to use his platform to raise awareness and help survivors of sexual abuse.

She told him to tell family and friends, and to go public, so he did. She told him to start a foundation, so he did that too. Each time Dooling told the story, he felt his shame recede. Talking about it helped him unpack the ways the trauma had harmed him. So he talked to Katie Couric. He talked to ESPN. He began giving speeches.

Soon enough he was hearing others’ stories. He got emails from strangers saying he’d inspired them to get help. Friends pulled him aside. The same thing happened to me, they told him. Keyon continued plotting the next phase of his life. He still wanted to be an NBA head coach  someday. In the meantime, however, he didn’t want to toil away in the bottom rungs of some franchise. He didn’t want to be an advance scout or a player development coordinator. He wanted to position himself outside the game so that someday he could get a spot on the bench. Like most retired professional athletes, Keyon had spent his entire life devoted to one pursuit. Now he had to find something else and make it a career. “All my life I’ve been told I have a gift for connecting with people,” he says. “Why not make that my career?”

He became a certified life coach. Now he meets with men from South Florida, serving as part therapist, part motivational speaker. His clients range from a Major League Baseball player to high-powered business executives to privileged-but-underperforming teenage kids. He also works with NBA and D-League players, traveling to events like summer league and the rookie symposium to speak about mental health and off-court discipline.

He’s written a book: What’s Driving You??? How I Overcame Abuse and Learned to Lead in the NBA.2 He commissioned a rap album and drawings that complement the themes in the book, and he plans to take all three to churches around the country for a tour of speaking, performance, and art. He’s started the Respect Foundation, dedicated to supporting victims of sexual abuse.

Here in the gym, Dooling wraps up his speech. He only barely mentions the abuse  “We all have to overcome obstacles,” he said. “For example, when I was a little kid I was molested.” Instead, he focuses on the teachers and coaches who helped him and on the work ethic that took him to the NBA. But now he’s going around the room taking questions. A boy asks if he was ever an All-Star. Another boy asks if he knows how to dunk. Still another boy asks what it felt like to sign his first contract. And then it’s time for the last question. It comes from a girl, about 10 years old, in pigtail braids and glasses. She asks, “Have you ever been bullied?”

Keyon pauses. The truth is that more often, he was the one who did the bullying. After he was molested he became an alpha child, asserting his dominance whenever he got the chance. He would tease. He would fight. He would do anything he could to show that he was not like the other, weaker children, that he was not the kind of boy who could be mocked or bullied. That he was not the kind of boy who had been molested.

But right now he only has a moment. How can he unpack all of that?

Keyon pauses and scans the room. “I’ve dealt with bullies my whole life,” he says. “Don’t be a bully. Be a leader.” Moments later, he finishes and the children gather around for photos and hugs.

Sometimes, when Dooling was a child, his father would take boys from around the neighborhood on trips. The Doolings lived more comfortably than many of the families around town, so Leroy Sr. saw this as a chance to let local kids see something outside their immediate surroundings.

Once, a few months after the afternoon in the apartment, Dooling’s older brother brought the boy who’d molested Dooling on a trip to watch his other brother play basketball in Tallahassee. Keyon couldn’t blame his brother  he didn’t know what had happened. So while they traveled, Keyon kept his distance and stayed alert. But then they all checked into a motel, and late at night, after everyone went to sleep, the big kid crawled over to Keyon. Again, he tried to touch him. Again, he tried to make Keyon do things he knew no little boy should be made to do. Keyon pretended to be asleep. Maybe if he kept his eyes closed, the big kid would stop. Maybe he would leave.

But he didn’t. He kept touching Keyon, kept trying to rustle him awake. Finally, Keyon opened his eyes. “If you don’t stop,” he said, “I’m going to tell everybody what you’re doing.” The big kid stopped. He went back to his bed.

For 25 more years, Keyon stayed quiet.

These days, Dooling wakes at 5:30 every morning. His day will include yoga, work with his life-coaching clients, and perhaps a long bicycle ride. There will be time to talk with Natosha and play with the kids. But first, before anything else, he spends 30 minutes in prayer and meditation. He prays for his family, for his friends. He prays for guidance and direction, for wisdom as he approaches the day.

He prays for the healing of sexual abuse. Not just for him, but for everyone who has been violated. He prays for the victims and their families. For those who’ve been hurt when victims have lashed out in pain. He even prays for the predators. This is important, he says. The predators are sick. They’re hurting. Many of them were once victims too. He prays for the other young boy who was in the apartment that day. But he stops just short of praying for the older boy who’d lured them there. “Never him specifically,” Keyon says. Maybe someday. But not now. Not today. 

Filed Under: NBA, Keyon Dooling, Avery Bradley, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Fort Lauderdale, NBA Summer League, Missouri Tigers

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Jordan Ritter Conn is a staff writer for Grantland. He wrote The Defender: Manute Bol’s Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back Again, a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist.

Archive @ jordanconn