Former NBA player Keyon Dooling finds ‘inner peace’

Fun and friendly Keyon Dooling kept so many burdens hidden behind that perpetual smile.

He lost his father, then had family and friends asking him for money even while he was grieving at the funeral. He wanted to retire from basketball, but nobody in the family he supported would support his decision. He lost a child in the womb. And then there was all that sexual abuse he endured and kept hidden for so long — hidden from his wife, from his mother, even from himself when you consider how unaddressed it had been until he arrived broken and scared recently at a psychiatric ward.

“You’d be amazed at what you can block out of your mind,” Dooling says now. “As an athlete, you block out pain and noise to create focus. If I had addressed my sexual abuse earlier, I don’t know if I could have reached my potential. The pain and hurt were so deep that it was almost shattering to deal with. Meltdown might be an understatement for what I had. Some people might call it a midlife crisis or losing your mind.”

He is in a better place now, talking about serenity and the therapeutic value of putting your suffering out in the open. It is always easier, getting help to carry a weight. Dooling was alone with his shame for so many years, but now he comes forward feeling healed and stronger … and eager to help in the way others have helped him.

“My wonderful wife,” Dooling says through that smile now. “She nursed me back. I went back to being a baby for a while. She is now officially a mother of five instead of four.”

Dooling played for the Heat in 2004, and against them for the Celtics as recently as last season’s playoffs. As surprising as it was to hear that Fort Lauderdale’s son, one of the few to ever make the climb from South Florida to the NBA, was retiring at just 32 after a dozen years in the league, it was even more surprising to hear him volunteer as part of the announcement that he had been sexually abused as a child.

Dooling has always been one of the good guys, affable and charming. You won’t hear a bad word about him from a teammate, coach or media member. How could anyone have any idea the pain he was hiding when his family didn’t even know? Wrestling with retirement, over the objection of an extended family that didn’t quite realize his burden until it had broken him, brought his suffering out into the light for everyone, himself included. In the psychiatric ward, Dooling asked himself, “How the hell did I get here?” Then came the more difficult questions.

He located the roots of his repressed pain in his childhood, and dealing with emotions, addressing them instead of pushing them down, cracked him open. You don’t find a lot of feelings in the locker room. Pain? Tape it up or inject it and keep on running. The only emotion he’d ever had about his sexual abuse was unaddressed anger, and the professional in him kept that hidden behind the smile.

“Post-traumatic syndrome,” he says now. “When you are playing, you never had time to breathe or deal with or accept. It kind of overwhelmed me. Shell-shocked me. All these memories/feelings/emotions that I had been compressing, keeping down, blocking out. I was able to face all those things I had been running from my whole life. I’m happy this happened to me so I can help others.”

Dooling is volunteering something you don’t hear talked about in his muscled arena. Sexual abuse has been a plague in youth hockey, and the Jerry Sandusky scandal toppled Penn State, but rarely does the public know a victim’s face. You just don’t see a famous athlete volunteer his voice, name, pain and platform to help others feel less alone about sexual abuse, especially not in basketball.

“To be honest, I couldn’t even look in the mirror sometimes,” Dooling says. “I knew I was hiding something. All these internal battles. Insecurities. Not feeling good about yourself. Addressing insecurities, they become strengths. I’m embracing these emotions. I don’t know if I was delusional or my mind blocked it out, but I’m fully able to do it now. It is so liberating. So much freedom. Inner peace. I’m not embarrassed about it. It is bigger than me. Thousands of kids are reaching out to me. It is an epidemic. It’s something I’m going to fight for the rest of my life.”

Have you forgiven the people who molested you, Keyon?

“Heck, yeah,” he says. “Heck, yeah. Heck, yeah. If I would say I’m all peace and never angry, I’d be lying. But to the people who took advantage of me — because I was molested more than one time by more than one person and more than one sex — yeah, I have forgiven. I haven’t forgotten. But I have no ill-will in my heart. I don’t have a hateful bone in my body. Why have malice? I don’t have that for the people who hurt me. I feel sad for them. I hope they get help. I know they are being tormented.”

Awareness and understanding are such blessings. Clarity, too. It is only now, in adulthood, away from the grind of sports that reduced his world focus to the size of that basketball, that Dooling can clearly see the damage done to him.

“It is weird, man,” he says. “Some people who hide sexual abuse get tormented by it. They know it, and they deny it. I couldn’t feel the emotion, but I could feel the effects because of my pattern of behavior. Some of the anger issues I had, especially at a young age, led me to start drinking early and smoking early and having sex early. It wasn’t until I got involved with sports that it was an outlet for me to get that negative energy out. I don’t know how I got myself in that situation. I’ve asked myself all these questions.

“When it happens young, you blame yourself. I’m getting out of that. There is nothing I could have prevented. What I can do is raise awareness and be preventative.”

And now what? As the rest of his life stretches out before him at just 32?

“I’ll be mentoring,” he says, “and I’ll be smiling.”