The NBA As OCD Therapy: What Vinay Krishnan Learned From LeBron

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While watching the 2016 NBA playoffs from an OCD treatment center, Vinay Krishnan found himself thinking back to an interview LeBron James gave in 2013. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
While watching the 2016 NBA playoffs from an OCD treatment center, Vinay Krishnan found himself thinking back to an interview LeBron James gave in 2013. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

In a spare room, Vinay Krishnan watched last year's NBA Playoffs. There was a TV in one corner. There were chairs pushed against the walls. Except for Krishnan and four or five of his friends, those chairs were empty.

"The staff members would kind of leave us alone," Krishnan recalls. "They'd pop in every now and then just to see the score. And we'd just watch. And, I don't know, it was the most normal thing we did while we were there, right? Because we were just sitting around watching sports. So we didn't really feel like we were in a hospital or anything. For those couple hours, we felt just like any other people."

Krishnan and his friends weren’t "any other people." They were voluntary patients in a facility — Krishnan calls it "the Center" — specializing in treating people with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

"Well, it was pretty overwhelming at first, just to leave your home and go to this place — be surrounded by people you don't know — and just the structure of it where all the bathrooms are locked. You have to ask permission to get into a bathroom. There's 24-hour staff around you at all times, cooking your meals and stuff," Krishnan says. "And you can't drink — which took a lot of getting used to. And you can't even touch another patient, so there's just really strange, like, boundaries."

During his nine weeks at the center, Krishnan watched each of the Cleveland Cavaliers playoff games — and it wasn't only because they made his evening feel more normal.

Krishnan saw a link between his OCD treatment and the efforts of LeBron James, who was trying to bring Cleveland its first championship in 52 years.

'Constantly In That Trap Of Being Anxious'

Krishnan became aware of his OCD in September of 2001, when the World Trade Center buildings were destroyed. He was 13 years old.

"It was just kinda sparked by this idea that, that kinda thing could happen to all those people, then anything horrible could happen to any of us," Krishnan says. "So that kinda sparked my OCD mind to just start imagining all these horrible things that could happen. And then my compulsions would be to try to prevent those things from happening. So, one example would be, every night before I went to sleep, I would have to lock the front door. Which we all do. That's a completely rational thing to do. But it's not rational if you're staring at it for an hour and just locking and unlocking it and doing it over and over again. And over time those hours add up, and it can start to really debilitate your life, and you're just constantly in that trap of being anxious.

"But I didn't really know what I was dealing with. I just thought I had these peculiar behaviors and I didn't seem to see anyone else doing this kinda stuff. And you're just confused and you’re kinda filled with a certain degree of shame because it seems like you're stranger than everybody. So I didn't actually get treatment for it until I was 24."


Krishnan is now 28. He’s an attorney. He had some free time between projects last spring, and that gave him an opportunity for some especially intensive work related to his condition. That’s why he was at the Center. There he met daily with psychiatrists, behavioral therapists and family therapists.

He and the other patients also underwent four hours of daily "exposure therapy." Krishnan’s exposure therapy involved videos of terrorist attacks and mass shootings. Part of the idea was desensitization. He was learning to watch those videos without becoming consumed by his compulsions.

"That's just terrifying at first," he says. "At the end of the four hours you're just spent."

Which was part of the reason that at the end of the day, watching basketball was a relief. It was a bonus that Krishnan could see his favorite player, LeBron James.

"The reason I was really drawn to him — more than any of the dunks or the physical stuff — was just that he was devoted to making the right play at the right time," Krishnan says. "And in this post-Jordan world, every star that came up was kind of expected to take the last shot, even if there were two guys draped over him. Iverson did it, Vince Carter did it, Tracy McGrady did it. Kobe definitely did it. And LeBron was kinda the first guy that said, 'Well, no. If my shooter's open in the corner, I'm going to pass it to him.'"

Relating To LeBron

Krishnan had been a James fan for a long time. During those playoffs, he found himself thinking about a 2013 interview that James had given to ESPN. James had said he was “afraid of failure” — that he wanted to succeed so badly that he had become anxious that he wouldn’t. Vinay Krishnan could relate.

"So for him to admit that and say that's what I'm chasing and still say, 'I do fear failure,' I think it's just kind of impressive that he would put himself out there like that," Krishnan says. "When I read that, I thought it was huge. And I was really surprised more people don't talk about it. So that interview has always been in the back of my head."

Krishnan began noticing what LeBron James was doing to manage his anxiety about failure.

"Before the playoffs, he would take himself off social media. He would start actually meditating on the sidelines. And he would read books before playoff games," Krishnan says. "And, I mean, I guess any one of those actions doesn't seem particularly significant, but if you put them all together, that's a clear effort to be more mindful and embrace the present moment rather than worrying about what happened last night, worrying about what's going to happen in a couple hours, after tip-off. He's just taking himself out of those moments and focusing on what's in front of him. And that’s a very common skill that anyone who’s been in treatment for anxiety or OCD, we’ve all done stuff like that. We all practice mindfulness."

"So for him to admit that and say that's what I'm chasing and still say, 'I do fear failure.' I think it's just kind of impressive that he would put himself out there like that."

His intensive treatment completed, Krishnan watched the Cavaliers beat the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals from home. And he saw in Cleveland’s comeback from a 3-1 deficit further evidence that James’ strategies were working.

"It was clear to me he'd grown as a player. And it wasn't just a physical growth. There was something else to that," Krishnan says. "And I thought that was really instructive for the rest of us."

Combating The OCD Stigma

For the time being, Vinay Krishnan is concentrating on his writing, rather than on the practice of law. His recent essay for Slam Magazine is titled “What I Learned Watching LeBron James During My OCD Treatment.” He has no illusions about an instant cure for himself or anyone else, but he says the Center taught him skills to better manage his disorder.

Krishnan, who himself went 11 years before receiving treatment, has seen others also wait far too long.

"And that kinda thing doesn't really change unless people start to tell their stories in public and getting their narratives out there and combating stigma," he says. "And so, when I wrote this article, I just wanted to make some small, tiny contribution to that effort."

Since Krishnan made his story public, he’s heard from lots of people — some of them basketball fans — who are dealing with OCD. And he’s only a little disappointed that he hasn’t heard from the fellow who inspired him to write the article.

"I would love to hear from LeBron on this. That's the one I'm still waiting for," Krishnan says with a laugh. "I think if he read it he would like it."

Vinay Krishnan’s probably right about that. Who wouldn’t enjoy being singled out as a guy who’d helped somebody, just by being who he was, doing what he did and talking about it?

This segment aired on January 7, 2017.


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Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.



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