What Happened To Michael Carter-Williams

Sam Maller/The Players' Tribune

It felt larger than life. We punched our ticket to the Final Four, and the school was lit. This was Syracuse hoops in 2013. We were big

There was a big, big block party on Castle Court that night. Everyone was down there. We were all hype. The music was blasting, but you could still hear people chanting and yelling over it all. Syracuse doesn’t have an NBA team, so their basketball at that time was like everything. It was like we were movie stars. On campus, people would mob and ask us to take pictures. People recognized you in town, everywhere you would go, and they would show you love. And on top of it all, I felt like it was so much positive energy, just guided towards me. To be the highest of all that was surreal. That was my last year at Syracuse. After that, I declared for the draft.

Class of ’13.

New York — June 27. One of the best nights of my life. I’ll never forget being in the green room, with my mom and dad and grandparents and everybody. It’s weird in that moment, how loud all the noise is around you with everybody talking and watching the TVs, but how that noise just shuts off when your name is called. Everything in your head goes quiet. It’s like you’re numb almost, walking across the stage, putting on the hat and shaking the commissioner’s hand. And that image gets etched in your brain forever — like you’ll never leave that spot, the lights shining bright, standing on stage next to Adam Silver, just smiling.

2014 Rookie of the Year. It was like Career Mode. Like everything was scripted perfectly. And listen, I’ve heard all the talk about how I won for a “bad draft year” or whatever, and people can say what they want. But this league doesn’t hand anything to anybody. When it’s all said and done, an accomplishment like Rookie of the Year means something. That’s part of your legacy. But for me, it was also like this added pressure.

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I’m happy with who I am today — the husband and the father that I am, the player and teammate that I am. I don’t feel that pressure anymore, of having been Rookie of the Year. But I’m in a place now where I can admit there was a time when it really got to me. It wasn’t easy going from people showing so much love in college, to ROTY, to MCW might be the next this guard, or that guard … Man, MCW special, to…. 

“What happened to Michael Carter-Williams?” 

“Why did his career go that way?”

People would mock me and try to clown me, from ESPN analysts to fans. For a long time there was a whole bunch of negativity on my name, and I heard it all. Even worse, I internalized all of it. Five years in, and I wasn’t that innocent young kid from draft night anymore. I was anxious and depressed to the point where, by the time I left Houston, in 2019, I had reached the lowest point in my life. I did things where I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror anymore, because I didn’t recognize the man in front of me. I lost everything. My fiancée, my kids, my job ... everything.

After Philly traded me to Milwaukee in 2015, I took it pretty hard. It was a genuine shock. I had been a part of high-level conversations about the future of the team, and it never involved me being traded to Milwaukee. I thought I was getting experience to develop, and as we got better pieces, I was going to be a part of that. Also, I was in a lot of pain, and I fought through it the whole year before I finally got surgery on my shoulder. After that I was feeling anxious to come back, because of the award. I didn’t take my time like I should have, and I didn’t come back in the best shape, which created issues for other parts of my body. That being said, in my mind it was like, I had won the biggest award a rookie could get, I was part of the plan. But they just stopped believing in me. And obviously, it’s a business. So I started a new chapter in Milwaukee.

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At first, everything was going well. We were brand new, and had no issues. We made the playoffs, and even though we lost in the first round, you could feel the potential for us to keep building off of that experience and make an even deeper run the next season. But for some reason that didn’t happen. The next year, everything changed.

I wanted to go out there and shoot well from the field. I wanted to play the best defense I ever played. But a lot of times I just couldn’t. I’d have games where I’d come in and play well defensively, but then offensively, I wouldn’t shoot that well. Or I’d have games where I’d miss an easy layup. And I had a coach who I felt looked at me and wanted me to be him. I’ll be honest, me and Jason Kidd at the time, didn’t really see eye-to-eye. I wasn’t the player that he was, and I think he was trying to push me to be that. Look, I’m not trying to blame anybody. I don’t believe in pointing the finger. I get that there are coaches that are just like that and try to use that negative energy to motivate you. But for some people, that’s not motivating. For me, it completely stripped my confidence.

It started small, like this little voice in my head telling me I had to be perfect all the time. I’m sure a lot of people reading this can relate to that. I felt like when I went out there, I couldn’t make mistakes. But that perfectionism started to break me down. Once I had that mindset, I was doomed. I was constantly second-guessing myself. I stopped believing in what I could do on the court. 

It would be game day, right? And I would wake up and the only thing I could think about would be playing the game, hoping that I would play well and playing it in my head over and over, from start to finish. O.K., tip-off. Yep. Get the ball. O.K.. Shoot it, Michael. SHOOT. O.K., hands up, guard, guard, guard. Yep. Just the most irritating lil internal monologue going on in my head all day long, like a fly buzzing in your ear. Sometimes I couldn’t eat. On the worst days, I would feel like I was panicking. This might be TMI, but I’d be peeing 15 times throughout the day, just nervous about playing the game. Once I actually got out there, after the first minute or so, I’d be fine. But when I’d sit down on the bench, my mind would just slip back into that nervous feeling.

It was like, all of sudden, something had gotten ahold of me, and I didn’t know what it was.

Depression runs in my family. When I was a year old, my grandmother committed suicide. It’s a really sad, crazy story. She was supposed to watch me, but I didn’t end up being dropped off at her house. And that night, she overdosed. I was so young, I didn’t know anything about it for the longest time. But in some ways, it was like a cloud that hung over my family. It was a traumatic experience, for my parents especially. But growing up, I didn’t really pay attention to anything like that. I couldn’t address those things because I didn’t know what they were. I didn’t know what depression was. I didn’t know what anxiety was. I was always so focused on basketball that other things going on just floated by.

I’m from a small town called Hamilton, outside of Boston. Picture lots of woods, and people riding horses. It’s actually a wealthy town. But that’s not really my family’s story. Believe it or not, my grandfather won the land he built our house on in a poker game back in the ’50s. That land was in a really suburban area, and so that’s where my mom grew up. My biological father lived in the inner city, in Cambridge. There are nice parts of the Boston area for sure, but you go down to Dorchester, Roxbury, it gets rough. I used to go to my other grandma’s house every weekend and hang out with my cousins who live in Cambridge, and we used to run the streets and play basketball everywhere. So I was in the city all the time, but I lived in the suburbs.

My house was nice — it was probably four or five bedrooms. We just didn’t have shit in it. Hahah. And no other money. I grew up on hot dogs, McChickens, and Ellio’s Pizza.

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Courtesy of Michael Carter-Williams

My stepdad was a high school basketball coach and a teacher, and my mom was a high school basketball coach. So we didn’t really have that much money to live in a place like that. My whole thought process was always how I was gonna get to college. My family didn’t have enough money to send me, so my stepfather used to say it was either get a scholarship or go to the Army, and I was not trying to go to bootcamp. I didn’t want to go to the Army so bad. So I was like, I gotta get this basketball scholarship.

My stepdad’s the one that taught me the ins and outs of hoops. He was always telling me to stay true to the game, the whole nine. When I say my parents were into basketball, I mean they were into it. I remember him and my mom taking me to a UConn girls’ practice. I saw Diana Taurasi shoot for an hour before practice, and it’s still the most impressive workout that I’ve ever seen in my life. The amount of shots she made.... It was ridiculous. And my stepdad also used to take me to the NBA Summer League. I saw Kenyon Martin when I was really young, and I saw Michael Beasley play in Summer League, too. Back in those days, those guys were like giants to a kid from the burbs in Boston.

I moved away from my parents when I was like 15, to go to boarding school in a different state. I don’t think I was 100% ready for that, but that’s just how bad I wanted the opportunity. If I wanted to make it to the next level, then it was a step that I knew I had to take.

That’s the weight of the draft in a nutshell. Being away from your family while you’re basically a kid, just for the opportunity to get a scholarship to college. Getting to college and going from being a McDonald’s All-American, Jordan Classic player, to riding the bench in front of all your friends and family, and feeling that first real bit of adversity. All of your life’s work, all those tough days of missing out on going to parties, sacrificing a normal life to go on AAU trips, all the hard work in the gym pays off at that moment. And you gotta hold onto it and cherish it because in a second, this NBA thing could be gone like that.

Some of my injuries were freak accidents. I got a hip injury caused by my leg getting caught in a screen. Same thing with one of my shoulders. It got hit and it actually popped out of the socket and went back in, and then it kept doing that. I had some shitty luck. My hip was in Milwaukee. I had to get surgery, which ended my season. Then that fall, I got traded to Chicago, where I had chronic tendonitis in my knees. Then I signed with Charlotte, which was great for a while. I met Coach Clifford, who had a different, more positive, philosophy on basketball. I played well until another shoulder surgery, and didn’t end up going back. 

In the summer of 2018, I got picked up by Houston — my fifth team in five years. It wasn’t long before I could see the team getting away from me. I got moved to DNP, and that was like the final straw. I couldn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel anymore.

Michael Carter-Williams | What Happened to | The Players' Tribune
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I just wanted to drown my pain and forget it all, forget everything I thought I would be. I started clubbing and going out a lot. I didn’t believe in myself anymore. And there were mental demons that I was battling … I was doing things off the court I shouldn’t have been doing. That made me feel like shit. I was frustrated with my injuries, and constantly in my head about why I wasn’t performing at the level that I thought I should — that everybody thought I should. I was hearing the noise of people critiquing me from outside the game, and I found myself trying to live up to an expectation that I never set. I was lost. By this point, I wasn’t even trying to live up to ROTY. I just didn’t want to be looked at as a shitty basketball player.

And in my lowest moment, I got caught doing some dumb shit. There’s no excuse for it. Out of respect and love for my family, I won’t go into it too much, but I’ll say this: I betrayed my best friend. Seeing the hurt I caused my family hurt me so bad. Everything that happened next, I deserved. My fiancée at the time, Tia, left Houston, with our six-month-old daughter. And then, as if by karmic fate, the next week I got traded and waived.

It was like my whole life was crumbling in my hands. After that, I spent about two months not playing on a basketball team. I moved out to California. I stayed in Airbnb’s and hotels just to be closer to my daughter. But not living with them crushed me. I went into a deep depression. When Tia left, I don’t even think I moved from my bed for like five days. It’s hard to even remember that time, to be honest. It was such a dark time for me, that it’s something that I almost like blacked out in my mind. I just didn’t have any care in the world, it felt like. You know what I mean? Any time I’d go for a walk, it would feel like I was walking aimlessly, like everything and everyone was just passing me by.

Then I started having anxiety attacks.

One day, I was driving to Tia’s house, and all of a sudden, I started hyperventilating. I didn’t know what was going on. It felt like I had a 45-pound weight on my chest, and the walls were closing in on me. I pulled over and tried to catch my breath, then got back on the road. When I got inside the house, my whole body was tingling. I was in a cold sweat. I told Tia what had happened, and she said, “I think you just had an anxiety attack.” That was the first time I had heard of that, and it scared me. I was really wigged out about it. It made me feel like I didn’t have control over my body. It happened again, a couple more times, before I learned how to recognize when it was coming, and I learned methods to reduce them. If you have anxiety, you know.

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Living in an Airbnb, no job, just working out and trying to be a good coparent, did more than humble me. It tore me down to life’s essentials. I had no more distractions. I finally had to take the blinders off and face myself. Every day I’d come back to this house that wasn’t even mine, barely had any of my stuff in it, and I’d sit there, in my shit. I’d just sit there and think. I had no other choice. And in that silence, I kind of had a revelation. It was like, in my lowest of lows, I felt clarity. I realized I had so many issues, I didn’t know where to start. I needed to fix my career and my family. But more than anything, I needed to figure out who I wanted to be, as a person. I knew I needed to get better, but I didn’t know where to start. 

Then, a couple months after Houston traded me, Orlando called.

When I got to Orlando, I was with Coach Cliff again, the same coach I had in Charlotte. So he knew me and what type of player I was. He was one of the people that appreciated my game in the NBA. Me and him had a very good relationship. I got a 10-day, and I played well. Then I got another 10-day, and I played well again. Then I got signed for the rest of the year. I started building a relationship with the team and the owners and the GM. And I’m still close to them until this day. It’s crazy, that one opportunity is how I finally freed myself from this loop of negativity that kept pulling me under.

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As soon as I got the 10-day I started therapy, through the team. That was something that I knew was available to any of us. They don’t track who sees the therapist or anything like that. I met the team psychologist, and I asked him if there was some time when he and I could speak. And then he connected me with someone outside of the team as well.

I think it was so shocking to them at first, hearing how much I was dealing with, because you wouldn’t know by looking at me. Every day I’d come into the practice facility, and I would be upbeat and happy, trying to be a positive energy for the team because that’s partly how I saw my role. Not only a veteran player on the court, but a guy who could come in and uplift the mood, make sure guys are playing hard. I felt like that was my responsibility, so I tried to do that to the best of my ability. And then I would go see the team psychologist and be like, “Hey, I'm going through all these things.” We talked about that, and I learned through my own experience, how you can be one person on the court and at the same time be going through hell behind closed doors. 

When I look back on everything, my mental health is like a puzzle I had to piece together to unlock a better life. When I started therapy in Orlando, things started to look brighter for me. One day, I can’t tell you exactly when it clicked, I just realized that I was O.K. with my situation. I was O.K. with who I am. And I had come to terms with the fact that I maybe wasn’t ever gonna get back with Tia. I had established a routine to handle my responsibilities as father that I felt good about, even though I didn’t live with them. I just completely let go of perfection — the perfect family, the perfect career. I stopped resisting the tide and let it carry me. Things were never going to be perfect, and that was O.K. 

And it’s funny, like the minute I let go, things got better. I started to have better games in Orlando. Me and Tia got better. We got back together. We had another kid. We got married. 

I was actually performing really, really well, before I broke my ankle, and I was in good head space. And even though I moved on from the team last year, I still have my peace.I don’t play the what-if game anymore. I’m at peace with my career. I’ve had so many accomplishments, and I’ve lived a life bigger than I could have dreamed. I’ve met amazing people and am able to give back, which makes me proud. I’m thankful for everything. I don’t have no regrets. I really don’t.

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There was a time when I thought I was finished, like my best days were behind me. I thought, Dang, after the NBA, that’s a wrap on the Michael-Carter Williams story. And it didn’t turn out how I wanted. 

But my vision got clearer. I started to see the bigger picture. My time as a basketball player has been so amazing. But that was never the whole story. When you been through what I have, you start to appreciate all the details in the picture.

I look around at my kids, at my wife, Tia, and I can see that this was the main story the whole time. And my happy ending? I had to fight for it. Now, for the first time in my life, I truly feel like the best is yet to come.

What better way to end a story than that?