James Donaldson had a great college and professional basketball career, a physical therapy business, and many aspirations, even in retirement from sports.
But over the course of several years, illness, bankruptcy, divorce, and circumstances in life sent Donaldson into a dark mental spiral.
He found his way back, writing a book about his struggles and starting a foundation to help others.
In this episode, Donaldson talks with magazine associate editor Adriana Janovich about his struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts, his recovery and memoir, and his desire to help other men, especially men of color, who face the same darkness.
Donaldson, a 1979 alum of Washington State University, also talks about his WSU and NBA basketball career, influential coaches George Raveling and Lenny Wilkens, and how the suicide of WSU football player Tyler Hilinski shook him to the core so much that he sought help.
Find out more
“Standing Tall” (Profile of Donaldson in the Spring 2022 issue of Washington State Magazine)
Celebrating Your Gift of Life: From the Verge of Suicide to a Life of Purpose and Joy (Donaldson’s 2021 book)
Your Gift of Life (A nonprofit foundation for mental health awareness started by Donaldson)
Video and more stories about Donaldson at Washington State MagazineSupport the show
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00:00 – James Donaldson (JD)
I just said, “I don't want people out there trying to tell my story. I've got to make it through this thing.” It was still another 10 months, arduous 10 months, before the darkness started lifting just a little bit where I could start having a sense of hope and a future to look forward to.
00:18 – Larry Clark
James Donaldson had a great college and professional basketball career, a physical therapy business, and many aspirations, even in retirement from sports. But over the course of several years, illness, bankruptcy, divorce, and circumstances in life sent James into a dark mental spiral. He found his way back, writing a book about his struggles and starting a foundation to help others.
Welcome to Viewscapes, stories from Washington State magazine: connecting you to Washington State University, the state and the world. I'm Larry Clark, editor of the magazine.
In this episode, James talks with magazine Associate Editor Adriana Janovich about his struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts, his recovery and memoir, and his desire to help other men, especially men of color, who face the same darkness. James also talks about his WSU and NBA basketball career, influential coaches George Raveling and Lenny Wilkens, and how the suicide of WSU football player Tyler Hilinski shook him to the core so much that he sought help.
01:26 – JD
Hi there everyone, I'm James Donaldson, Washington State University grad, class of 1979. I've been a Northwesterner for the last 40 plus years after graduating from WSU. I joined the NBA and the Seattle SuperSonics over in Seattle for several years, and then on to other teams in the NBA career. Still very involved with sports and athletics, education, youth programs, mentoring programs. Thank you so much for having me on board.
02:00 – Adriana Janovich (AJ)
Thank you for being here.
02:02 – JD
I'm the author of a book I published in January 2021 titled, “Celebrating Your Gift of Life: From the verge of suicide to a life of purpose and joy.” This book is really heartfelt, and details in incredible detail what I went through in 2018, as far as mental health challenges, the ability to pick oneself up and keep on going no matter what, even though my whole world turned upside down. So I'm hoping that folks will find the book enjoyable reading, but more importantly, helpful reading for themselves or those they know who are going through a very difficult time. The book is available at celebratingyourgiftoflife.com. And I personally sign off on each and every one. So order your book now.
02:54 – AJ
Let's go back in time and talk about what it was like to play under George Raveling. What kind of coach was he? What did you learn from him? About the game about yourself and about life?
03:09 – JD
Yes, well, I had the pleasure of just talking with George Raveling a couple of weeks ago. He was a guest on my podcast that I do every Saturday morning. And George was one of our first guests. And I've been in touch with him throughout the years after WSU. And he has just been so instrumental in my life, beginning as a as a very young man coming to Washington State University 1975 at 17 years of age. And then upon graduation in 1979. George was more than a coach. He was a friend. He was a mentor. He was a father figure. He was extremely proud in the work that I put in over the years and continued being there, being supportive every which way he could, no matter what I was going through in my professional basketball career, my business career, my community involvement, political aspirations, and even through my mental health challenges. George Raveling has just been that rock. Real stable, real solid, and right there for me each and every step of the way.
04:20 – AJ
You started your NBA career in Seattle with another legendary coach, Lenny Wilkens, who also turned out to be a great mentor and friend. Talk about that friendship a little bit. What was it like to play under him for the Sonics?
04:38 – JD
Well, I don't think a better scenario could have been crafted. George basically like a baton in a relay race handed me off to Lenny Wilkens. Lenny was the consummate professional coach. He really expected you to be professional, he expected you to know what you needed to do out there. He didn't have temper tantrums and scream and shout and curse you out or anything like that. Always a very epitome of class and character. And just really was a terrific way for me to break into the NBA. Not only with Lenny, but with world championship caliber players all around me. The downtown Freddy Browns, Gus Williams, Jack Sikma, those great players to break in with. And that's how I started my NBA career and I couldn't have been more fortunate.
05:39 – AJ
What are some highlights for you of your career?
05:42 – JD
Well, I think just playing on a lot of great teams throughout. I played 14 years totally in the NBA. The Sonics were still very good team when I was with them. They didn't win the championship again, but we had some really good teams. Then I moved on to a stop with the San Diego, Los Angeles Clippers, which was not so good of a team. On to the Dallas Mavericks where we had very, very good teams again. And I was a key part of that. This was where my maturity as an NBA player really kicked in. And I was at the pinnacle of my career, making the 1988 NBA All Star Team as well. A lot of great all star players around me. And we competed every single year for that Western Conference championship title. I think the Dallas years are probably my highlight of my career, I was playing the best I've ever played. And I also made the NBA All Star Team. So both team wise and individual wise, I'd have to say my time with Dallas Mavericks was the best.
06:43 – AJ
How about life post basketball? Talk a little bit about the Donaldson Clinic, you and your first book.
06:52 – JD
I owned and operated the Donaldson Clinic, which was a outpatient physical therapy clinic, we had up to five locations at times over the 28 years that it was in existence. I actually started the clinic when I went to Dallas Mavericks back in 1989. I had a very, very severe knee injury that required extensive surgery, and months and months and months of physical rehabilitation. And that's what got me into the world of physical therapy. I thought to myself, Wow, if I can't continue playing, this is what I wanted to do: set up a small chain of these physical therapy clinics, and be there to show people that they can come back from those adversities as well. I could roll up my pant leg and show them the big huge scar on my knee and say, “Hey, I came back and I played another 10 years.” But that's when I started the Donaldson Clinic. We were very, very involved with communities where we were, Mill Creek, Seattle, Tacoma, Kirkland, Cashmere in Central Washington, wherever we were, I was very involved with the community, being parts of the different chambers of commerce and business associations. And giving back to the community. We were a frequent sponsor of community events, and also hiring from the community, especially in Seattle and Tacoma. And I just really loved that aspect of it. Because here I was not only, you know, a former sports player, but also a community person who was giving back to the communities that I really loved and adored. So that was the Donaldson Clinic, we ran from 1989 to 2018. So we had a nice long run for a small business and a small business owner. And I was very proud of the work that we all did, as a team.
08:38 – AJ
The clinics have since closed. Let's talk a little bit about some of the life events that led to the clinics closing, starting with that fateful day, when you first learned that you had a health concern that you did not know about.
08:56 – JD
Well, I remember the exact day, January 3. 2015. I had tried to go play a round of golf with some friends of mine. And we played the day before, and I wasn't feeling that great then, but I came back the next day to try to play again. And there was no way I could play. My back was killing me, excruciating pain. I felt nauseous. I was sweating profusely, and we hadn't even teed off yet. And I told the guys, I said, “Hey, I'm gonna go see my doctor, I don't really feel quite right. So I need to go check out and see what's going on here.” I remember driving to my doctor's office and 15-minute drive or so and get into the lobby of his reception area, and seeing the reception desk and then everything just went black from there. And I woke up two weeks later in the intensive care where I stayed for three months after a emergency 12 hour open heart surgery to repair an aortic dissection, which was just on the verge of bursting and if you know anything about these dissections, if they burst you have 10 or 15 heartbeats left before you just basically bleed out and there's nothing anybody can do for you. So they caught mine right in the nick of time, my aorta was swollen to five times the diameter that it should have been. So it was right on the verge of bursting.
With that began the downward spiral I found myself going into for the next five years. Four major surgeries in five years, three of them on my heart, one of them on my right lung, and then the life events started happening on top of that, while I'm flat on my back, and I really can't fend for myself, you know. My mother passed away, which was kind of expected, we kind of expect parents to pass away at some point. My wife walked out in our marriage, which was totally unexpected. And I was coming home to the big empty house all by myself for next year or so. And then Donaldson Clinic business started having some financial challenges. I just wasn't able to get behind the wheel anymore and continue driving like I had driven it for all those years. And so I spent all my NBA life savings trying to save the business, hundreds and hundreds of 1000s of dollars I had saved up for retirement, and spent it all down to the last penny. And it was all in vain because the business still closed. Eventually, in 2018, I ended up filing for bankruptcy. I ended up filing for foreclosure on my house that I lived in for 40 years. I ended up losing a house.
This was so many life events, one thing after another after another for those three or four years that finally took me to the year 2018, where for 12 months, I was just totally immersed in darkness and despair, and depression and a lack of hope. And it was really the toughest, toughest trial I've ever been through in my life. And I don't wish it on my worst enemy. That was really something to go through. And that's what I write about a lot of my book.
The thing that I think finally shook me to my core and got me to make sure I got the medical attention and medical help I needed was the suicide of Tyler Hilinski at WSU in January 2018. When he took his life that just shook me like nothing else struck me at that point, I was totally cut off from all my feelings and emotions, but that one got through. Everyone is out trying to tell Tyler's story how great a kid he was and how wonderful, how much he had to live for. I just said, “I don't want people out there trying to tell my story, I have got to make it through this thing.” It was still another 10 months, arduous 10 months before the darkness started lifting just a little bit where I could start having a sense of hope and a future to look forward to.
I pulled together a small intimate group of friends to help me, George Raveling and Lenny Wilkens were two of those friends who are right there with me. Just had them check in on me two or three times a week, I would call them you know, once a week, periodically just to let them know how I was doing. That kept me going. But the medical professional helped. I think really analyze what I was going through the doctor made the diagnosis that I had depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideations, all three at the same time. And he made sure that we put a plan in action right away. I think that's what got me through those 12 very, very difficult months.
13:27 – AJ
Initially, when you went to see the doctor, I think you had told me that you were going in because you were having trouble sleeping, you know, staying up at night. Stress, you know, feeling stressed, feeling anxious. But, you know, you thought at first that it was some kind of sleeping condition, maybe?
13:44 – JD
Yes, I did think that I wasn't sleeping for several days a week on end, waking up at one or two in the morning. And my mind was just racing 100 miles an hour. While I'm trying to figure out how to save my business. Whatever I had to do, I just had to figure out something. The other was how to exit this world, this life, and put an end to the suffering and the pain I was in. And those were the only two thoughts I had during that time of night. And after several days of that, I finally made an appointment to see my family doctor. And I told him all the things I'm sharing with you: what I was going through, what was going on with me, and he knew right away. He said, ‘James, we've got to get you to help and we will.” And He did.
14:29 – AJ
Why do you think Tyler's life and story impacted you so much. You hadn't met him but you saw the headlines? Why do you think you felt so connected with him?
14:40 – JD
Well it took me back to my days of walking to campus in Pullman at WSU. They were talking about buildings that I had known 40 years prior. They were talking about Stadium Way and Martin Stadium and all the rest of these things that I was very, very familiar with. I think that's what really resonated. Here was a fellow Cougar, and the newspaper reports and mentioning all these bringing back memories of all these buildings and places around Pullman. And then people were trying to tell his story for him, and he wasn't there to tell his own story. And that just got me saying, “Wow, I've got to get through this thing. I want to be able to tell my story. I don't want people out there, running around trying to tell my story for me. Let me tell my story.”
15:25 – AJ
And then you did in your new book. Talk a little bit about why you wanted to write it and what that writing process was like, and what your hopes are for your readers.
15:37 – JD
I wanted to write it so I could tell my story. I would have something to share with people that can help them through very difficult times as well. It wasn't really difficult to write it. I remembered everything, the details of everything so crystal clearly for the previous three or four years. It was like I just relived all those experiences all over again and was able to recapture them all and put them down on paper. The writing process took about six months to get all my thoughts on paper, and then another six months to create the book and the layout and the photos and all the rest of those things. I think it was very therapeutic in a way as well to write. But I knew that I had a story to tell. I knew that here I am a big, strong competitive athlete, 60 years old, mid-60s now, African American guy who is willing to put it out there and share with people that we're all going to go through something in life, and it's just a matter of how you respond to those adverse situations. But you can make it, believe me, believe me, believe me. You can make it and you will, if you have that drive, determination like I did.
16:47 – AJ
Who do you hope reads the book? Who's your target audience?
16:51 – JD
Oh, my target audience is a couple of different categories. One, you know, I have such a passion for young people, or young generation of kids and students, student athletes who are coming up in high school in college. I really hope that they read it, although they don't have a lot of life experience at that point to realize. Some of them do, but most of them have no idea of the ups and downs of life is going to offer them as they keep going through life. My other audience is men, trying to get men to open up and talk and realize that we can't keep on being the strong silent type, taking on the world by ourselves, or drowning our sorrows and our pains and alcohol and drugs and gambling and addictive behaviors that men tend to do. And so I want men to say, “Wow, it's okay. You know, James went through this thing.” I've had men call me personally and talk to me about what they're going through. James went through this thing he shared with us what he went through, he has no sense of shame about, you know, being embarrassed or shameful for what he went through. And that he made it through. Those are my two target audiences: young students and men, men of every age, but especially up in my age group where you know, we all grew up as little boys, not crying, you know, not talking about things, you know, gone about it being a tough guy. And those things come back to haunt you when you get a little bit older. And you haven't built those skills on how to reach out for help, even to your spouse and significant others. Men typically don't talk to them either. My dad was exactly that same kind of way, old military guy. Never saw him cry, tough guy throughout. That says how men were back then, in communities of color, especially black communities and Hispanic communities. There's still a big stigma and a big taboo about talking about mental health stuff. One, we don't have nearly enough mental health professionals of color to help in those communities, which is one of the things I want my foundation to do one day, to work on providing scholarships to students of color.
We just need to destigmatize this, you know. I grew up in the black community and you know, people could cut their eyes at you and call you crazy. And that would be, that'd be hurtful. But now you come down with mental challenges and you’re definitely not going to talk about it. You know, so we have a lot of work to do. And I think the first step is really getting our communities of color comfortable with talking about these stigmas and these taboos, destigmatize them, and then be able to find more and more mental health professionals of color, who can work within those communities and have somebody who's sitting across the table from you who looks like you, who can relate to you culturally, relate to you ethnically relate to you, you know, gender wise men and women. We need it all. So we've got a long, long way to go. But I think this is starting to get the ball rolling.
19:59 – AJ
Talk about what is Your Gift of Life and a little bit about the foundation. What kind of work you're hoping to do?
20:07 – JD
I did start it up as my darkness was lifting and inspiration from God. I believe that I still had a reason to be here. You know, God left me here for a reason. And that was to start this new chapter of my life being a voice and an advocate for mental health awareness and suicide prevention. One of the first orders of business I went about doing was starting up a nonprofit foundation, called Your Gift of Life Foundation. And its named that because life truly is a gift. And it's the most precious gift that we could ever imagine. The foundation essentially gives me a platform that I can springboard off of, and go around the country speaking to students and student groups and, and businesses and athletic teams. And the other thing is, you know, one of the beneficiaries I want to create from the monies we raise are tax deductible and charitable giving and all that and my speaking engagements is to be able to provide scholarship, full ride scholarship opportunities to students of color. And I'm talking, you know, Asian and Hispanic and Black and Native American and LGBTQ communities. I mean, all these different communities are marginalized to some extent. And we need to have more and more representation of mental health professionals who could work directly and identify very, very strongly with these various communities. And the Gift of Life, the foundation, there's also a place for resources, we don't provide direct services, so will be a place where people can come in, ask for whatever they need, and we'll be able to provide that. I was one of the fortunate ones who didn't actually attempt suicide. I'm glad I didn't push myself to that far let it go that far away attempted it, because I want to stop people before they get to that point, which is where I stopped and get the help they need to get back on track again.
22:07 – Larry Clark
Thanks for listening to Viewscapes. You can find links in the show notes to James's book, foundation, along with the link to “Standing Tall,” a profile of James in the spring 2022 issue of the magazine.
Read more profiles and other WSU stories at magazine dot wsu dot edu.
Many thanks to WSU Emeritus Professor Greg Yasinitsky for the Viewscapes music.