The Warriors’ MVP (Most Valuable Physician) during the coronavirus pandemic is a 49-year-old who hadn’t worked for an NBA team until last summer.
With the season suspended indefinitely, Dr. Robert Nied — one of Golden State’s two team doctors — has provided the franchise’s more than 500 full-time employees much of the information they need to navigate an uncertain time. His 15-minute talks on staff-wide RingCentral calls were so popular that he recently started leading hour-long town hall discussions every other week.
In addition to updating employees on public health guidelines and the spread of the coronavirus, Nied fields numerous questions about mental health. His recommendations, which include changing out of pajamas each morning and limiting daily news consumption to 20 minutes, have resonated with everyone from entry-level 20-somethings to top executives.
Though they work for a company that Forbes values at $4.3 billion, Warriors employees — yes, even famous NBA players — aren’t immune from the anxiety and depression that the pandemic has exacerbated for many Americans. A federal emergency hotline for people in emotional distress saw a more than 1,000% increase in calls last month from the same time last year.
According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, nearly half of Americans report that the coronavirus crisis is taking a toll on their mental health. At the root of many of those issues is a sense of isolation, which is why, even as employees work from home to abide by shelter-in-place orders, the Warriors are trying to maintain a strong community.
“I think we’ve learned a lot during this time period about how we can be successful virtually, and a big part of that is reminding everyone that we’re in this together,” said Erin Dangerfield, the team’s vice president of human resources. “I think we’ve thrived and really embraced the moment.”
Three times a week, Golden State holds a “wellness-in-place challenge” that awards staffers points and prizes for posting pictures to a Slack channel of such simple activities as walks, jogs, bike rides and TikTok dances. A Peloton group that Jennifer Millet — senior vice president of marketing — launched more than a year ago runs classes every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday over RingCentral.
Each Tuesday afternoon, an employee and his mother host a baking show on RingCentral. On Wednesday mornings, staffers gather for virtual meditation, using the “Headspace” app to guide their session. In recent days, employees also have led virtual Netflix and karaoke parties.
A couple of weeks ago, the Warriors began setting up staffers with virtual volunteer opportunities. A Slack channel contains a list of activities that ranges from donating blood to seeing for the visually impaired to reading to children.
Such efforts have helped employees manage the stress that the pandemic has heightened. Long accustomed to the payoff of games and events, Warriors staffers have worked long days planning for a slew of possible scenarios, only to wait for results. Golden State President and Chief Operating Officer Rick Welts conceded that having so much in flux has tested his patience.
But unlike many of his colleagues, at least Welts can vent to his husband and two stepchildren who are staying with him in Sacramento. Many of the Warriors’ younger employees, including some players, have waited out the pandemic alone in San Francisco apartments.
During his town hall discussions, Nied has offered tips on how to handle feelings of isolation. The Warriors also have brought in Dr. Sam Tourek — an Oakland-based psychologist — to address the staff on a RingCentral call and help those individuals who might be struggling.
“I feel like mental health has become a regular part of the discussion instead of the one part that I feel like people were afraid to talk about,” said Welts, who has worked in and around the NBA for more than 40 years. “I think that’s so healthy and has made people feel like there’s nothing to be ashamed of here.
“This is as much a part of your health as getting regular checkups or going to the dentist. You’ve got to take care of your mental health as well.”
It wasn’t long ago that mental health was a taboo subject in NBA circles. That started to change in 2010 when, after winning a title with the Lakers, All-Star forward Ron Artest (now Metta Sandiford-Artest) publicly thanked his psychologist.
Five years later, the league started making clinical psychologists available to teams. In spring 2018, the National Basketball Players Association introduced its mental health and wellness program run by former NBA guard Keyon Dooling, who has been open about how his trauma from childhood sexual abuse caused him to be hospitalized as an adult for paranoid delusions.
The candidness of Artest and Dooling helped DeMar DeRozan, Blake Griffin, Justise Winslow, Kelly Oubre Jr., Markelle Fultz, Kevin Love and others feel comfortable speaking publicly about their own mental health struggles. Last summer, the NBA made it a requirement for all teams to provide players with access to licensed mental health professionals.
“It’s a misconception that NBA players’ lives are perfect,” Warriors general manager Bob Myers said. “It’s not that. It’s a lot of pressure. It’s a lot of scrutiny. It’s a lot of wealth, and that can be tough for anybody to move through.
“I think the NBA was smart in getting ahead of it, and acknowledging that money and fame are not a recipe for great mental health all the time. At the end of the day, we’re all just people.”
Last spring, when front office executives were designing the Warriors’ practice facility, they asked Dr. Rick Celebrini — the team’s director of sports medicine and performance — how they should utilize a spare room near the weight room. Celebrini chose to make it a “mindfulness” room, a phone-free area where players can meditate, nap or play iPad games to help with vision and focus.
With Chase Center now closed, Myers, Celebrini and the Warriors’ coaching staff have made a point to contact players every couple of days. Even a quick text can be enough to remind someone that the organization is invested in his well-being.
On a couple of occasions, players have sat in on Nied’s RingCentral talks. Those discussions are a hit because he speaks with an empathy that can come only from overcoming personal tragedy. In 2017, less than two years before he joined the Warriors through a partnership with Kaiser Permanente, Nied lost most of his possessions when the Tubbs Fire destroyed his family’s Santa Rosa home.
“I think he’s the next Dr. Phil,” Welts said of Nied. “I think he needs his own television series after this is over.”