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From NBA player to mental health advocate to Utah Jazz assistant

For Jazz assistant coach, the pathway to coaching in the NBA didn’t come easily, but his desire was never in question

Utah Jazz assistant coach Keyon Dooling, left, fist-bumps guard Donovan Mitchell during a timeout in game against the Detroit Pistons at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021.
Utah Jazz assistant coach Keyon Dooling, left, fist-bumps guard Donovan Mitchell during a timeout in game against the Detroit Pistons at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. Landing an NBA coaching job required patience for Dooling, but it was worth the wait.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

In early September 2020, Keyon Dooling received a call from his old college coach. Quin Snyder, head coach of the Utah Jazz, had kept in contact with his former Missouri player throughout the years, but this time he wasn’t calling just to catch up. Snyder wanted to know if Dooling would be interested in joining the Jazz coaching staff.

Less than 24 hours later, Dooling and his family were making preparations to move to Salt Lake City.

“I told him I was in the next day,” Dooling said. “It was just something that I had to jump at, something that I had been yearning for.”

Dooling knew he wanted to be a basketball coach for as long as he’d been around the game. But life doesn’t always work out exactly the way you want it to.

Drafted 10th overall in 2000, Dooling spent just over 12 years in the NBA with the Los Angeles Clippers, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, New Jersey Nets, Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics. He was a reliable reserve with a keen eye and was known throughout the league as being an impeccable teammate.

Boston Celtics’ Keyon Dooling during a game, Friday, March 23, 2012, in Philadelphia. Dooling joined the Jazz staff prior to the 2020-21 season after his former college coach, Quin Snyder, gave him a call.
Matt Slocum, Associated Press

Heading into the 2012-13 season with the Celtics, Dooling had just signed a new deal and was in the best physical shape of his career, but on the inside he was silently struggling.

A victim of sexual abuse as a child, Dooling had blocked out his past trauma for most of his life. But in the fall of 2012, just before the Celtics were to report to training camp, Dooling had a mental break. Unaware that he was suffering from the effects of PTSD and in the throes of paranoid delusions, Dooling walked into Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge’s office and told him that he was done with basketball. He thought that he could take the stress of the game out of the equation and that he would be able to relax.

He was going to remain with the Celtics and then head coach Doc Rivers as part of the player development staff, but he’d have less to worry about. He thought everything would go back to normal. But, a few days later, Dooling was hospitalized, sedated in a psych ward and felt like the world was collapsing in on him. His wife, Natosha, and Rivers visited him and for the first time in his life he opened up about what he’d experienced as a child.

With the help of therapists and mental health professionals, Dooling began a journey of healing that changed the trajectory of his personal and professional life.

“Life kind of shifted,” Dooling said. “I found a new passion, but I was still around the game.”

Dooling slowly started to tell his story publicly. He became a motivational speaker and later a certified life coach. Then, in 2014, he became a mental health advocate for the National Basketball Players Association.

In May 2018, shortly after publishing a story in The Players’ Tribune about his abuse, his battle with depression and his recovery, the NBPA launched a leaguewide mental health and wellness program, and named Dooling the director.

“I enjoyed the work that I did around mental health and wellness with the players association,” Dooling said. “I got a chance to impact and help a lot of people and still be around the game. But when Quin Snyder, my college coach, gave me a call and said, ‘Hey there might be a potential opportunity,’ I knew it was something I had to do. Coaching is where I’ve always wanted to be and where I want to be for at least the next 20, maybe 30 years of my life.”

Learning philosophies

When Dooling first entered the league he immediately started taking notes on style of play and coaching philosophies, planning for his post-playing career. He soaked up everything he could from his head and assistant coaches. From Stan Van Gundy and Erik Spoelstra, to Tyronn Lue and Doc Rivers, he had exceptional mentors. Dooling kept every playbook that he’d ever gotten his hands on.

As his career in mental health advocacy started taking off, Dooling began wondering if he’d be able to get back to the on-court side of things. There was also insecurity there. With how his career ended, with all the stigma still surrounding mental health issues, would anyone want to give him a shot? People might have reservations about bringing him on board.

Dooling had a playing career that spanned more than a decade. He’d been a team captain, was the first vice president of the players association, and knew the game. But there were no calls coming in about coaching positions.

“Maybe it’s me projecting, but I wasn’t getting those opportunities,” he said. “A place where you’re an expert you don’t get any looks or any opportunity in that space. Sometimes I think you could project that maybe it was how it ended for me, like maybe that was the reason. However, the way that it ended for me really took me to the next level as far as the person I am, as far as the impact that I could make.”

With nobody inquiring or any coaching opportunities being presented, Dooling started to accept that maybe coaching wasn’t in his future. Two years ago, he threw away all of the playbooks he’d been keeping, all of the notes he’d made, everything.

He continued to work with NBA players as a wellness counselor and director of the NBPA mental health program and was happy to be around the game in any way he could, and was at peace with the idea that he might never be a coach. But, as Dooling knows all too well, just because you move on from something doesn’t mean lingering feelings won’t affect you.

“I haven’t been able to get any of the sensations that you would get from hearing the thunder of the crowd after making a 3 or a good defensive stop, or from hearing the sounds in the locker room, the noise, the jokes, the laughter, the seriousness,” Dooling said. “All the different emotions that basketball brings. I couldn’t replicate that environment anywhere.”

So when Snyder called there was no hesitation. It was the opportunity he’d been waiting for and one he didn’t think would ever happen.

Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder calls out to his team as the Utah Jazz and the Boston Celtics play an NBA basketball game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. Boston won 114-103.
Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder calls out to his team as the Jazz and Celtics play at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. Snyder, who had coached Keyon Dooling in college, offered him a job in the offseason, a job Dooling gladly accepted.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Call from Quin

“When Quin called and he asked me if I had interest, I had to look at the phone and pinch myself because it was like, ‘Wow, this is really happening.’”

When the news that Dooling was joining the Jazz coaching staff was announced on Sept. 25, the NBA community was elated. All of the mentors and coaches and players that Dooling had looked up to for years had ended up looking up to him and seeing him as a beacon of wisdom and hope.

For years, JJ Redick has said that Dooling gave him the confidence to be an NBA player and that Dooling was a mentor even when he didn’t realize he was being one. During Redick’s rookie year with the Magic in 2006, he was convinced that he was going to have a short career. Redick was in and out of the lineup, knew there were deficiencies in his game, and couldn’t see a path to success. But Dooling saw it and was always there to give him a boost.

“I remember one specific game my rookie year,” Redick said. “I was actually in the rotation for several games, had put together a few good games in a row and I had a good first half against the Kings. I came back to the bench and he said to me, ‘Man, you know what? You’re gonna do it.’ I was like, do what? And he said, ‘You’re gonna make a lot of (expletive) money in this league.’ He was always that guy.”

In fact, there are many coaches around the league, coaches that were close with Dooling, that were immediately jealous of Snyder because they didn’t realize Dooling was even interested in coaching.

Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, left, talks with forward Jimmy Butler, center, and guard Kendrick Nunn, right, during game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Friday, Dec. 13, 2019, in Miami. Says Spoelstra of Dooling, “He’s a star, he’s made for coaching … I just think it makes a whole lot of sense. He’s going to help a lot of players.”
Lynne Sladky, Associated Press

“Shoot, I’ve kept in touch with Keyon over the years. If I knew he was going to get into coaching we would have gone after him before this,” Spoelstra, head coach of the Heat said. “He’s a star, he’s made for coaching … I just think it makes a whole lot of sense. He’s going to help a lot of players.”

Rivers, who Dooling described as being one of the people “I would run through a brick wall for,” said that he always thought Dooling was meant to be a coach, but thought that Dooling was happy where he was working with the NBPA and the league.

“If we all knew Keyon wanted to coach right away, he’d be coaching,” Rivers said. “You know, there’s certain people that have a gift, that are able to tell you difficult things, and when it comes from them you can handle it. Keyon has that gift. ... His gift is communication.”

Perfect fit

That might be what makes Dooling such a perfect fit for the Jazz.

Snyder has built a culture of communication that has become a cornerstone of his coaching philosophy. Openness and dialogue are fundamental pieces of everything the Jazz do and it’s created an environment where the players expect to have that kind of relationship with every member of the coaching staff.

When long-time assistant coach Johnnie Bryant left the Jazz last offseason to take a job with the New York Knicks, Donovan Mitchell, who was close with Bryant, noted that being able to communicate was one of the things he loved most about Bryant.

Mitchell appreciated that Bryant wouldn’t hold back, that he would call him out for doing the wrong thing, but was also always encouraging him, pushing him to be better.

“Johnnie obviously is like family, like a brother to me,” Mitchell said. “For me, this is just a first, having an assistant coach that you’re close to, not be there. I’ve had a bunch of firsts throughout my career and this is just the first of that ... Keyon has been terrific.”

Creating that bond with Dooling is not going to happen overnight or be easy. Very few parts of this transition to coaching is going to be easy for Dooling. There are no more playbooks, everything is digital. He’s the new guy and has been away from the game for years so he’s still getting used to the schedule and the travel. There are a lot of meetings and film sessions and terminology and Dooling has been thrown into the deep end. These days he’s just trying to learn the ropes.

The players and Dooling are still figuring out each other’s style of communication, how they take and give criticism, how they react to situations, personality similarities and differences. There’s a lot to work through. It’s work that everyone is confident Dooling can handle.

The one thing Dooling has going for him is that his time in the league as a player and then his time working with the NBPA, earned him respect before he ever walked into the Jazz practice facility.

“One of the great assets that Keyon has is the years that he’s played in the league and the situations he’s been in competitively within the construct of a team,” Snyder said. “I knew when he came on board how good he was, and he’s surpassed even my expectations.”

Earning respect

Dooling waited for years to get a chance to coach and it can be really tempting to try to jump in and do too much. He’s trying to remind himself daily about what it takes to earn respect as a coach.

“A delay is not a denial,” Dooling said. “Just because it took me a while to get here doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen gradually.”

That’s the philosophy Dooling has started his coaching career with. He wants the players to gradually come to understand him and to know that he cares. He’ll put the time in. He’ll be there to rebound the ball for a player who wants to get shots up late at night. He’ll be honest and always strive to encourage others to do the same with him.

Dooling sees the larger picture. He knows what it was like to have a coach that cared about him when he was younger, that inspired him to want to be a coach. He had the young, enthusiastic and intellectual Snyder with him at Missouri, and Dooling never forgot what it felt like to have a coach that cared.

“I want the players to see that you can be a professional not only as a player, but also as a coach,” Dooling said. “That gives players a vision or an image that they could potentially do that one day as well. A lot of our guys want to be around this game forever, so I try and set that example for them.”

Right now Dooling is in the process of understanding his new world. But, someday he hopes to be a head coach in the NBA. Then he might be the one calling a former player seeing if they’d be interested in joining his staff.