How Luka Doncic saved my life

On addiction, grief, brotherhood and the redemptive power of Luka Doncic‘s basketball brilliance.

It’s October 2018. In a few short weeks, Slovenian prodigy, Real Madrid star and Euroleague MVP Luka Doncic is slated to begin his NBA career with the Dallas Mavericks.

I’m living in Bed-Stuy, in the backroom of a railroad apartment I’d found on the ‘Rooms/Shared’ section of Craigslist. The mustiness of the hallways seeped into the units — that unique blend of aromas that could only come from too many people living in one place, where the walls are too thin to silence arguments and none of the doors fit the frames. Homemade jerk chicken melds with another unit’s burning sage, with notes of scented soy candles and gym clothes wafting in after the initial wave. I lived in four apartment buildings during my time in Brooklyn. Three of them smelled this way. Believe it or not, you learn to love it.

In theory, I am in New York as a musician and songwriter. I moved from Dallas in 2012 to advance my career and hone my craft. In practice, however, I am in retail management — aging and exhausted and spending over a thousand dollars a month on black market benzodiazepines.

My band, once modestly hyped by the New York industry players and briefly courted by a few notable labels and publishing companies, had collapsed. Long-neglected friendships withered without the warmth of mutual interest and energy. My girlfriend of five years had had enough — of the drugs, the deceit, the emotional instability. The drugs, and my lifelong depression and anxiety, wanted me to be alone. I had finally obliged.

It was under the weight of this loneliness and addiction that I woke up in my dingy apartment, to a dozen missed calls from my mom back in Dallas. My brother had passed away.

I remember the way she told me, the softness and care with which she delivered those impossible words — ‘sweetie, Bonner’s gone’. Her tone belied not only the destructiveness of the concept — as if the fabric of our reality had not been torn apart – but also the magnitude of her own pain, the pain of a mother who had lost a child.

I was at the airport within two hours, hiding my red, watery eyes behind bent aviator frames. It occurred to me then to be less judgmental of people wearing sunglasses inside moving forward — one of a million random, emotionally inappropriate thoughts that spring to mind during moments of profound grief. I remember arriving in Dallas late that night, and I remember the moment my mom, my sister and I all collapsed into each other standing at the baggage claim inside DFW Airport.

What happened in the following weeks is less clear. There was the memorial, there was my decision to move back to Dallas to emotionally support my family, and there was the decision to get sober. I don’t remember those moments or what I was feeling when those decisions were made — almost as if I didn’t make them.

(Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

I didn’t think my brother and I had much in common.

He played sports. I played music. He stayed out past curfew, I never left my room. He had dark, curly hair. Mine was straight and blonde. He liked cologne and clothing stamped with flashy logos. I liked concert tees and jelly bracelets.

Despite the many ways we seemed alien to one another, we were brothers. He protected me the way older brothers do. As a kid from neighborhood bullies. As a teenager from my own friends who my petulance had offended (I’ll never forget him telling our drummer, whose glasses I had broken in an argument by throwing a guitar cord at him, ‘I know he deserves it, but if you hit him, I have to kick your ass’). As an adult, he lent me money from his student loans so I could pay rent while I was in San Francisco making a record.

It wasn’t only our shared blood that connected us, or his willingness to throw a punch to protect me from myself. We also had the Mavericks and NBA basketball.

We watched Space Jam together no less than two million times. We collected and traded cards as if our possessions were not already jointly owned. My dad took us to Reunion Arena to see the Mavs take on the pinstriped Orlando Magic, led by a young and ferocious Shaquille O’Neal. He took my brother to see them battle the Bulls at the height of their Jordan-fueled power, a fact that is no less envy-inducing today than it was 25 years ago.

I was 12 when Dirk Nowitzki was drafted. My brother was 15. When Dirk played his last NBA game in 2019, I was 32 and my brother was dead.

Thanks to Dirk, my brother and I always had something to talk about. We shared the pain of his 2006 Finals defeat, the pride of his 2007 MVP win (muted, of course, by the Mavericks’ historic collapse against the We Believe Warriors), and ultimately the shared ecstasy of his greatest triumph in 2011. I got the cowboy hat logo tattooed on my forearm after the Game 2 win, and I honestly don’t think my brother had ever been prouder.

(Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)

When I moved to New York in 2012, I didn’t know I would only see my brother two more times before he passed away.

We spoke without much regularity — never often enough, and usually in the form of short back and forth through text, usually about basketball or music. The strongest efforts he’d make to reach out came in the form of late-night calls, several drinks in. Those calls made me uncomfortable, so eventually, I stopped answering.

My strongest efforts were barely efforts at all. I was consumed by the demands of being poor and living in New York City. It felt impossible to leave, even for a few days. There was always a show, or a rehearsal, or a shift. Always a reason to not visit home.

On the surface, I was afraid of destabilizing my routine — the comfort it provided was often the only comfort to be found. A more honest assessment, the kind afforded to us only through time and reflection, would be that my growing drug addiction had rendered me in a perpetual state of either emotional numbness or aggrievement. What I became to other people, the people I loved, was dictated entirely around when I had last dosed.

The dealer? A 70-year-old retiree, who always wore a Mets hat and had a matching pennant hanging on her wall, who needed the money more than the pills.

I turned to drugs initially because I couldn’t cope. I was worn down by the existential fear of existing. Talking to the line cook at the bodega, walking into a crowded retail store — these small human moments terrified me. The first time I took a Xanax and felt that fear and unease melt away, replaced by the warm euphoria of the long-coveted liberation from my own broken brain? Game over, man, game over. It made me confident, care-free. Those small moments became easy. My music became more adventurous, less-formulaic. It’s what I’d always imagined ‘normal’ to feel like.

I found a supplier on — get ready — Craigslist. We exchanged a few nervous e-mails before I was given the address to a Bay Ridge apartment. The dealer? A 70-year-old retiree, who always wore a Mets hat and had a matching pennant hanging on her wall, who needed the money more than the pills. Although we became close, eventually hugging goodbye after I’d make a pick-up, future Craigslist attempts were not as successful. One ended with me being mugged outside of a Bushwick train station, and another ended with me paying $500 for a bag of antidepressants and Tylenol. No matter how scary the experience, I never stopped looking and I always found what I was looking for.

Benzos, like all drugs, work beautifully until they don’t. Your tolerance builds with each dose, requiring more and more of the drug just to get you zeroed out. I was quickly taking a higher dose before noon than any respectable doctor would prescribe for a day. As it builds, you become irritable and your emotions turn unpredictable, you lose your ability to regulate them. You have no libido, no energy, no interests. You spend all of your money and time in pursuit of that first rush of warm contentment. You never feel it again.

I made the “decision” to get sober after my brother’s death. After many false starts and broken promises, I was going to get clean — for good.

It’s difficult to describe the process of withdrawing from benzodiazepines. The detox alone can kill you, a distinction shared only with alcohol and a few select opiates. Your teeth grind constantly. You are aware of every nerve in your body and they are all screaming in unison that you are in pain. Your GABA system breaks into an open rebellion, now deprived of the resources it had come to rely on to operate successfully. You languish in bed, tossing and turning, convulsing with terror at a shadow moving across the wall or a soft gust of wind moving the shower curtain. Everything is scary all the time. Everything hurts.

I went through this process four times. Each time, I would emerge from the withdrawal weak and unchanged, but promising the world. This time is different. I had conquered my addiction. The lying would stop. Internally, on some level, I knew sobriety was not tenable. I wanted to be high and I resented the forces in my life trying to push me to free myself from the clutches of addiction.

When Dirk played his last NBA game in 2019, I was 32 and my brother was dead.

That all changed in October of 2018. When Bonner died, my relationship with drugs was fundamentally and forever altered. Prior to that point, I couldn’t stay sober because I didn’t want to be sober. I wanted to take drugs, specifically Xanax, and float through life not trying and not caring. When a cocktail of drugs took my brother’s life, I simply stopped wanting to take drugs. I summoned no strength, I persevered through no struggle. I did not conquer this addiction and I am owed no congratulations. Drugs killed my brother and that made me scared of drugs. In that way, his death ultimately freed me. His final and most important act of brotherly protection.

At some point in the week following the memorial, I retreated to my mother’s guestroom. I knew what the detox would do to me and what I would turn into after the last dose, before my brain could relearn how to transmit and process simple information. I would soon be a violently ill bundle of raw nerve endings and unspeakable anxiety. I wanted to protect and prepare my mother — in the throes of her parental grief, I had occupied her home at the exact moment withdrawal was going to render me useless as a son. I was there, but I wasn’t.

At the time, none of this was present in my conscious thought. I was skating, being pulled by an invisible force and incapable of generating my own momentum. I started lowering my dosage in November. Thanksgiving became Christmas, leading to my brother’s birthday in February. Three rapid, consecutive and immediate reminders of our loss.

I didn’t leave the house at all for six months. I was reeling and paralyzed from the grief, unsteady from the withdrawal and mourning not only my brother but, selfishly, my career and my broken relationships. In other words, the totality of life as I knew it. I gained almost fifty pounds and gave up on moving my body at all, right as it reached an age where it actually needed some attention.

You know that scene in Avengers: Endgame when depressed Thor gained weight and played Fortnite all day? Would it surprise you to know that is one of the most realistic portrayals of depression ever committed to film? It is *exactly* what I did, every day, for almost a full calendar year.

I was 32 and alone. Sober, but defeated. Alive, but only biologically. Existential dread had given way to emotional nihilism – nothing mattered or had mattered or could matter again.

Then came Luka.

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Luka Doncic played his first NBA game one week to the day after my brother died. One of our last conversations took place on draft night, after the Mavericks’ had executed the trade to bring this teen genius to Dallas. He was hyped, I was hyped, Dallas was hyped. Neither of us knew at the time that it’d be the last thing we were excited about together, nor that we weren’t even close to excited enough.

I watched every game of Luka’s historic rookie year, which also ended up as franchise legend and forever-hero Dirk Nowitzki’s last. As I wallowed in despair, buried in grief and unable to function, Luka’s ebullience lit up the dark corners of my soul. As I gnashed and gnawed, drowning in my sorrow, he twirled down the lane with a bright, mischievous smile. The joy with which he played was as infectious as it was medicinal. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, and I assure you this truth is uncomfortably real — if we end up drafting Mo Bamba, I’m not sure you’re reading this today.

As my heart contended with a lifetime of a lost sibling, for the first time having to reckon with both the certainty of death and brevity of life, watching Luka Doncic was the only thing that kept me tethered to this world. When he went on an 11-0 run to beat the Rockets by himself, my jaw hung in disbelief — not only because it had happened, but because I wasn’t going to get a text from Bonner talking about how insane it was to watch. When he hit that game-winning 3 against Portland, perhaps the most outrageous moment in a season full of outrageous moments, I wondered if Bonner had guided it through the net so I’d have the emotional momentum to make it through another day.

Watching Luka during Dirk’s final two games, the genuine excitement on his face when Dirk had a vintage moment or the reverence he displayed by getting Dirk the ball in comfortable spots for easy points, you were able to see beyond the stat sheet into what Mark Followill so accurately described as Luka Magic. It wasn’t just apparent in his flashy moves or preternatural footwork, and it wasn’t confined to his half-court miracle shots or his sense of showmanship. It was something deeper, something human — what made Luka special was the way he made us feel about ourselves.

I’ve been sober for over a year now. My blood is clean and my mind is clear. I’ve started repairing the relationships the drugs had destroyed — not rebuilding my old life, which is gone, but opening up pathways to a new one. I’m able to operate with full confidence that the version of myself entering the world each day is the best version yet. That same level of confidence informs the following statement: without the help of a Slovenian teenager who will most likely forever remain a stranger, I would not be alive today. When hope became abstract and unattainable, Luka took the court every night to remind me it was real and worth fighting for.

Thankfully, I don’t have to rely on Luka to carry me emotionally anymore — but I still haven’t missed a game. In his second season, he’s ascended beyond the brilliance of his rookie campaign and into the stratosphere of MVP candidacy. None of it feels surprising and none of it feels rote.

Still, for the duration of Luka’s career, his highlights will be bittersweet. Every game-winner, every unexpected dunk and gravity-shredding outlet pass — bittersweet. Every charming interview, every funny video he makes with the Mavericks’ video content team — bittersweet. When he and Porzingis bring the championship back to Dallas, an achievement that often feels more inevitable than hypothetical, I will cry my sports tears of joy and I will cry that my brother isn’t there to celebrate.

The only time I left the house during the months after Bonner’s death was early on, shortly after it happened. Somehow, in the midst of my cloudy, braindead misery, I managed to drive myself out to the Nebraska Furniture Mart in the Colony, TX to attend Luka’s first autograph signing as a Maverick.

I took one of Bonner’s old Mavs shirts and asked him to sign the logo, the same cowboy hat wearing basketball forever painted on my body. The event worker overseeing the autograph line asked how old the shirt was and I sheepishly replied ‘older than Luka’. That caught Luka’s ear. He looked up and smiled at me. It was sincere and warm. I loved him for that, before he’d ever scored a point in our uniform, before he was an All-Star starter or an MVP candidate. I needed that from him, something I could never ask for or anticipate.

Without knowing, he gave it to me. A memory that would power me through perilous moments. That’s Luka Magic.

When my career collapsed, my addiction had overpowered me, my relationships had deteriorated and my brother had died — when I had nothing else in this world to keep me going — I still had to wake up and survive the day. I couldn’t miss Luka. That is Luka Magic.

I wake up every day to this new world, without my brother, without the crutch of drugs or alcohol, often confronted by harsh or uncomfortable realities. I can cope now, and the fact that I survived it at all? That’s Luka Magic.

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