Solitude was Robert Covington’s best friend and his worst nightmare.
He craved it, and he went to extraordinary lengths to get it.
He told his family from Chicago not to visit him last winter, and he questioned why they would want to come to Timberwolves games when he was sidelined because of a right knee bone bruise.
He would pretend to be asleep in his bed so his girlfriend would do the same, since she never nodded off first if he was still awake. Eventually, he sent his girlfriend and her son from Minnesota back to her home in Nashville so he could just be alone.
“I needed space,” Covington said. “I needed nobody around me.”
He spent those dark days going to rehab — often late — for his knee. Then he’d come home, nap and be alone, his only company the television. This isn’t where Covington wanted to be, and he knew it, but he needed the loneliness.
“My mind was all over the place,” Covington said.
What was going through it? The trade from Philadelphia to Minnesota in November jolted his life on and off the court. The injury, which Covington aggravated in a New Year’s Eve game and forced him to miss the rest of last season, didn’t cause his depression, but it was a catalyst.
The forward who was so integral to the Wolves’ defense during their best stretch last season was helpless watching his teammates tumble out of playoff contention while dealing with an injury that wouldn’t heal.
Covington didn’t understand. He was doing everything he needed to do to recover, but there were multiple setbacks until finally, he had to have surgery. Why was this happening? Did he do something wrong? Was this punishment? He got to think long and hard about all this in his solitude, which sent his head “spiraling.”
“Ultimately it got overwhelming,” Covington said. “It got to the point where I snapped. I really snapped.
“I realized I wasn’t who I am.”
He needed an intervention, something that would reverse his downfall. With a little assist from his head coach, Covington found help from a place he never thought to look — therapy.
The boiling pot
During a recent conversation after a Wolves practice, Covington talked for over an hour, detailing problems in his personal and professional lives. All this despite the stigma some might have about seeing a therapist. It’s one Covington said he shared and one that can pervade the machismo of athletics.
“I felt like, honestly, seeing a therapist was kind of weak,” Covington said. “But it helps. It helps a whole lot, because it allows you to decompress and restart.”
Covington needed the reset. To use his analogy, he was a burning pot boiling over.
“Imagine two years worth of stuff that you’ve been holding on to and everything just keeps piling up to the point where the pot just overflows,” Covington said. “You know what happens when a pot overflows? It hits the side of the pan and it hits the fire and the fire just explodes.”
What was in that pot? Start with Covington’s trade to the Wolves.
After hearing his name floating in trade rumors all that summer, Covington had conversations with the 76ers about his status with the team. But after Covington felt assured of his future with the franchise, new general manager Elton Brand struck the trade with Minnesota, packaging Covington with Dario Saric and Jerryd Bayless for the disgruntled Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton.
Covington said he feels no hard feelings toward the 76ers and maintains good relationships there, but when asked if he felt betrayed, he said: “In a sense, yes. Just because I asked. It was a big thing because … my girlfriend and the baby were going to move up with me. … So there was a lot of stuff going on and that was on my mind.”
All the stress of planning the move was for naught, and now he had to find a place in Minneapolis, make plans to move himself and his family again, get his dog and his snakes, (yes, snakes), transported to Minnesota, all while being halfway across the country, trying to make sure his family was all right in an unfamiliar city. This was the boiling of the pot.
“I’ve always carried the burdens of everyone I love and try to make sure everyone else is good rather than focus on myself,” Covington said. “That’s where it was getting overwhelming for me. But I didn’t realize that.”
About a month after his debut in Minnesota came the knee problems that began in early December when he missed a game against Portland but became more severe on Dec. 31 when a Pelicans player fell on his knee during a game in New Orleans. That was the last time he would see the floor that season, but he didn’t know it yet.
This was the most time Covington missed because of an injury in his career. As it dragged on, he grew more depressed. He is usually one of the happiest people in the room, engaging everyone in conversation with a smile that is infectious. That facade was getting harder to uphold as record setting cold set in during late January and the Wolves kept losing without him.
His mom Teresa and stepdad Dennis Bryant, who helped raise Covington, would plan trips to Minnesota, But Covington wouldn’t want them to come. They even went on road trips Covington didn’t.
“What was the point?” he thought. He wasn’t playing. Just leave him alone.
“He knew we were still going to come because that’s what we do,” Teresa Bryant said.
There were only small hints that something wasn’t right, though there was tension between Covington and his mother. He felt like nobody could relate to what was happening to him, nor did he want people feeling sorry for him.
“He didn’t reveal a lot,” Teresa said. “But we knew he was going through something. … I think it was more when he was by himself was when it really took a toll.”
The solitude. His shield and his torturer. Covington wanted his space, and he sent away his girlfriend and her son so he could have that space — and so he could ultimately save his relationship.
“Stuff at home wasn’t right,” Covington said. “I was bringing the frustration, the stress, and all that, I was bringing it home. It got to the point where I had to really get them away from me. Because mentally I just needed to be about myself, and if they would’ve stayed around, like I probably wouldn’t have been with her after that point. I didn’t want it to get to that point.”
The breaking point
Toward the end of February, Covington practiced with the Wolves’ G-League affiliate in Iowa in preparation for his return to the NBA squad. Before coming back to Minnesota, Covington flew to Nashville, where he lives in the offseason, for the birthday of his girlfriend’s son. Then he flew to Minnesota. After those flights, Covington’s knee was swollen. At first it was no big deal. The knee would swell every time he flew. But it usually went back down.
This time it didn’t.
So the Wolves undertook more tests — revealing more damage than they thought, damage that would require surgery. Covington was devastated.
“It was like, ‘Why? I’ve done everything,’” he said. “I went about [rehab] the right way and, I don’t understand.”
The pot boiled over, and the stove was on fire.
Covington was showing up late to rehab. What was the point? He wasn’t getting any better.
“I would literally just sit up in the bed thinking,” Covington said. “That’s what made me more and more restless. … Everybody just kept asking me, ‘Are you OK?’ It got to the point where that bothered me. Stop asking me am I OK? Obviously I’m not.”
It all led to one day in March, the day Covington said he snapped at the Wolves facility.
“I had a moment where I said something that I don’t normally say,” he said. “It was like, ‘Hold on.’ … There was a lot of stuff going on. [Coach] Ryan [Saunders] and them started to see a trend in my habits. I would come late. I wouldn’t say anything.”
Soon after there was a conversation between Covington, Saunders, General Manager Scott Layden and head athletic trainer Gregg Farnam to discuss Covington’s recovery, which resulted in arthroscopic surgery April 1.
But the talk became about more than that.
“I opened up because I knew something was wrong,” Covington said. “I sat there and I talked to them and I said ‘I’m not right.’ I literally put my head down in my hands and I started to cry a little bit … It felt too much at that point.”
Saunders, who had seen a therapist in the wake of the death of his father Flip, suggested Covington do the same. Saunders experienced what therapy can do, and the ways it can help.
“You start saying things [in sessions] that when they come out of your mouth, you’re like, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t realize that was an issue for me.’ ” Saunders said.
Covington thought about it, and had to overcome his own hesitation. A strong, athletically gifted millionaire NBA player? They shouldn’t need therapy. Just keep your chin up and soldier on.
But Covington had never felt worse. He agreed to give it a shot.
“I’ve always been strong,” Covington said. “But during this whole thing, I felt like I couldn’t be strong.”
But he tapped into a different kind of strength.
Covington said his first session with Justin Anderson, a locally based sports psychologist, lasted about three hours. He talked with his head down the whole time, unburdening himself of everything.
“He was just like, I don’t understand how you are OK right now,” Covington said. “He said, ‘I see why you have so much frustration and stress going on because dude, every time you’ve made a positive outcome, you’ve been hit with something else.’ ”
Just talking about everything to someone free of judgment helped Covington.
In the next session, Covington’s body language improved. As if the removing the anvil off his back, he sat up straighter and had better body language.
By the third session, there was eye contact with Anderson as he spoke. It was then he started to feel the tangible effects of the therapy. Life was getting better, more normal. Just by talking about it.
“Once I decompressed everything, it was a big weight lifted,” Covington said. “I didn’t realize all that stuff was still lingering.”
Throughout April and May, his life was getting back in order. Things were better with his girlfriend, and he patched things up with his mother. He changed his diet, eliminating pork. He started reading more and investing in real estate. Most important for Covington, he started going to church.
People remember the important dates in their lives. Covington remembers the day he returned to church.
“August 4, this year,” he said. “I haven’t missed a Sunday yet. If I’m not there, I’m watching it online. … All the weight that you’ve held on your shoulders for so long, it’s time to let it all go. God is not going to sit up here and judge you for what you’ve done in the past.
“Church has opened up my mind in a whole different aspect.”
Gradually, he got better. Church helped, as did the continuing sessions, and Covington continues to see Anderson. He spent most of his summer in Nashville rehabilitating and bonding more with his younger brothers. And eventually, he got back on the basketball court. No more setbacks. He was back in his natural state.
He still didn’t tell his parents he was seeing a therapist until late in the summer, but they could see the difference.
“You can see that joy that he used to have when he was on the court,” Teresa Bryant said. “That sparkle is back in his eyes.”
Saunders was glad Covington was willing to make the leap, step out of his comfort zone and get help.
“That to me, that should tell people that he’s somebody who cares not just for his own well-being but the people around him,” Saunders said. “Because he understood that he needed another outlet, another avenue to getting to where he wanted to be.”
You can sense Covington’s joy in being back. After a recent preseason game in Phoenix, Covington stopped an interview so he could rib center Karl-Anthony Towns about his bright orange postgame outfit. Even though he said he’s not all the way back from his knee injury, he’s close to being his old self on the floor.
More importantly, he’s his old self, away from the court, and in some ways better.
“I’m starting to become the person I imagined me being,” Covington said, adding: “If I never would’ve done this, ain’t no telling where I would be right now.”
Covington had a taste of that alternate reality, and he never wants to go back.