To grow, he had to let go. Tyrell Terry had NBA talent and a contract to match. But basketball was destroying him, so he gave it up.

By Chip Scoggins Star Tribune

June 15, 2023
Lead portrait by LOREN ELLIOT, Special to the STAR TRIBUNE

PALO ALTO, CALIF. — A black Tesla pulls into a Stanford University parking lot off Campus Drive and heads toward a spot in the back row.

The tall Minnesota man behind the wheel radiates a cool vibe. He's fit and handsome, 22 and trendy, the hair on his head and under his chin styled just so.

His creative writing class starts in 20 minutes across campus. He has his routine timed perfectly.

He hops out of his car and unlocks a mountain bike in a nearby rack. Campus parking is tricky, so he keeps his other set of wheels here during the week.

"This works out good," he says as he pedals toward class.

In classes back on the first day of school, he kept his personal information minimal during introductions. The basics and his major.

Tyrell Terry. Sophomore. Minneapolis. Science, Technology and Society.

No mention of the NBA, or his Instagram post that shook the sports world.

"I don't feel the need to talk about it," he says.

Tyrell Terry announced his retirement from pro basketball on social media this past December. The painful sentences he typed, the ones that described his mental anguish and said he was leaving behind "the darkest times of my life," started to form more than two years ago in the Dallas Mavericks training facility.

Terry walked into work that March morning in 2021 and saw the scale. They'd make him stand on this thing all the time to check his weight. He was skinny — too skinny, every voice around him said — and he grew to hate that scale. He hated that he couldn't make the number go up, no matter how hard he tried. And he hated the constant attention on his weight.

On this day, something inside of him conceded. He saw the scale, turned away and walked into an office in tears to request a leave of absence.

He was a 20-year-old rookie, with a No. 1 Mavericks jersey in his locker and a $6 million contract in his name. And he badly needed a break. He got one, but he didn't get the results he wanted. He couldn't step away from his own body and his own mind.

In his last game in Minnesota, March 2019, Terry walked off the Target Center floor with his third state championship trophy and his high school coach saying, "He's arguably the best point guard in the country."

The former DeLaSalle High star excelled on the court by skill and guile. Playing with effortless freedom, he was so smooth and under control, manipulating the game with slick passing, ball handling and a confident demeanor.

Anthony Souffle and Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune
Fans cheered on Tyrell Terry, top, who embraced teammate Julian Wright after DeLaSalle defeated Waseca 63-56 in the Class 3A boys basketball state championship game on March 23, 2019. Terry, bottom right, drove to the basket during that 2019 state title run vs. Princeton on March 21.

But conversations about Tyrell Terry the basketball player almost always shifted to the same topic: his skinny body.

He weighed 160 pounds in his one season at Stanford. NBA teams grilled him about his weight during the pre-draft process.

He tried to consume 4,000 calories every day for six months before the draft to ease concerns. Though he added 20 pounds in the short term, he could not transform his 6-2 frame. Genetics always won.

Coaches and scouts couldn't stop raving, though. As a point guard, he put everyone around him at ease, certain to make the right play. An intelligent, eager student his whole life, Terry reportedly set a record on an IQ test that some NBA teams administer to draft prospects.

He had declared for the draft after starting every game as a freshman at Stanford, leading the Pac-12 in free-throw shooting (89.1%) and posting the second-highest scoring average (14.6) by a freshman in the program's history. The pandemic had upended everything about life and sports in the spring of 2020, and the draft was delayed until November. On the same night the Timberwolves drafted Anthony Edwards No. 1, the Dallas Mavericks used the first pick of the second round to select Terry, No. 31 overall.

His basketball journey was launching into rare air. Terry made his NBA debut on Christmas Day, 2020.

Two and a half years later, he's back here at Stanford, a sophomore getting to class on time and contemplating where his major might lead. He's here to find something so elusive — happiness — after he put an end to his days as a professional athlete with an Instagram post.

Retiring from basketball? Why would a recent NBA draft pick retire?

The answer was jarring. Basketball, he wrote, was destroying him.

The more Terry achieved, the more his body was critiqued, the more his mental health suffered. The anxiety he felt for years spiked when he made the NBA and tormented his days and nights. He couldn't sleep. The thought of practice made him physically ill.

He had reached the pinnacle of basketball and he was broken. This was his secret.

"My personality and how my career went," he says over lunch, smashing his fists together to simulate an explosion.

The skinny rookie was being weighed again. A Dallas Mavericks teammate walked by and saw 156 pounds pop up on the panel.

Ty, you're little as s—, he bellowed.

Another jab, each one hurting more than the last. These made Terry, already self-conscious and struggling with anxiety, retreat further into darkness. He agonized about all of this — his body, basketball, his anxiety, the scale, and how these things had become inseparable for him — constantly.

Vernon Bryant, courtesy of The Dallas Morning News
Terry (1) dribbled against Charlotte guard LaMelo Ball on Dec. 30, 2020. Terry played in 13 games in two seasons for Dallas and Memphis.

If he had to be at the facility for practice by 8:45 a.m., he would set his alarm for 8:20, get out of bed to vomit, brush his teeth and leave.

"I would be too anxious to eat," he says.

He knew he needed to step away from the game that was suffocating him. In March 2021, after just 11 games, he did.

Twenty-one months, two NBA teams and countless therapy sessions later, he found himself alone in an apartment in Germany, crafting an Instagram post that outlined basketball's grip on him in piercing rawness.

Instead of building me up, it began to destroy me. Where I began to despise and question the value of myself, much more than those surrounding me could ever see or know.

Intrusive thoughts, waking up nauseous, and finding myself struggling to take normal breaths because of the rock that would sit on my chest that seemed to weigh more than I could carry.

He hit send, then logged on to his PlayStation.

His basketball career was over.

Terry can't remember a time when he loved basketball, truly loved it, in the way so many players around him loved the game.

"I can probably name 1,000 players out there that are better than me," he says. "But my stars aligned better than theirs."

The competitiveness of the NBA is cutthroat. A player lacking confidence will get devoured. Many players operate with a mindset that they want to destroy the opponent guarding them. Terry never felt that urge.

He is a deep thinker who dissects everything happening to him. His mom, Carrie Grise, calls it a family trait.

"Over-thinkers," she says.

Grise was 20 years old and unmarried when she first held Baby Tyrell. She moved from North Dakota to the Twin Cities with Tyrell when he was 4.

He was the "easiest child," she says, never causing trouble and never wanting to disappoint anyone. If he was ever mischievous, his mom would give him a look and Tyrell would run and put himself in timeout.

He loved school and reading books so much that one day he asked his teacher if she would assign more homework.

Courtesy of Carrie Grise
An intelligent, eager student his whole life, Terry picked up basketball at a young age.

School and sports came naturally to him, but Terry struggled with self-confidence for as long as he can remember. He felt lonely a lot. He still experiences social anxiety, to the point that phone calls can make him nervous.

Terry kept the battles he waged in his own mind private, hidden even from those closest to him. A close friend who spent time with Terry during the pandemic-lockdown days leading up to the draft got only a glimpse.

"I kept telling him, I don't understand what you're going through, but I'm here for you," Mikey Levine said. "I could tell he just wasn't enjoying himself."

He knew in his heart he didn't love basketball. He loved the idea of making loved ones proud. That was his motivation to reach the NBA.

The Mavericks traded away Seth Curry, a deadeye shooter, on draft night and selected Terry. There were comparisons to supreme shot-maker Trae Young of Atlanta. Terry's anxiety soared as he thought of falling short and letting people down.

"That was never my game," he says.

Terry took the court for his first Mavericks practice, and his agent remembers a photo being posted on social media. His jersey was noticeably baggy. One commenter made a wisecrack about Terry looking like the freshman who got called up to varsity.

"There were days where he would call me before practice having a panic attack, saying, 'I can't do it. You have to call the GM. I can't show up,' " agent Daniel Poneman said.

Poneman would settle him down each time, until he couldn't. Terry asked for a personal leave that lasted nearly two months.

"On a daily basis I was trying to convince myself that I loved basketball," he says. "Trying to convince myself that people's opinions didn't matter. It became a game of trying to convince myself of something that I didn't believe in. I realized that's not how I want to live my life. It was like I was damaging myself."

Richard Tsong-Taatari, Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune; Chris Carlson, Tony Avelar, Associated Press
Terry played in big games throughout his high school and college career with DeLaSalle and Stanford. Terry, far right in bottom left photo, was a member of the Star Tribune's All-Metro basketball first team, which also included, from left, Jalen Suggs of Minnehaha Academy, Tyler Wahl of Lakeville North, Zeke Nnaji of Hopkins and David Roddy of Breck.

Terry told himself that he didn't deserve to be sad. Look around, he thought. People are struggling just to pay bills. I'm playing in the NBA. Who am I to be anxious?

"It doesn't really work that way, unfortunately," he says.

He had regular sessions with the Mavericks' therapist during his leave. He tried anxiety medication, but those made him nauseous and he didn't want to become dependent on meds.

The NBA requires every team to have a designated mental health professional and a psychiatrist available to players, plus an emergency action plan in case of a crisis. Privacy laws prevent the league from commenting on Terry's situation.

Said Dr. Kensa Gunter, director of the league's Mind Health program: "Just because you have money, resources, you're in the public eye, you're on TV — you might even have reached your dream of being in the NBA — that doesn't absolve you of the very real stresses with just trying to live and being human. It doesn't absolve you from your own biology."

Dr. Lisa Hardesty of the Mayo Clinic is a clinical health psychologist who specializes in weight management. She has no connection to Terry's case, but every day she's a witness to body image battles wrecking mental health.

"The anxiety magnifies everything," she said. "It's a big megaphone. People with anxiety often feel like they have a neon sign on their forehead that is advertising, 'Look at me.' "

That neon sign can feel like a movie screen for those who live in the public eye.

"If you're more in the spotlight," Hardesty said, "people might comment on it as well."

Terry couldn't escape this. His body frame was viewed as a strike against him. The more people asked him about it and focused on it, the more it dragged him down.

"How can my confidence be high?" he says.

He tried to return for a second season in Dallas, but that didn't go far before Terry and the team agreed on his release during training camp.

"On a daily basis I was trying to convince myself that I loved basketball. Trying to convince myself that people's opinions didn't matter. It became a game of trying to convince myself of something that I didn't believe in. I realized that's not how I want to live my life. It was like I was damaging myself."
Tyrell Terry
on his mental struggles in the NBA

Eager to dig deeper into his underlying issues, he studied literature on alternative therapy that utilizes psychedelic drugs.

He flew to Los Angeles to undergo treatment involving ketamine, a drug commonly used for anesthesia that produces a mind-altering state in psychotherapy. The practice, in which the patient takes ketamine and speaks with a therapist, has become popular in treating depression and anxiety.

"Whatever you're feeling is going to come out," Terry says. "There is no hiding."

He used ketamine therapy over several months and felt rejuvenated enough to try basketball again. The Memphis Grizzlies signed him in late December 2021. He played mostly for their G League team before suffering a foot injury. He made only brief appearances in two games with the Grizzlies before being released.

I'm done, he told himself. There's nothing in this sport for me anymore.

Still, he tried again this past winter, hoping Europe would be a better fit. He signed with a team in Germany. He was so sick his first week that he could hardly get out of bed. He believes his anxiety caused flu-like symptoms.

He told his agent on Dec. 14 that he wanted to retire. Poneman thought his client might ponder this more. He was alarmed when he read Terry's Instagram post the next day sharing deeply personal information.

"I thought it would be bad for his anxiety and people would say bad things about him," Poneman said.

In fact, the opposite happened.

Terry is finishing lunch at a downtown Minneapolis restaurant this past February when he pulls out his phone and scrolls through his DMs.

"Here's one from a week ago," he says, reading the message from a stranger.

I know you'll probably never see this, but you have impacted my life in such a positive way. By you coming out and explaining your mental health/anxiety issues makes me realize that I'm not alone and that it is OK. I can barely get out of bed at times due to it.

Terry didn't expect this. He just poured his feelings into Instagram that night. Within minutes, his phone was buzzing with text messages. Media outlets all over picked up the news.

He received hundreds of messages of support. A professional women's golfer wrote to him. Pitt men's basketball coach Jeff Capel thanked him for his bravery. Athletes from different sports shared with him their own mental health stories, high schoolers to pros.

"I didn't expect that many people to be struggling," he says. "I was kind of saddened by that."

Kelvin Kuo, Associated Press
Terry had declared for the draft after starting every game as a freshman at Stanford.

A small percentage of messages were negative or cruel. He figured that would happen. He focuses on the positive ones and those dealing with their own struggles.

"If I didn't get those messages," he says, "I would have just disappeared. You probably would have never seen me on any platform again. Now I feel compelled to do something about it."

He accepted an invitation in late April to speak to about 100 students and parents about mental health at a community center near Pittsburgh.

"I enjoyed it," he says. "It was a good experience."

He re-enrolled at Stanford this spring to find a new path. He picked a major — Science, Technology and Society — that offers a broad curriculum. He's searching for a new passion.

He's not sure anyone has recognized him on campus. He chuckles as he shares something that happened in one of his classes.

As an icebreaker, students were asked to say something they are proud of. One student told the group that part of some software he developed is being used by NASA on a mission.

"I'm like …," Terry says, his face contorting into a stunned expression.

And what did Terry share as his proudest accomplishment? Getting into Stanford.

His 30-minute daily commute to campus ends in a familiar place. This parking lot is next to Maples Pavilion, the basketball arena where Terry once drew standing ovations. His picture hangs on a wall inside along with other Stanford players who made it to the NBA.

He has been inside the arena only once since returning in April.

Just down the street is Ray's Grill, his favorite campus dining spot. Chirping birds provide a soothing soundtrack as he relaxes on the back deck on this sunny spring afternoon in the Bay Area. His classes are done for the day, though his evening will be devoted to working on a technical briefing for his bioengineering class.

Terry misses being an athlete here, hanging out with friends and teammates and late-night meals at Ray's, where he always orders the chicken sandwich. He traded it all in after one year for a shot at an NBA career, a decision he doesn't regret.

Loren Elliot, Special to the Star Tribune
Terry made his NBA debut on Christmas Day, 2020. Two and a half years later, he's back at Stanford as a sophomore after he retired from basketball.

"A lot of weight off my shoulders, as far as where I'm headed in life," he says. "I don't have to deal with crippling anxiety every day. Is this my passion to be at school? No. But I'm in the process of finding out what will make me happy."

Something that happened during his April trip to Pittsburgh makes him believe he's on the right track. He started watching basketball on TV again this spring and enjoyed it, but he felt no desire to pick up a basketball ever again.

After his speech at the community center concluded, students there started shooting hoops. Terry joined them.

He stood under the basket and rebounded for them. He shot a few layups himself.

He felt no emotion as he held a basketball for the first time since he retired. No sense that something missing had returned. Nothing pulling him back. He returned to his hotel that night feeling peaceful, validated, and flew home the next day.

Home is California now. Tyrell Terry has moved on. In community centers, therapy sessions and campus life, he is looking for something he couldn't find on a basketball court. Maybe he'll find it in his next class. That's where he's headed.