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Minnesota Timberwolves v Miami Heat

Robert Covington Opens Up

Seeing a therapist helped him cope with the worst injury of his career.

Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Honesty is beautiful in the Association. Its rarity has a way of driving that point home. When you hear it, you know. Everyone knows.

Starting point guard Jeff Teague is a media maven in the locker room due to his unfiltered comments. His honesty almost slaps you in the face. The Wolves’ oldest player, 31, and contract-year point guard, is unequivocally the best truth-teller in uniform. There’s a freshness in Teague’s answers. His responses stick with you. He can serve up a dime in transition on the hardwood equally as well as he can dish the cold hard truth straight into an iPhone directed at his face.

The starting point guard in Minneapolis is not the basis of this story though. The willingness of NBA players to speak freely is—allowing us for a moment to step a little bit deeper into their world. One thing this league teaches over time is that not everyone wants to share their stories, let alone unfiltered accounts of what they were actually feeling. Moments don’t always want to be shared, or get to be shared, in a truly representative way. That’s perfectly ok, too. There’s no language in a contract that states Player X must be perpetually honest in all interactions. But the result is a bevy of stories that never get told and tons of pictures only partially painted.

Which leads me to Robert Covington.

This past summer, I heard a story that caught my attention. The second best player in the Real North was going through tough times after hurting his right knee last season. We knew about the injury but we didn’t know about his struggles.

Last year took a toll on Covington mentally. Seeing a therapist helped him cope with what he was going through. On Media Day in Minneapolis, he was extremely candid about his experience during his recovery process.

Driving into Ramp B, heading towards Target Center with a million questions in my mind, there was one I couldn’t leave unasked. There was a RoCo experience none of us had experienced.

I heard you on a podcast earlier this summer and you talked about how last year was the toughest injury of your career. You started to see a therapist to help. You said that was a great experience. I know the league is taking steps to improve the mental health of all of its players. Can you tell us about that process, how it went for you, and how helpful it was for you?

Covington delivered a response well beyond thoughtful. Well beyond any words I could write in this space. He opened up. He let us in.

“I talked to my brother’s girlfriend about this, literally [talked about] the same thing on Saturday. Her program is called The Elephant in the Room. We talked about mental health and mental awareness. Last year was very tough for me,” said Covington.

“That’s the longest I’ve been out in my career combined in my previous six years,” he said.

“Never experienced something like that where it hindered me to be out that long. You thought it was something so minor, so simple, when it’s not. It’s more in-depth than what I actually knew. I was frustrated because I can’t go out. I can’t be battling with my teammates. They’re out there busting their asses each and every day to make the playoffs and I can’t contribute to that. Me being the competitive person that I am, I didn’t understand it.”

Covington wanted to be with his new team. He wanted to battle for his teammates. For Minneapolis. For a town he only briefly knew. But an arthroscopic procedure with debridement and removal of loose bodies in his right knee didn’t allow that. There was nothing more he could do.

“It was affecting me at home,” said Covington.

“I wasn’t myself because there was so much cloudiness. Not knowing why. I didn’t know how to figure it out. I was just in a state of frustration, a state of stress, and ultimately I had to send my family away from me just because I couldn’t put them through that energy I was feeling. Ultimately, I had to take the steps and figure it out on my own first. That’s when Ryan [Saunders] and they actually came to me, and I actually opened up to them what I was going through mentally. They were noticing how I was affected in the workplace. I wasn’t myself.”

At that moment, honesty came to mind. The way players only sparingly open up themselves to let us all in. The way narratives quickly disappear when truth reveals itself.

Here is the real RoCo. Not only the one we love for all-NBA defense or for his dedication to the team. The one that lays his body on the line for the Wolf culture. The one I eagerly call Lord Covington on social media, a player that easily makes die-hard basketball fans adore him for everything that he is—the 3-and-D guru nobody wanted to believe in years ago—putting everything out on the table to judge.

“I would be walking around with my head down, caught in my thoughts, not being the person that I am right now—the energetic guy that’s uplifting and motivating. I wasn’t that person,” said Covington.

“When I didn’t feel like that person, that’s when there was a problem because that’s always me. I felt that energy and understood it. That’s when I went to Ryan [Saunders] and them. They had already noticed it but just me opening up about it, they mentioned seeing a therapist.”

Covington knew the status quo wasn’t enough. This wasn’t a feeling he could fight. This wasn’t something he could ignore.

“When I went to see [the therapist], I did a couple of sessions with him and it felt like the pressure of the—you know all the weight I was bearing—was lifted off my shoulders. It helped me with my recovery. I didn’t have the burdens. I didn’t have the clouded judgment. I wasn’t frustrated.”

Through time, and devastating injury, Covington found his way.

“I had overcome all of that energy because I talked about it, I addressed it, and ultimately the therapist gave me a professional way to view everything and ways to handle certain things to get through it,” he said.

“That’s what has allowed me during this whole phase to not have any issues. That what’s helped my recovery process because I’m not carrying any burdens. I’m not sitting up here thinking about any negative things of what’s going on. When I feel discomfort, or anything in my knee, I’m not viewing it as what I did before based off where I was in that place five months ago.”

As the NBA seeks to promote mental health programs across the league, Covington is an obvious example of how crucial partnerships are between the team and its players.

“I’ve taken the right steps, not only with seeing a therapist but doing other stuff outside of that. I changed my diet. I’ve begun eating more and more greens, more anti-inflammatory diets. I’ve done my research on different things to help with my progression of changing and revamping my whole body. I gave up pork. There’s a lot of different things that I’ve done that has helped me along this process.

I feel really good ultimately about everything that I’ve done, and got rid of all that clouded judgment that I had that was affecting me last year and that’s what has allowed me to be in this place now where how I feel like I don’t have any issues. I don’t have discomfort, nothing is hindering me. Now, I have to keep moving forward and doing the right things and not allowing the stuff that held me back before to creep in. Right now, ain’t nothing going to affect me to where I would ever get back to that place again. It’s all about the process and what I’ve done and the ways I can keep building off that.”

When asked if there was there some trust level that started to build with Ryan Saunders through the tough process of his knee injury—specifically if he could go to Saunders to say if things weren’t going well—Covington revealed more.

“It was him [Ryan Saunders], Scott [Layden], and Gregg [Farnam] that was in the meeting when I sat and talked. It brought tears to my eyes.”

As fans, we knew RoCo was hurt. As media, we knew RoCo was hurt. The full story was never told though. On the outside, none of us really knew what he was going through. But during the toughest times, his bond with the organization, and his new head coach, grew stronger.

“It did build the trust because Ryan shared stories with me about how the therapist helped him with the loss of his father and how he dealt with that,” said Covington.

“Ryan gave me the motivation to sit up here and keep my head in a positive manner. There’s going to be days where you have stress, frustration, everything. How you handle that is what is going to allow to have the [right] outcome. It’s going to dictate the outcome and how you feel about things. If you handle it this way, it’s going to put you in this mood. If you handle it this way, it’s going to put you in that mood.”

If anything is clear at this point, it’s that Covington getting back to his all-defensive chops, to become the player who gave Wolves’ fans hope a year ago, is the path forward to being relevant. Jimmy Butler was hope. Then he quickly wasn’t. But RoCo hope feels similar since he’s really that good.

“Ryan showed up to my camp,” Covington said, upon his clear advocacy of coach Saunders running the show in Minnesota.

“I didn’t ask him to do that. He came to me and was like ‘Hey man, I want to come. I want to show you how invested I am into what we’re doing.’ Not only did he do that for me but he did that for multiple guys so he’s not only building that trust with me but with everyone on the team.”

The last words from Covington stuck with me, which is to say a lot given how authentic his entire statement was.

“I never would’ve sat up here and did this if I never would’ve talked to him in the first place, and the conversations afterward that put me in that place. Having that trust with him now, I’m looking forward to what we’re about to do.”

Say whatever you will about this version of the Wolves, but I’ll always appreciate Covington’s honesty. I’ll always remember how pure that felt.