Ex-NBA forward Brian Grant on battling Parkinson's: 'I was just happy to make it through alive'

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LostLettermen.com, the college football and men's basketball website, regularly contributes to the Yahoo Sports Blogs. Here's a look at the post-retirement life of former NBA player Brian Grant.

Throughout his basketball career, former Xavier star Brian Grant was a fighter.

As both a two-time Midwest Collegiate Conference Player of the Year and a 12-year NBA veteran with the Sacramento Kings, Portland Trail Blazers, Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns, Grant was lauded for his tenacious rebounding, defense and unwillingness to back down from anyone. (Just ask Karl Malone.)

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Retired from playing since 2006, Grant has taken up a different, much more important fight against Parkinson’s disease, with which he was diagnosed in November 2008. His eponymous foundation shifted its focus in 2010 from an all-encompassing charitable organization to one that “empowers those impacted by Parkinson’s to live active and fulfilling lives.”

Grant spoke with Lost Lettermen over the phone from his home in Portland on Wednesday — the same day he celebrated his 42nd birthday.

Lost Lettermen: When did you start feeling the symptoms?

Brian Grant: I probably had symptoms all the way back in 2005. That’s when I noticed I couldn’t jump off my left leg as well as I used to, but I just chalked that up to 12 years in the league. It was when I started getting twitches in the wrist that I knew something was wrong.

LL: What was it like when you were diagnosed?

BG: It was tough to hear because there were a lot of things going on at the time. I was two years into retirement, I started to have a lot of these health issues and my first marriage was ending. It was a tough time, but it also motivated me to get up and help the Parkinson’s community.

LL: What allowed you to get through that difficult time rather than succumb to everything?

BG: It was probably my kids. I didn’t totally get through that time unscathed. I went through depression and a lot of wasted time [on] the couch just doing nothing. Everyone wishes they could handle things differently and I wish I could’ve, but under the circumstances I was just happy to make it through alive.

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LL: How does your condition now compare to what it was like when you first started feeling the symptoms and when you were diagnosed?

BG: I’ve got more of a tremor now, and I also have a tremor in my foot. But compared to the other people I met with the disease, I’ve progressed slow. I’ve had it close to 10 years and I’m doing pretty good.

LL: What are you doing on a daily basis to treat the disease?

BG: When I first started, I chose not to take the meds. I started out with just IVs and supplementation, which I feel really helped me in the beginning. As the symptoms got heavier, I started on meds, which I take three times a day.

LL: How long after your diagnosis did you feel compelled to do something about it from a philanthropic standpoint?

BG: That started about six months after. My neurologist sits on [the] board of [the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research], and he arranged for Michael to give me a call. After I spoke to him I wanted to throw an event, so I went to one down in L.A. and got a lot of ideas from it to hold our own. That’s when I got up and started “Shake It Till We Make It.” We raised $350,00 that first time [that] we turned over to his foundation.

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LL: What aspects of the fight against Parkinson’s is your foundation focused on?

BG: We’ve chosen to help those people that are in my category of young-onset, but we also help every person, regardless of age, with the disease. We provide information on nutrition, exercise and support for family members and caregivers and assembling your health care team. That and things you want to eat and steer clear of when you start your meds. And exercise, which is a big reason why I’ve progressed relatively slow.

LL: In addition to "Shake It Till We Make It," what other programs and initiatives has the foundation spearheaded or created?

BG: I hiked to the top of Mount St. Helens with some other patients. It was a magical moment but one of the toughest things we’ve did; the meds ran out and people locked up at the end. We did it to prove that there’s no reason we can’t do the things that normal people do. We have exercise classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout the Portland area for people with movement disorders. We also had our first wellness retreat this past summer, where people learned about exercise and nutrition and we had speakers that spoke about maintaining a healthy sex life with your partner (laughs).

It’s important to get people to share information. You learn more about Parkinson’s from other patients and caregivers than you do from your neurologist, because it’s the patients who go through the trials daily.

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LL: What has it been like to work with and get to know Michael J. Fox through all of this?

BG: He’s a very busy individual as far as his time. He’s pulled everywhere; he’s the godfather of Parkinson’s. The one time I got to spend time with him was so valuable. I was able to look at that and be encouraged to live as normal a life as possible.

LL: How often have you been back to Xavier in the past 20 years?

BG: They retired my number a few years back, but I haven’t gone back as much as I liked, that’s for sure. I was there at the Crosstown Shootout [in 2011]. That was a little crazy.

LL: Do you keep in close contact with any of your former teammates and your former coach, Pete Gillen?

BG: Tyrice Walker and I have maintained our friendship. We went into Xavier together; his oldest son is my godson and he’s godfather to my oldest. Coach Gillen got a message to me three or four weeks ago. I guess he’s doing a lot of commentating, but I think he should still be coaching. I enjoyed playing for him.

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LL: Why do you think it is that the Musketeers have been so consistently good for the past 20 years? How responsible do you feel for having laid the program’s groundwork?

BG: I guess it’s just the atmosphere, the university, the fact that it’s a small school with great talent. They’re good at recruiting a lot of guys of whom not a lot is expected of them, just like me. I give the credit [for kickstarting the program] to Tyrone Hill and Derek Strong; I just came in and continued it. Then you had David West and other guys who were just killing it. It goes on and on.

We still haven’t won a national championship, and hopefully one day we will. The Big East competition is going to be tough now.

LL: At this point in time, how many people recognize you first and foremost as an ex-basketball player compared to those who recognize you as a figure in the fight against Parkinson’s?

BG: Here in Portland, I’m always going to be recognized as Brian Grant the basketball player. But outside of Portland, I’m looked at as the guy who works with Michael J. Fox who also has Parkinson’s. It’s definitely a legacy I want to leave, as someone who led the fight against Parkinson’s the same way Michael J. Fox did.

Chris Mahr (@CMahrtian) is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. You can follow LostLettermen.com on Facebook and Twitter.

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