As He Battles Parkinson’s, Ex-Miami HEAT Star Brian Grant Stands Tall as Advocate for Others Fighting the Disease

During 12 standout years in the NBA, former Miami HEAT Brian Grant was known for his hustle and toughness as a power forward or center, sometimes shaking off injuries and maneuvering his 6-foot-9-inch frame to block shots or leap for rebounds.

But his battles on the basketball court would pale in comparison to what awaited him shortly after his retirement from the NBA. One day in 2008, a neurologist in Portland, Oregon told him he had Young Onset Parkinson’s disease (YOPD), which occurs in people younger than 50. He was 36 years-old at the time. He was diagnosed with “tremor dominant” Parkinson’s. Yet, there were signs even in his playing days of what was to come.

(Watch now: Hear from former Miami HEAT star Brian Grant; Justin Sporrer, M.D., director of functional neurosurgery at Baptist Health’s Miami Neuroscience Institute; and Sameea Husain Wilson, D.O., director of Movement Disorder Neurology at Marcus Neuroscience Institute at Boca Raton Regional Hospital. Video by Carol Higgins.)

“My journey started, actually, when I got traded to the Lakers,” recalls Mr. Grant. “I noticed that I couldn’t jump off my left leg as well as I used to. And then I got to Phoenix, retired, and I went through nine months of depression, which I later found out many Parkinson’s patients go through because of the loss of dopamine in the brain. And so that’s how I got to that point. And then I moved back to Portland in 2008 and was diagnosed.”

Mr. Grant gave an interview to Baptist Health in an effort to spread the word about Parkinson’s and medical advancements in treating tremors and other physical symptoms, along with non-movement-related issues that can include anxiety, depression and cognitive issues. Parkinson’s patients are increasingly seeing improvements with these symptoms at Miami Neuroscience Institute and Marcus Neuroscience Institute (April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month).

“Miami will always hold a special place in my heart,” he says. Memories still rebound of his South Florida days playing for the HEAT, and he has many fans here. During his NBA career, he also played for the Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns.

“I’m a Believer … and This is What I was Dealt With”

After his diagnosis, Mr. Grant realized that his post-NBA life and career would take a dramatic turn away from what he had dreamt about — a career as an on-camera NBA commentator.

“I had dreams and aspirations of being a commentator for ESPN, TNT, or something like that,” he says. “But I was quickly shown that wasn’t going to be an option for me because I don’t have the mental capacity to go in front of people — shaking and tremoring — and being able to report what needs to be reported.”

His calling had changed abruptly at a young age. “You know what? I’m a believer and it was in God’s hands. And this is what I was dealt with. And I believe I was dealt with it because he knew I can handle it.”

Mr. Grant would start utilizing his new platform to help spread the message that Parkinson’s disease can strike young people. And that victims of this insidious and still-mysterious disease can live meaningful, productive and active lives.

After his diagnosis, Mr. Grant would make friends with Michael J. Fox, the most famous actor to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s (at age 30), and Muhammad Ali, the legendary boxer who died in 2016 after decades of struggling with Parkinson’s.

The Brian Grant Foundation was established in 2010. As its website says: “Though there is no cure for Parkinson’s, exercise, nutrition and a supportive community can help manage symptoms, maintain overall health and prevent other serious illnesses.” And now Mr. Grant is a newly published author, recounting his journey in the new book, Rebound: Soaring in the NBA, Battling Parkinson’s, and Finding What Really Matters. For people with Parkinson’s, exercise and supervised physical conditioning are vital for maintaining balance and mobility, or just keeping up with normal activities of daily living.

“I know there’s a platform there just from playing in the NBA, but this platform is much bigger because it deals with not only the patients, but caregivers and friends and family of people who are dealing with Parkinson’s,” said Mr. Grant. “I wrote a book and it’s a brief look at Parkinson’s, but it’s also a look at a whole lifetime of ups and downs. Just because we are diagnosed with Parkinson’s doesn’t mean that we won’t go through things or issues. We still got to handle our business in other areas of our life. And sometimes that can be hard and sometimes we don’t do that well, but at any time we can pick ourself up and turn things around.

Still Mostly a Mystery, But Parkinson’s is on the Rise

Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects predominately dopamine-producing neurons in a specific area of the brain. Its cause remains largely a mystery. Although there is no cure, treatment options vary and include medications and surgery — often to control tremors that can be debilitating. Parkinson’s itself is not fatal, but disease complications can be serious. About one million are living with Parkinson’s in the U.S. and about 60,000 are diagnosed each year.

“We know that many people will develop Parkinson’s later in life, but we have some pretty apparent examples of people developing it earlier in life,” explains Justin Sporrer, M.D., director of functional neurosurgery at Baptist Health’s Miami Neuroscience Institute. “Probably, the most well-known is Michael J. Fox. We see these cases where people start to have symptoms in their thirties and forties, sometimes even earlier than that.”

It’s important for everyone to understand that adults under 50 are increasingly being diagnosed with Young Onset Parkinson’s because “capturing the symptoms as early as possible is the name of the game,” said Sameea Husain Wilson, D.O., the director of Movement Disorder Neurology at Marcus Neuroscience Institute at Boca Raton Regional Hospital, where she specializes in movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.

Seeking Medical Help as Early as Possible

“Getting to a movement-disorder neurologist is very important because that is where we come in to help with that emotional journey as well,” explains Dr. Husain Wilson. “And we can help with the depression and the anxiety and the other psychological features that may come with the disease. We can help patients deal with them better and develop a skillset and coping mechanism so that they understand that they are not alone — and that they have a new family now.”

Dr. Sporrer adds that the incidence of Parkinson’s disease is increasing significantly overall, and “we’re not sure exactly why that is.”

“There may be environmental factors. It may also just be indicative of an aging population. Regardless, it is increasing and it will need to be dealt with by a larger and larger percentage of Americans,” says Dr. Sporrer. “I think that the physician’s role, not only as advocates, but also as the treating entities, is super important, but it’s a team effort that goes all the way from the lab to the physicians to the patients. And we work as a team.”

Mr. Grant is part of that “team” now, as an advocate for inspiring those with Parkinson’s to be as healthy as possible — despite the physical challenges.  Dr. Husain Wilson emphasizes that it “takes a village when it comes to managing Parkinson’s,” which may include physical, occupational and speech therapists, and a support network of friends, family and other patients who are fighting the disease.

Mr. Grant says he is hopeful that medical advances may diminish Parkinson’s symptoms to the point of wiping out the disease for future generations.

“Even if we don’t discover something in my lifetime, I’m hoping that the work that (Baptist Health) are putting in will be there for my children, if they happen to get Parkinson’s,” said Mr. Grant. “I don’t know anyone else in my family who’s had it, but for me to think about one of my children being diagnosed with Parkinson’s is a scary thing.

“Not that they couldn’t handle it, but I just would want them to not have to go through this. With your hard work and things that you’re putting out there, you may be the ones that discover cures so my kids never have to know this disease.”

Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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