Today, I wanted to share with you a little about the history of the most important story we have been able to tell here at Varsity Letters, and how that story’s subject has grown in ways which truly surpass the margins of the written page.
Just weeks shy of five years ago, a courageous 17-year-old basketball star reached out to me, wanting to speak the entire unvarnished truth of his battle with mental illness and attempted suicide.
As Bradley Braich, the formerly-prodigious scoring guard with Abbotsford’s Yale Lions, will tell you today, it was a chance he couldn’t afford not to take, both for his own future well-being and the well-being of others he feared may well be suffering within the same dread-filled silence from which he knew he needed to escape.
And so he spoke… and since that story’s publication on Feb. 18, 2018 it has become the most-read story in the near six-year history of the VarsityLetters.ca website.
With that said, here’s the next chapter:
ABBOTSFORD — Funny thing about basketball.
Just a few short years ago, it held a then-17-year-old kid to the fire, making him confront every demon he could possibly imagine before introducing him to a few more.
It brought him to his knees.
It pushed him to the brink of own extinction.
It embraces him. It empowers him.
And it reminds him daily that the courage to tell his story has not only helped free him from his mental shackles, but helped to both galvanize and vitalize an entire community of high school students who themselves may have been suffering in silence.
This spring, Braich will once again hold a full-day high school hoops celebration for senior and junior boys and girls, which for the second year in a row will take place at the Langley Events Centre.
Sowed from humble seeds in pre-pandemic times, the event has continued to grow, just like it’s 22-year-old founder.
Right from the start, Bradley Braich knew it could only have one name.
And these days, with his darkest times now over five years in the rearview mirror, the Abbotsford native and former Yale Lions star guard doesn’t hesitate to say that along the journey to meet the struggles of his condition head on, that its name — ‘Bigger Than Basketball’ — has never fit better nor ever meant more.
Back in February 2018, in a Varsity Letters’ article entitled “Bradley Braich: Yale’s star guard won’t hide from mental illness, wants to help others avoid his nightmare journey…”, Braich spoke courageously of his battles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and depression, and ultimately of attempts to take his own life.
Through counselling and the support of so many, he has moved past his lowest ebb, yet that doesn’t mean that every day is going to be a great one.
“I had a bit of a relapse (in 2021), “and it was actually basketball that pulled me back and stabilized me,” Braich said. “Here I was calling my event ‘Bigger Than Basketball’, but it was actually basketball that was helping me now.”
After a little more self-examination, however, Braich — who by this time had returned to help coach his former Yale senior boys team — was able to fully diagnose the benefits of his basketball elixir.
“I realized that it wasn’t the actual playing of the game that stabilized me,” he began. “It was the fact that I could go in and coach these younger players, have them look up to me. The routine, the connections that get built… the more I thought about that, I realized that what was happening was bigger than basketball.
“What athletes take away from the game most is not what happens on the court,” he continued. “It’s the friendships that are built with each other, with coaches, staying at hotels on the road, going out to eat. It’s all of those things that bring life to the game of basketball, and last year when I was able to go back and get my feet back under me and coach at Yale, I had people that wanted to see me, wanted to communicate with me… so yeah, as much as basketball is my favourite thing in the world, for me it’s about being able to go out and talk to people every day who love the same sport as I do.”
With all of that said, Bigger Than Basketball continues to live up to its name at every level, including its ever-growing scope of inclusion within the provincial high school hoops world.
This spring, when the day-long festivities kick off on May 11, Braich will have doubled the amount of showcase games from two to four.
In addition to his Class of 2023 girls and boys B.C. all-star games, he is adding boys and girls alumni games. There will also be three-point shooting contests for the Class of ’24 (rising Grade 11) and the Class of ’25 (rising Grade 10).
A STUDENT OF HIS LIFE
The genesis of this, our latest visit with Bradley Braich, started last fall, on the day he texted me the following: “…Oct. 7 (2022) marks 5 years since the last attempt to take my life. 5 YEARS Howard!!!”
It was one friend reaching out to another to acknowledge a milestone day of hope, belief and building for the future, and pretty soon talk just naturally turned to Bigger Than Basketball.
As I contemplated a re-visit of his story, I couldn’t help but think back to what Braich told me, back in early 2018, as he described how he had become a captive to the very sport he had devoted his life.
He told me then: “As early as 12, I would probably spend an extra hour at the end of a workout just to get my last shot to feel absolutely perfect. It had to be an absolutely perfect swish. It had to feel just right coming off my hand.
“There would be times when it would feel perfect so I’d walk away and take off my shoes. But then I would get so anxiety-ridden. My brain would tell me it wasn’t perfect, so I would put my shoes on and go back and start shooting again. I thought at the time that it was all just good, normal hard work. You know, just wanting to be good. But I know now that it wasn’t normal.”
That winter, in the midst of his mental turmoil and about a month before that first story was published, Bradley Braich went out and set a new Yale single-game scoring record with 66 points, eclipsing the previous 63-points of the co-record holders: His older brother Riley Braich and former B.C. top-tier tourney MVP Jauquin Bennett-Boire.
These days, as he continues to gain a greater day-to-day understanding of his afflictions, it seems worthy to re-visit once more, the level to which his world had closed in on him back in 2018 as he prepared to play in his record-setting game.
“…I’ll be honest, it wasn’t as fun to do as you would expect,” he said then of what now can be seen as a paradox between the genuine blue-chip skill he possessed and the unhealthy means in which that skill was ultimately able to manifest itself on the court.
“I had so much anxiety building up that day and my OCD was going crazy. I had so many rituals going on. If I touched something with my left hand, I had to touch it with my right, and during the game, if I took a drink with my right hand, then I would have to take another with my left.”
If you really examine those words, spoken by a then-17-year-old just getting up off the figurative floor, you can sense an inner strength, one which these days has led him in the halls of academia where he has truly learned to help himself and embrace knowledge as power.
“Throughout high school, before any of my struggles, I never had any interest in anything related to psychology, the brain or anything like that,” begins Braich when asked to bring us up to date on his day-to-day life.
“But then when I went through my struggles, I just started reading… here and there… and it would be journal articles published on OCD and depression. I fell in love with the idea of the brain and brain research.”
Ultimately, it has led Braich to the University of B.C.’s Point Grey campus, a place which not too long ago he would have contemplated arriving at more as a destination for a post-secondary basketball career.
Quite fittingly, however, in a story about how life is indeed bigger than basketball, Braich is not suiting up for the UBC Thunderbirds but is instead enrolled in the school’s neuroscience program, fully involved in the study of both the brain and the nervous system.
To him, it’s that catch-all phrase ‘self-help’ being practiced at its most elemental and genuine level.
“A lot of the topics we cover in class, I’ve just gone ‘Wow, this is something I’ve lived through,’” Braich explained in an empowered tone. “Just knowing that all of this is a concrete disorder with concrete symptoms? I have lived through what we’re studying… it’s labelled, it’s been studied, it has treatments.”
They say knowledge is power, and while Braich is too smart to think he is immune to having bad days, you could say that there is a genuine similarity between his past days in the gym engaged in endless shooting drills, and the steps he’s taken ever since in recovery, exercising the neuroplasticity of the brain to gain a greater depth of coping skills and overall ballast.
To him, they’re each about building muscle memory.
“The brain is very complex and from what I have learned so far, we are just scratching the surface of what we know,” Braich explains.
“I went through what is known as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and that is re-wiring your brain, because when you grow up, with all of the experiences of childhood, there are certain biological and environmental factors,” he continues of what he has learned through that therapy.
“When you are growing up, you are very suceptible at a young age, and sometimes things get wired in there that wouldn’t be healthy for you when you get older. What CBT and other therapies do, is they go back and undo things and give you a more healthy structure that you can go forward with. I have learned it and gone through it and personally, I have felt my brain and the way I think, change.”
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
Bradley Braich knows that through his experiences he has a message that he can’t keep to himself.
So just before the final game of Bigger Than Basketball’s day-long May 11 schedule, Braich and potentially another speaker or two who have experienced similar journeys will address the crowd on hand at the Langley Events Centre.
“I’m hoping we can shed light on our own experiences with mental health and hopefully help some people listening in the crowd,” he says.
He’s gone from a kid all alone to a young man who wants us all to know that whatever you are feeling, you are not alone.
“I think that initially my motivation was I wanted to learn what was going on with me,” he admits. “But the more I learned what was going on with my brain, the more doors opened up for me to start helping other people.”
Times have changed.
In decades and generations past, mental health was a cloistered condition, and a deep, dark secret.
Today, through the courage of those like Bradley Braich, we are able to come together and show support for one another on a common ground, or in this case, a common court.
“I think I found what I want to do with my life and it is working with the brain,” he explains. “I would love to get my PhD in neuroscience, and then become a professor.”
Hear stuff like that and it has you convinced that his annual basketball celebration is going to stand the test of time.
“I think it’s going to stick because it has two important meanings,” concludes Braich. “One is the emphasis that health comes before basketball, and the other is that basketball has so much to offer in terms of communication and relationships.
“As much as it is beautiful to watch a ball go through a hoop, it’s also beautiful to watch two players form a bond.”
Bigger Than Basketball.
If he ever had any doubt, he doesn’t now.
How could there be a better name?
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