Basketball legend John Salley opens up about becoming vegan and his new Disney movie

Four-time NBA champion John Salley is a true renaissance man. He's who you'd be if you were bright, thoughtful, charming, intellectually curious, and had millions of dollars at your disposal and the experience with which to make savvy business investments. He's also a vegan chef, restaurateur, philanthropist, health coach, a girl-dad of three daughters, actor, TV host, technology freak (we'll talk more about that), owns a cannabis company with his 25-year-old daughter Tyla Salley, and he's met the Dalai Lama. Did I mention he was charming?

We Zoom'd with Salley about his busy life and plethora of pursuits while he sat patiently waiting for his wife of 28 years, Natasha Duffy, to finish an appointment with her ophthalmologist. Most people of his stature would likely have canceled the interview, but Salley's not your average celebrity.


Upworthy: What was your interest initially in becoming vegan?

John Salley: My mother was a kosher caterer in Brooklyn growing up. She got together with a bunch of other folks from South Carolina and created a farm in the backyard of an old house. They grew cabbage, cucumbers, okra, collard greens, peppers, and I was always that kid growing up around this. I was a vegetable kid. My treat was a cucumber and ice tea. Then in 1992, my cholesterol was 271. There were guys on the team [Miami Heat] who were 12 years older with lower cholesterol than mine. They wanted to put me on a pill and it had a side effect of erectile dysfunction. So, I said there has to be a better way. I went to see a doctor, had my first colonic, I lost like 30 pounds, I was so impacted. Then I started off macrobiotic. I was jumping higher. I was happier. My libido was through the roof and my cholesterol was nowhere to be found. To this day I don't eat any oil. I only eat algae oil and I saute vegetables using water, onions, or garlic.

UP: What are your other keys to staying healthy?

JS: Walking 45 minutes a day. Stretching. I add trace minerals and one teaspoon of baking soda to my water and drink about 12-16 ounces first thing in the morning. When I get up I try not to moan.

UP: Why did you get into the cannabis business?

JS: For starters, it was the wild wild west. And the fact that so many people were in jail because of a weed that was set up for them to have. They're not growing weed in the hood. They don't make machine guns in the hood. They don't make heroin or cocaine in the hood. But now there were going to be people making billions in the weed business and it was open. I'm the first NBA ballplayer to be in the cannabis business. Obviously, the NBA didn't hire me to do any more appearances and I was fine with that. I got in [to cannabis] because I could be an entrepreneur. I wasn't grandfathered in. But, it's still not equal. They give you a license, but when you find a building, the landlord won't rent to you if you're growing. They're still redlining as many Black folks as they can. I didn't want another industry where my people were kept out. I realized the future was female. So, when we started Deuces 22 my daughter became the CEO at 19-years-old. We wanted to get in and make a difference. We're focused on destigmatizing the cannabis industry, and want to emphasize the science that is within it. This benefits the entire sector. We're also doing a reality TV show. And I film everything we do to destigmatize the industry and show the world what Tyla is doing.

UP: Tell me about your interest in IKIN, the San Diego-based hologram technology company.

JS: As soon as I saw what they were doing and after I heard the CEO and founder Joe Ward, I texted my partner and said move everything to the side. We're in! I'm a tech kid. I graduated from Georgia Tech because I love that kind of engineering. I drive a Tesla, not because it's cool, but because it's the future. When I saw the hologram, the first person I told about was my friend [actor] Will Smith. I said these guys have figured out how to bend light. If you can bend light, you can bend time. If you can bend time, you can see the future. All these things we're seeing in movies, the team at IKIN are making into a reality.

* According to IKIN,the technology turns all smart phone content into 3D experiences, including games, video, photos, driving directions, social media, etc. It becomes a much more immersive experience.Business use cases include teleconferencing, remote healthcare, warehousing, hospitality and online shopping.

UP: Talk about your upcoming Disney flick "Sneakerella."

JS: I'm a huge movie buff. One of my favorite movies is "West Side Story." I know every song. So, when I got to be in a musical, a Disney musical, I was excited. I love that the director [Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum] is an editor and allowed me to try a lot of different takes. Seriously, I was with the next Denzel Washington [Chosen Jacobs] and Angela Bassett.[Lexi Underwood] and I told them that. And I get to play this great role, who's a lot like me. He has daughters and I have daughters. When people ask me about not having sons, I say, 'I don't have time for dummies.'But, seriously, this movie is one of the best things I've ever done.

UP: Who was the best coach you've ever worked with and why?

JS: In my life, I would say Ted Gustis. He started working with me at 12. And now I'm his health coach. He became a vegan five years ago. Chuck Daly was my favorite and first NBA coach. He never talked down to me. I'd also say Barney Davis who literally taught me fundamentals, Joe Reynolds who made me tough, and Phil Jackson gave me two shots. Although he didn't allow me to continue with the Lakers, he allowed me to jump two feet into entertainment. Because when I didn't have a chance to go back to the Lakers, he told me in June he 'didn't have any real estate for me,' in September I had my own late-night talk show on BET. As the Dalai Lama says, "Sometimes not getting what you want is an unbelievable stroke of good luck."

UP: Talk about meeting the Dalai Lama?

JS: I've always been enamored with India. So when a friend offered to do a documentary with me in India, I said, 'when do we leave?' I had the most terrifying ride for five hours up to Dharamsala. I'm understanding that this is big, but I've had championships, so I understand the pressure. You get to the palace. You get to the first floor and people are looking at you and bowing and whispering. Then you go to the second floor. And again, they're looking at you and whispering. They're checking your energy. When you get to the third level, there's one dude. He tells you don't touch him [Dalai Lama] , don't bum-rush him, and be very respectful. Then he walks in and everyone's bowing. I look at him and he says 'you've got a very nice smile.' And I say, 'I was thinking the same thing.' He tells me to come up and sit with him. He says you've got two questions. So, the first thing I ask him is to sign my shirt. Which he does in Tibetan. Then I asked him, 'How did you know you were the one?' And he says, 'How did you know you were the one?' And I said 'when I was 12-years-old I knew I'd be a pro and it all came spurting out.' And he said he had the same feeling when he was 6-year-old. Look, I've jumped out of a plane, and meeting him was the same feeling. He was ultra-human.

UP: Who do you think are the top 5 greatest NBA players? Why?

JS: They should be judged by decades. Michael Jordan was the best in the 90s. Kobe Bryant was the best in the 2000s. LeBron is the best after 2010. Now you have Kevin Durant who is the best of 2017. The best big man ever is Wilt Chamberlain and then you have Magic and Bird who changed the way we look at sports.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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