Ty Lawson's battle with addiction
At nights he sleeps on 1,000-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets in a rehab clinic selling itself as a place that not only helps people overcome their addictions, but also is similar to a high-end boutique hotel with turndown service.
Ty Lawson, 27, is nearing the end of his stay at Cliffside Malibu, a rehab clinic in Malibu, California, as he tries to recover from an alcohol addiction.
When training camp opens in September, Lawson will start another new chapter in his life -- point guard for the Houston Rockets, an opportunity born from his struggle to deal with his addiction. After two DUI charges in a seven-month period, Lawson, one of the best point guards in the NBA, was dealt by the Denver Nuggets to Houston for four backups and a lottery-protected first-round pick in 2016.
"For me, it's very hurtful," Keith Stevens, who has known Lawson since he was 11 years old, said of Lawson's situation. "This is a kid that's not just a basketball player to me; this is like my family, my blood. To see him go through the things that he's going through, I hope he understands what it takes to recognize he has to do something differently because the most important thing is he has a daughter that he has to set an example for. He means a lot to a lot of people."
Lawson's career on the floor is wonderful. He finished this past season third in the league in assists, averaging a career-best 9.6 a game to go along with 15.2 points. The Rockets acquired him for his ability to create shots for others and take the ball-handling pressures off their leading scorer, James Harden.
Lawson is a likeable guy who pulls pranks on his teammates and supports numerous charitable causes, from his former AAU team to other events in the Maryland/Washington, D.C., area. He has a bright smile, is beloved by his teammates and has good friends throughout the league.
He's close with Harden and has a good relationship with Rockets forward Corey Brewer. Stevens, a mentor who coached him in AAU basketball, called him family-oriented and a devoted father.
Off the court, Lawson's addiction to alcohol, from a legal standpoint, goes all the way back to college at North Carolina when he was stopped in 2008 for underage drinking.
His problem with alcohol continued in the pros and reared its ugly head this year when he was stopped in Denver on Jan. 23 and then Los Angeles on July 14 under suspicion of driving under the influence. Two DUI charges within a seven-month period.
A judge in Denver ordered Lawson to spend 30 days in a rehab clinic and wear an alcohol-monitoring device when he is released.
Lawson, who was unavailable to comment for this story, admitted to police in Denver he was also arrested for another DUI charge in Missouri, yet there is no record of that.
This is the man the Rockets acquired. A man with major game on the floor but major problems off it.
Whether Lawson will be available for the season opener is subject to debate. The NBA investigates all arrests of its players and normally doesn't administer punishment until after the court cases have been settled.
Lawson has two pending court cases, Aug. 18 and Aug. 20, in Denver.
"We take those very seriously," Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said. "He's had some very serious incidents in his past and in his recent past. We feel like he's part of the Rockets family now and through our conversations with him we feel confident he's getting the help he needs and he's taken that step to say this is something he needs to do is improve on those areas."
Of course the easy question would be why didn't somebody help Lawson sooner?
Josh Kroenke, the Nuggets president, told Yahoo! Sports he could smell alcohol on Lawson's breath during practices. Kroenke said he spoke to Lawson about his decisions and the team tried to help. And while maybe somebody tried to reach Lawson, the truth of the matter is sometimes it takes the man himself to admit there's a problem.
"He's going through something and he's going to get through it," said Stevens, who visited Lawson at the rehab facility. "He's a strong person and his family has morals and values. He's going to get through it. I'm not really worried about that part; the biggest part is he admitted it and he has to change. I'm not worried about him not being strong enough to get through it."
As part of a plea agreement for an underage drinking and driving charge while he was in college, Lawson had to perform 24 hours of community service and complete an alcohol assessment program.
According to WRAL-TV in Raleigh, Durham, Fayetteville, Lawson wrote in a four-page letter, "It made me think of how lucky I am that nothing bad happened that night to me or to anyone else. Drinking and driving do not mix."
Jeff Nieman, the assistant district attorney in the case, said Lawson wasn't given any special treatment and admitted it was high profile because Lawson played basketball for North Carolina.
When asked if he was surprised Lawson had two more known DUI offenses, Nieman said: "There are plenty of people that get charged with what he got charged with and we never see them again. There are also sometimes people we do see again. The general prospect is most people when they have their first drinking and driving charge is this is just their first experience and that it's enough and the consequences of being charged with a crime, that it's enough they won't do it again. If you would have asked me in 2008 if he would have done it again, I would have doubted it. But it does happen."
When Lawson is released from Cliffside Malibu, his aftercare program, prescribed by the clinic, will be paramount to his success to curtail the cravings of alcohol. What that entails is uncertain but the Rockets say they will do everything in their power to help him.
"There's after parties with your small group, or your team or what have you," said Lucy Underwood, a Dallas-based addiction counselor of more than 20 years who has worked with professional athletes while working for Enterhealth Ranch. "How do they combat that? The person needs to have an ongoing relationship with a therapist. And a therapist for an elite athlete tends to be highly available. They will travel to where the athlete is. That sober coach is another component that I would always have with an athlete. That person typically can travel with them if they are using or taking part in [any 12-step program]."
A source close to Lawson said, "Ty is doing well. Great. Working hard, making progress."
Lawson's mother, father, girlfriend and teammates will become his support system and see to it that he continues to make progress.
Health care professionals say he needs more given that he will return to NBA arenas that sell beer and alcohol to patrons not only in the seats near the rafters but courtside too, where Lawson will smell and see it.
There are multiple approaches to classification and treatment of addiction.
Underwood said alcohol addiction is a brain disease while Cliffside Malibu describes addiction on its website as a behavioral disorder and not a disease.
"It's hard if you don't have support," said Stephany Coakley, a Washington, D.C.-area certified mental health conditioning coach, who works with athletes associated with the United States Olympic Committee. "Say if you have support there are lots of risk factors. You have lots of money in your pocket, they always sell alcohol in the venue where you go to work, not close to you, but it's there and the factor of pressure. There's a lot of pressure on professional athletes."
Health care professionals suggest a life coach can be useful in the periods of recovery in addition to the current support system in place such as family.
Lawson's agent, Happy Walters, said before Lawson went into rehab that he doesn't need a chaperon. However, several other high-profile athletes who have battled off-the-field issues such as Josh Hamilton and Johnny Manziel used one. The Dallas Cowboys employed a chaperon for Dez Bryant and previously for Adam "Pacman" Jones.
"That can be a challenge for young professional athletes because they [already] have a strong support system in the city that they live," Coakley said. "Or that strong support system supported that counterproductive damaging behavior and they need to develop another strong support system. That can be a big factor related to why it can be so difficult because you don't have strong support."
The uncertainty of it all hangs greatly on Lawson and the Rockets. Lawson is betting he'll not only produce for the Rockets but also will have the ability to increase his earning power once he succeeds. Lawson apparently made the final year of his contract in 2016-17, valued at $13.2 million, nonguaranteed. In theory, if Lawson has a good, incident-free 2015-16 season on and off the floor, he might be able to maximize more dollars -- if not from the Rockets then another team in free agency should they part ways.
If Lawson stumbles, the trade will be viewed as a failure for the Rockets. Although they gave up four reserves and a protected first-rounder, the gamble wouldn't have been worth it. The Rockets reached the conference finals without Lawson last season so if they get there again with or without him, would a troubled season have been worth it?
Everyone associated with the trade has positive vibes. There is no other choice given the risks involved.
"And obviously given the serious nature of some of those incidents just being up front a lot of those have a history of potentially recurring," Morey said "But now that he's part of the Rockets we're going to work together with him and continue to help him improve in those areas and obviously we hope to have him on the team for a long time."