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On the Rebound

Jalen Moore interview photo
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Jalen Moore quote "I remember looking into the bathroom mirror that summer, telling myself: I'm Jalen Moore. I'm going to be an NBA player next year. If it's going to be something, let it be my knee or my hamstring. Let it be physical. Not this. Nobody has these problems.

Thanks to the generosity of an Aggie booster, the Utah State basketball team can schedule a charter flight once each season. Flying directly in and out of Logan greatly decreases travel time, and allows the Aggies to sleep in their own beds the night of a game. But what was supposed to be a great perk turned into an epic travel disaster on Feb. 21, 2017.

Slated to play the following evening at San Jose State, the Aggies gathered at Logan-Cache Airport to fly directly to the Bay Area. But due to bad weather, the turboprop heading for Cache Valley was diverted to Pocatello, Idaho. It was eventually decided the best alternative was for the team to catch up with the plane in Ogden.

Already hours behind schedule by the time its plane finally left Ogden, the basketball team encountered even more trouble once it was in the sky. A fierce headwind led to an extremely bumpy ride and also forced the plane to burn more fuel than anticipated. Before attempting to cross over the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the pilot elected to land in Reno to re-fuel.

But even that didn’t go exactly according to plan. During pre-flight operations on the tarmac, some de-icing fluid penetrated a vent, leading to some hazy conditions inside the plane as it returned to the turbulent skies above northern California. Near the front, former Aggie basketball player Jimmy Moore ‘75 says he first smelled something before turning around to discover “white smoke everywhere.”

Then serving as USU’s assistant athletics director for special projects, the chartered flight provided Moore with the rare opportunity to watch his son, Jalen, play a road game during his fourth and final season. Utah State’s leading scorer and rebounder that season, Jalen was sitting about six rows behind his father as the turboprop was being jostled around on its way to what would be a 2 a.m. landing at the airport in San Jose.

“I could hear someone back there like this,” Jimmy recalls while noisily flopping, slapping and squirming around on a leather sofa in his North Logan home. “And I’m just going, What the hell is going on? It was almost like someone was play fighting, you know?

“I didn’t know that it was Jalen freaking out.”

Jalen Moore portrait

Family is important to Jalen Moore. Amongst the ink on his arm is a tattoo “F.O.E.” for Family Over Everything.” Portrait by USU photographer Donna Barry.

On March 20, 2018, Jalen Moore told his side of the road trip from hell in a first-person article posted on The Players’ Tribune, an online media platform founded by Derek Jeter. At the time, few people knew the details of Jalen’s decision to suddenly step away from a deal with the Milwaukee Bucks in the fall of 2017, but the story chronicled his realization that he was suffering from anxiety and depression.

And that anxiety started to manifest during those two turbulence-filled flights on the Aggies’ brutal journey to San Jose.

“I was sweating, so I had the A/C knob pointed right at my face on full blast,” Jalen wrote. “I kept both of my legs braced tight against the seat in front of me, and my hands were locked onto each armrest. I started to talk to myself, to try to calm myself down. The plane was going down. My body was telling me, loud and clear: This is the end.”

As it turns out, it was not the end, but rather the beginning. Although the 6-foot-9 forward had never liked flying, Jalen says he had never been on a flight that bothered him to that extent and could normally “trick” himself by putting his headphones on, turning up the music, and keeping his head down.

But tricking himself soon became impossible.

Photo of USU basketball player Jalen Moore

Jalen Moore puts up a shot from the perimeter in an Aggie victory over Idaho State during his senior season. Photo courtesy of USU Athletic Media Relations.

Moore, who finished ninth all-time at USU in scoring with 1,645 points, had high hopes of continuing his basketball career and ended up working out for 15 different NBA teams prior to the 2017 NBA Draft. Afterwards Moore was offered a two-way contract by the Milwaukee Bucks, a new concept that would allow him to play for both the Bucks and the team’s G League squad, the Wisconsin Herd.

The Moore family was ecstatic. After a standout career at USU from 1973-75, Jimmy had gone on to play for the Seattle SuperSonics for two years, then spent another decade playing professionally in Europe. Once again, Jalen seemed to be falling in his father’s footsteps.

“It was as happy as anything I’ve witnessed in my entire life,” Jalen wrote in The Players’ Tribune. “But it wasn’t how I was supposed to feel. Even before I hung up the phone, I sensed something wasn’t right with me. I couldn’t feel the tips of my fingers. And my heart was beating out of my chest. It was awful, but strangely familiar. It was happening again. It was kind of how I felt on that airplane when I thought it was going to crash. Only now I was on the ground. I was in my own house.”

In preparation for training camp in the fall, Milwaukee started flying Jalen back for regular workouts. But all that travel began to take its toll as the time got closer for the former Aggie to go back to Wisconsin to stay.

He didn’t realize it at the time, but Jimmy first got a hint that something was not quite right with his son when he and his wife, Debra, dropped Jalen off at the airport prior to his final workout. After grabbing his bag, Jalen gave his parents hugs, received a “Go get ‘em tiger!” slap on the back from his father and then slowly made his way to the terminal.

“I’m in the car putting on my seat belt, and I’m looking at Jalen walking to the entrance,” Jimmy recalls. “I said to Debra, ‘Look at Jalen. Look at his body language. It’s almost like he doesn’t want to go. How can he not be excited about this opportunity?’”

It wasn’t until Jalen was five days away from going back to Milwaukee that Jimmy found out that what he saw in his son’s body language was, indeed, apprehension. Jalen later told his parents that he forced himself not to turn around and look back because he knew if he did, he would not be able to get on the plane that day.

A native of Mississippi, Jimmy Moore became an Aggie legend, scoring 1,164 points and pulling down 652 rebounds – stats good enough to get him inducted into the USU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2013. And after his playing days were through, Jimmy returned to USU, first as an assistant basketball coach, then as an administrator.

He and Debra also had two sons a couple of years apart, Grayson and Jalen, who took to basketball at a young age.

“I was coaching their Junior Jazz team when Jalen came down and made this shot where he was just hanging in the air,” Jimmy says. “I remember my assistant looking at me and saying, ‘That’s a third-grader? That’s a pretty athletic move for a kid in third grade.’

“Right then I thought, ‘If this kid gets better and stronger, he’s got a chance.’ And I just saw his progression as he grew and played against better competition.”

Jalen led the Sky View Bobcats to a state title during his senior year in high school, along the way burying a game-winning shot in the semifinals from near half court. That basket ended up being shown on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” and, along with his trademark Afro, meant that Jalen Moore quickly became one of the most recognizable athletes in the state. Fortunately for then-USU basketball coach Stew Morrill, Jalen had already committed to play for the Aggies starting with the 2013-14 season.

Moore ended up playing in all 32 of USU’s games as a freshman. While it was obvious he would be taking on a bigger role the following year, no one knew how big until the Aggie basketball program experienced a sudden transfer epidemic, along with loss of some valuable graduating seniors.

Jimmy says in the midst of the chaos, Morrill visited him in his office and asked, “Jalen isn’t leaving too, is he? We can’t lose Jalen. We’ve got to have Jalen.”

“I said, ‘Coach I don’t think you have to worry about Jalen,’” Jimmy recalls. “Jalen wants to be here. Jalen’s an Aggie.”

Looking back, Jimmy says that Jalen has told him that some of the first signs of his anxiety began to show themselves heading into his sophomore season as he was suddenly elevated from a nice, little basketball story to the focal point of the Aggies’ offense.

Family is big with Jalen Moore. In fact, you could say he gave his right arm for his family. Amongst the ink are tattoos “F.O.E.” for “Family Over Everything,” Debra and Jimmy’s signatures, a big clock face that displays the time of his birth, as well as ribbons displaying his parents’ birthdates. And when he finally found the courage to tell someone that something was wrong, he first reached out to his older brother.

“Thank goodness for Grayson,” Jimmy declares. “Grayson is a superhero. He was Jalen’s support. I don’t know if Jalen would have survived without him.”

Always close to Jalen, after spending time at two small schools, Grayson transferred to USU in 2014. But returning home was good for him and Jalen, and the two brothers lived off campus together. After Jalen signed the deal with the Bucks, Jimmy suggested the duo move back into their boyhood home until Jalen left for Milwaukee. That meant Grayson was in his room next door when Jalen woke up one night and thought, ‘I’ve got to talk to somebody. I’ve got to tell them what’s going on.’

“I was getting headaches and stressing out over nothing,” Jalen says. “I was overthinking everything and I just knew I needed some help.”

Talking with Grayson, Jalen shared what he had been experiencing, especially during his time in Milwaukee when he “was just miserable.”

“I just told him, ‘I don’t think I can do this basketball thing right now. My mind is not right. I’m in a bad place―a dark place―and I need to get myself right.”

Grayson carefully listened, and eventually suggested that Jalen needed to tell their parents what was going on.

“I was like, ‘No … no, I’m not,’” Jalen says with an awkward chuckle.

Jalen Moore speaking at Intermountain event

At an event at Logan High School, titled “The Toughest Call of My Life,” Jalen Moore shared his story of dealing with anxiety and depression. Photo by Jeff Hunter.

As he recounted in The Players’ Tribune, Jalen and Grayson went upstairs the following morning. Jalen’s revelation began at 7 a.m. on a Sunday, and the impromptu family conference didn’t come to an end until after 5 p.m.

“I don’t really cry, but I was crying, trying to explain to them what was going on and that I really needed some help,” Jalen says. “I didn’t want to disappoint my family and my friends because that was what I had been working for my whole life.”

Jimmy ended up calling Jalen’s agent and after consulting with the NBA Players Association, the Milwaukee Bucks officially released Jalen from his contract on Sept. 10.

“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life,” Jalen says. “And I’ve played in state championship games. I played in big college games. I played at Duke. But nothing ever compared to telling my family what was going on with me as far as anxiety and depression.

“But I wanted to be able to be happy, and just feel like myself again. And by doing that, it was like a big weight had been lifted off of my shoulders.”

Although he stayed out of the public eye as much as he could early on, regular visits to a therapist helped Moore feel more comfortable as the months passed. By the time The Players’ Tribune reached out to him, Jalen was ready to share his story. Once released, the response was instantaneous and massive.

Jalen received feedback from people from around the world. He was contacted by NBA All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan, who had recently opened up about his battle with depression, as well as a professional tennis player.

“At least 95 percent of the feedback I’ve received has been positive,” Jalen says. “People will tell me how my story affected them and helped them, and then will share their stories with me.”

Jalen says he has taken the time to message back everyone who has messaged him on social media, “because it helps me, and helps other people too.”

“I didn’t know it was going to blow up like that,” he says. “But I love helping people, and that’s what I was hoping. Obviously I thought I was going to be playing basketball, and I would rather not have anxiety and stuff like that, but since I did, I wanted to do something about it and help other people who are dealing with it.”

Basketball seems destined to still be a part of Jalen Moore’s life.

Last winter, Jalen, Grayson, and Jimmy formed Next Level Basketball, a small company that puts on basketball clinics for young athletes. Although Jalen is still working out and playing in pick-up games, most of his time on the court is spent teaching kids.

But in early May, Jalen stepped out onto the stage at the Logan High School Auditorium in front of about 500 people and told his story at an event sponsored by Logan Regional Hospital. It was a big step forward, but one he says he felt very little apprehension about.

Jalen was joined by Jimmy, who retired in June after more than 30 years at USU, and his father told his parents’ side of the story. Both Moores anticipate doing similar events in the future, “Because I think it’s good for Jalen that he talks about it,” Jimmy says.

As for his condition these days, Jalen says he’s “starting to figure out how to cope with it,” and usually only schedules therapy sessions ahead of something he thinks will cause him anxiety. Jalen is still in regular contact with his agent, and he has had 10 NBA teams check in with him about his potential availability.

“Right now, I’m still working on myself,” Jalen says when asked about his future. “And with basketball, you’ve obviously got to be physically and mentally ready to play. Obviously, my goal is to play again, but I have to just take it one day at a time.

“I can’t give a direct answer about what is going to happen because I don’t actually know. But what I can say is that I haven’t thrown playing professional basketball out of the picture, so we’ll just have to see what happens.”

by Jeff Hunter
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