Ryan Anderson tries to move forward after girlfriend Gia Allemand's suicide
This is an extended version of a story that appears in the Nov. 17, 2014, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
The argument began, as so many do, over something small and seemingly insignificant. Ryan Anderson can’t even remember what it was. A text message? An offhand comment?
Then the quarrel grew, gaining strength. It carried over from lunch at a restaurant to the drive home, Gia Allemand’s voice growing louder. By the time Ryan dropped her at her apartment, in the Warehouse District of New Orleans, around six on the evening of Aug. 12, 2013, they’d said things they could never take back, and Gia’s anger had morphed into something else, dark yet strangely calm. Upon returning to his apartment, two long blocks away on Tchoupitoulas Street, Ryan flipped on a single light and slumped on the couch. All around were reminders of his relationship with Gia. The kitchen where they tried out new recipes. The balcony where he set up a movie projector and an inflatable bed on her birthday so they could watch Pitch Perfect. Photos of them together; Gia smiling as Ryan gave her a piggyback ride.
From the outside theirs was a glamorous relationship: the NBA player and the television sweetheart. And indeed, they looked great in the pages of Us Weekly, the 25-year-old Anderson, a 6' 10" power forward for the Pelicans, leaning down and grinning next to the thin, otherworldly beauty with the dazzling smile. At 29, Gia was two years removed from her TV days, first a season on The Bachelor and then two seasons on its spin-off Bachelor Pad, but the shows’ fans still adored her. Unlike many other Bachelor contestants, she seemed real. Vulnerable. Gia talked about how she’d been bullied as a kid, teased so persistently for her dark arm hair that she bleached it. She possessed that rare quality that made viewers feel as if they’d known her their whole lives.
Ryan had been smitten ever since that February night two years earlier when Gia had floated past him in a long green dress at a hotel in the Bahamas. He’d told his brother-in-law and good friend, Mark Groves, “If I don’t talk to this girl, I’m going to regret it for the rest of my life.” Ryan and Gia sat on the beach until sunrise, talking about friends, family and faith. While they later traveled the world, exploring China and Mexico, theirs was an almost teenage relationship. They went to Walt Disney World and Epcot. At Easter they made each other baskets, Gia including a photo album of the couple in his, Ryan filling hers with candy and coloring books.
Gia’s mom, Donna Micheletti, says she had never seen her daughter so happy in a relationship. As for Ryan, until a few weeks earlier he had been certain Gia was the one. They had looked at houses together, talked about rings. “The best way I can describe it,” he says, “is that when I was with her, I felt at home.”
Which is why he was so lost that night, crumpled on his couch. Gia was prone to steep emotional swings, and they’d had arguments before—all couples do, right? They’d become more frequent and more serious of late, but never like this. She’d said things that deeply hurt Ryan, accusing him of cheating; he’d said things he instantly regretted, telling her he no longer loved her. At the restaurant Ryan had been so upset that, as he rushed to the car, he forgot to tip the valet.
He needed to clear his head. He called a childhood friend in Dallas. Drive up here tonight, his friend said. You can crash with me. You need some space.
Except that as they spoke, Ryan’s phone buzzed. It was Gia’s mom. She had called at other times after Gia and Ryan fought, but now he couldn’t bring himself to talk to her. She called again. Then, at 7:28 p.m., her husband, Tony Micheletti, texted Ryan: There’s something wrong with Gia. You need to go check on her.
Ryan became frightened. Once, months earlier, he had arrived at Gia’s apartment to find her passed out, a bottle of Nyquil and an empty wineglass next to her bed. And tonight she’d told him to stop at Walgreen’s on the way home and returned to the car with more Nyquil. He figured she was going to try to sleep off her anger. Now he wondered what she’d done. Jamming on flip-flops and a baseball hat, he rushed to the parking garage. By the time he reached Gia’s apartment complex, he was so worried that, exiting his SUV, he left the door open and the engine running.
Those who knew Ryan growing up find it hard to say which was less likely: that he would date a celebrity or that he would become a pro athlete. Even now, seven years into his NBA career, Ryan’s ascent remains shocking to his relatives. Not because he isn’t talented (he is) or dedicated (he is), but because there was no family precedent. Jack Anderson, then an engineer at Intel, is barely 6 feet tall; Sue, a part-time interior decorator, topped out at 5' 8". Neither were athletic. Yet their second child was so tall that when he was three he was disqualified from an Easter egg hunt for being “too old.” After that, Sue took to carrying a copy of Ryan’s birth certificate.
From an early age Ryan gravitated to basketball. He spent afternoons launching jumpers in the slanted driveway of their home, in the small mountain town of El Dorado Hills, Calif., 30 miles northeast of Sacramento. Ryan fell in love with the Kings and wore number 4 in honor of Chris Webber. His parents were mystified.
A self-taught shooter, Ryan grew into a potent inside-outside threat for Oak Ridge High. He scored 50 points in a game against another local star named Colin Kaepernick. As a junior, he led his team to the Division II state championship. When a Princeton coach called the Andersons’ home, Jack was overjoyed. But as he handed his son the phone, Jack realized that he didn’t understand Ryan’s world. There, Princeton was not the ultimate goal. From 27 schools, Ryan chose Cal. His sophomore season, 2007–08, he led the Pac-10 in scoring with 21.1 points per game.
That June, Ryan was drafted in the first round by the Nets, and a year later he was traded to Orlando, where he blossomed under coach Stan Van Gundy. Ryan also entered into his first serious romantic relationship. It had been a long time coming. In high school he had endured, as he puts it, “a big awkward phase.” Tall and pudgy, he was sensitive and shy. He was also a germaphobe, taking Zoloft until he was 18 to calm the rushing panic he felt upon handling a dirty basketball. Though the relationship with his girlfriend fizzled after a year, the experience was exciting. He knew he wanted to get married.
His game and personal life soon came together. During the lockout-shortened 2011–12 season Ryan averaged 16.1 points and 7.7 rebounds. He met Gia during the All-Star break, and in July he received a four-year, $34 million contract when New Orleans acquired him in a sign-and-trade. Gia moved to the city soon after, and a season later Ryan finished second in the NBA in three-pointers. At 25, he had a promising career, financial security and the woman of his dreams.
Still, his mom worried about him. Ryan is like his father, whose work nickname is the Relentless Optimist. “He just has such a kind heart,” she says. “I don’t think he’s had enough experience to see people’s motives.” Indeed, while popular with teammates and coaches—“You couldn’t ask for a more stellar pro athlete and friend, on and off the court,” says former New Orleans forward Jason Smith—Ryan was different from many of his NBA peers, a happy-go-lucky goofball whose favorite musician was John Williams, composer of the Star Wars and Superman themes. Ryan was the kind of guy who went in costume to Comic-Con, a giant Batman in a too-small suit. Such was his seemingly charmed life that, midway into adulthood, he’d never attended a funeral.
The first thing Ryan saw upon entering Gia’s fourth-floor apartment were her knees. His recollections of what followed are fragmentary. His screaming and running to her. The vacuum-cleaner cord hanging from the second-floor handrail of the spiral staircase, so tight around her neck that at first he couldn’t loosen it. Gia’s dog, Bentley, running to him. A neighbor arriving and dialing 911 as Ryan tried to revive Gia. Seeing the three-word note in her handwriting on the dining room table: Mom gets everything. Paramedics rushing in. Ryan calling Donna. Donna cursing at him, screaming that he knew Gia was sensitive, that he was supposed to protect her. The police pushing through the door. Ryan answering questions, sobbing, blaming himself. Pelicans coach Monty Williams hurrying in with a team security guard and finding Ryan slumped on the carpet, his back to the door, unable to rise. Williams dropping to his knees and hugging his player, the two men rocking back and forth.
For Williams, the night was a test of sorts. A fourth-year coach, Williams had played at Notre Dame and then for five NBA teams. He and Anderson were unusually close. Both men were Christians, and they bonded immediately despite the vast differences in their backgrounds. Williams grew up poor and once, at Notre Dame, considered suicide. That didn’t make it any easier to relate to Anderson now, however. Everyone’s pain is different.
As a crowd milled outside the apartment complex, Williams and the security guard hoisted up Ryan, who was limp and drenched with tears and sweat, too hysterical even to walk. They dragged Ryan to the elevator and then into a waiting car, the tops of his feet, still wedged into flip-flops, scraping the asphalt so hard that his toes still bear thick white calluses more than a year later.
As they drove in silence, Williams kept thinking that it was fine if he blew a game, but he couldn’t mess up now. Once home, he huddled with his wife, Ingrid, and Ryan in the family room, praying. Ingrid’s brother had committed suicide recently. She knew not to say it was going to be O.K., because it wasn’t. “This is going to be hard for a long time,” she told Ryan.
That night, as the family pastor came and went, Ryan cried so much that it felt as if he were dry heaving or bleeding internally. Each convulsion ripped his insides apart. Around 1 a.m., at Ingrid’s urging, Monty brought one of his sons’ mattresses down to the living room. There the two men lay through the night, Ryan curled on the sofa and his coach on the floor next to him. When Ryan wanted to talk, they talked. Otherwise there was only his muted sobbing. Finally, just after the sun came up, Ryan fell into a fitful sleep.
Donna Micheletti had spent years dreading this day. For so long she and Gia had been a team. Donna and Eugene Allemand, Gia’s father, a cement-truck driver, divorced when Gia was eight, a bad split. Donna raised her daughter in a two-bedroom garden condo in Queens. A civilian investigator for the New York City Police Department, Donna poured her energy into her daughter. She took Gia to model for Johnson & Johnson ads as a baby. She bought Gia toys and dresses and purses, trying to, as she says, “make her forget the disappointments.”
Gia was by all accounts deeply affected by her parents’ divorce and looked elsewhere for affirmation. She volunteered at an animal hospital, sang in a children’s folk group and choreographed her friends in intricate dance routines. Later, after years of training and struggling to keep her figure ballet-thin, she entered the dance program at Hartford but dropped out after a year and a half. She switched to elementary education but decided that it wasn’t her calling after she graduated cum laude from Hartford. To acquaintances she seemed eternally cheery, but close friends knew that if she was sad about something, she carried it with her for the rest of the day. Her lifelong best friend, Becca Cohen, describes a young woman who felt slights keenly, who was prone to the “highest of highs and lowest of lows” yet always put others first: “She didn’t want to spread bad energy.”
Gia dabbled in bikini modeling and posed for Maxim. Then, in 2009, two years after ending a tumultuous relationship with Yankees pitcher Carl Pavano, she applied to join The Bachelor at the urging of friends. To her surprise, she made the show and then the final three, leaving gracefully upon being passed over by pilot Jake Pavelka. People began to recognize her on the street. She signed an endorsement deal with Herbal Essences hair products. She was cast as Ava Gardner in a film that was never made and eventually entered into another doomed relationship, with NHL player Chris Campoli. Afterward Gia spiraled into depression while Donna fretted.
For years Donna had battled alongside her daughter through eating disorders and heartbreaks. Twice she rushed Gia to the hospital after she took too many sleeping pills. In 2010, Donna says, Gia was diagnosed with premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), which affects between 3% and 8% of women and leads to extreme mood shifts and heightened symptoms of depression before menstruation. Gia refused to believe it, but Donna asserts that “the few times she took sleeping pills were because of the period.” Donna adds that Gia “didn’t think men could actually love. She used to tell me, ‘I hate men.’ All she wanted was to be loved. When it came to relationships, she always felt men would abandon her.”
And then, hope. Gia found God and soon after met Ryan, a strong, stable man from a strong, stable family. Donna was elated. “I said maybe she’ll be O.K.,” she says. “All those years when the phone rang, I’d be a nervous wreck.”
Now, upon arriving at University Hospital at 9:30 a.m. on Aug. 13, Donna took one look at her daughter, hooked up to a respirator, and knew it was over. Her brain had gone too long without oxygen. There was no hope of recovery.
Around noon Ryan arrived. He was in a wheelchair, so grief stricken he still couldn’t walk. Seeing him, Donna felt her anger vanish. Ryan looked as if he had nothing left to live for, and her heart broke for him. She knew her daughter, and she knew that this wasn’t Ryan’s fault. “I’m sorry for what I said yesterday,” she said. Then she leaned down and embraced Ryan, and together they cried.
The next day Gia Allemand passed away.
Every year nearly 40,000 Americans die by suicide. Globally the number is one million, or more lives than are lost to war, murder and natural disaster combined. Young adults such as Gia are particularly at risk: Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Americans ages 25 to 34.
Much of the media coverage of suicides, especially of high-profile figures such as Robin Williams, focuses on the act itself. But every suicide is not just a story of death but also the stories of the lives that go on. For each person who dies by suicide, there are an estimated six survivors, people who cared deeply for the deceased and are left grappling with what occurred. Many survivors are plagued by guilt, anger and shame that persists for years and often lifetimes. Ryan’s story is their story. It’s one framed by persistent challenges. How do you move forward without resolution? How do you celebrate the life of someone who chose to end her own?
Ryan’s first response was to shut down. He moved back in with his parents and ate only when his mother forced him to, and even then just applesauce and yogurt. His sister, Rachel, and her husband, Mark Groves, took turns sleeping next to him in his queen bed. Ryan spent his days on the patio, in the baking heat, reading his Bible in silence. He couldn’t bring himself to talk to his best friends, terrified of someone saying, “I’m sorry.” Of someone wanting him to talk about what happened.
What could he say? The person he loved most in the world was dead. How could he not be to blame? He felt ashamed. He felt he deserved punishment. Not just that, but in a weird way he felt like he’d lost. Like the relationship had been a battle, or a contest, and he’d worked so hard to win but in the end the two of them had lost because he didn’t do enough. If he’d only been stronger, smarter, more sensitive, Gia would be alive. He knew it.
There was no way he could play basketball, that was for sure. He’d sit out the season, maybe retire. His trip to New York City for Gia’s funeral in August had been frightening and exhausting. He couldn’t play in front of 15,000 people, much less return to New Orleans and all those memories.
Making things worse, Gia's and Ryan’s story was irresistible to the tabloids, a trifecta for newsstand sales: sex, celebrity and death. Paparazzi had staked out the hospital in New Orleans, and a helicopter circled the hotel where Ryan and his family stayed. The Andersons had had to escape by the service elevator, at night, to fly home. Once he was back in El Dorado Hills, his mother papered over the front windows to keep the photographers away. The coverage focused on Ryan's and Gia’s argument in the restaurant, as if millions of other couples didn’t fight and break up and make up every day. "‘Bachelor’ suicide: Gia Allemand was ‘upset’ NBA star boyfriend hadn’t proposed yet," wrote RadarOnline, which quoted an anonymous “insider” saying, “There were literally NO red flags that Gia would take her own life.” TMZ reported, “We were told by multiple people close to Gia that she had been extremely upset about a rocky relationship with her boyfriend Ryan Anderson.”
In early September, Donna went on Dr. Phil. She talked about Gia’s PMDD and how Gia felt “abandoned” by her father. Then Donna told the most crushing part of the story: The night Gia hanged herself, Donna was on the phone with her. They’d decided that Donna would fly down the next day, and Gia had booked the ticket. Donna was sure they’d get through this rough patch together. Then Gia began to mumble. Then her words came only in short breaths. Donna assumed her daughter was dozing off. Maybe she’d taken Nyquil and wine, as she sometimes did to help her sleep. The phone stayed connected for the next 10 minutes, and there was nothing but silence. That’s when, to her horror, Donna realized what Gia had done.
Locker rooms provide a unique social atmosphere, a place where men can question one another’s intelligence and manhood, tell detailed stories of sexual escapades, and cry and hug in shared joy or defeat. Yet certain topics are rarely discussed. Six months before Gia’s death, former Duke star and NBA lottery pick Jay Williams disclosed that he’d once attempted suicide. The list of pro athletes who’ve taken their own lives is distressingly long: Junior Seau, Andre Waters, Mel Turpin and dozens of others. The list of athletes who’ve been touched by suicide is much, much longer. Still, teams that honor veterans with PTSD before games and wear pink in October for breast cancer awareness do not hold pregame ceremonies for suicide survivors. Yet it is estimated that 85% of people in the U.S. will know someone who has died by suicide (and one in five will be within that ring of six closest friends and relatives). Suicide is something with which almost all of us are familiar; it’s something few of us talk about.
So when Monty Williams called Sue Anderson in early September and suggested that Ryan come back to the team, Ryan was angry. It was too soon. Except for the funeral, he had hardly left his parents’ house. He had looked to the Bible, to a phrase he saw there repeatedly: Get up. He tried to live by this. Just get up and go somewhere. Downstairs. Outside.
Finally, three weeks after Gia’s death, Jack and Sue were standing in the kitchen when they heard it: laughter. It was coming from the backyard, where Mark and Ryan were aiming a digital projector at the side of the house. Mark had cued up some Chris Farley clips, and Ryan couldn’t help himself. As Farley swung his gut and ranted about living in a van down by the river, Ryan began giggling. The giggles became a steady cackle. His parents were overjoyed.
Williams called soon after. The coach had been checking in regularly, sending Bible verses. Now he said he’d prayed on it and believed basketball would help bring Ryan peace, that “locker room love” would envelop him. The routine would be therapeutic. When you play basketball long enough, Williams believes, your body becomes accustomed to doing certain things at certain times of the year. This was the time of the year to get back on the court.
It took a week to persuade Ryan, but at his parents’ urging, he flew to New Orleans on Sept. 6. Jack and Mark went along. Ryan stayed in a hotel at first, then bought a place in Metairie, near the Pelicans’ facility. One fall morning he forced himself to return to the practice center. The first player he saw in the hallway was Al-Farouq Aminu, a lanky forward from Atlanta. Ryan steeled himself for the questions, the sympathetic tone. Aminu just nodded. “What’s up, man?” he said.
The next day Ryan addressed the team in one of the video rooms. He looked around at the faces. At his good friend Jason Smith, who’d been there to drive him to the hospital the morning after Gia’s suicide and to run errands for Ryan and his family the next two days. At Anthony Davis, the burgeoning All-Star big man. At Jrue Holiday, one of many Pelicans who attended pregame chapel. Ryan then told them about Gia -- who she was and what she meant. He told them a bit about what happened, and how hard it had been for him. Then he paused. “I just want to thank you guys,” he said, “for just treating me like normal.” His teammates nodded. Some hugged him.
Facing the world was another matter. On Oct. 5 the Pelicans traveled to Houston for their first preseason game. Ryan knew people on the Rockets, was good friends with the trainer. He couldn’t bring himself to face them, not to mention a crowd of 15,000. He begged out of the game. Williams consented. Later that night Ryan knocked on Jason Smith’s door at the hotel. “Do you mind if I bring in a roll-away bed tonight if I need to?” Ryan said. Of course, Smith replied. In the end Ryan didn’t need to. For the first time in two months he slept alone.
Two days later the Pelicans played in Dallas. Ryan walked onto the court and looked up at the fans, sure they were thinking, That’s the guy responsible for his girlfriend’s suicide. Then the game began, and his anxiety vanished. No one heckled him. He ran, rebounded and launched threes. He’d never felt so free on the court.
Over the weeks that followed, the gym became, in Ryan’s words, “a sanctuary” for two or three hours a day. Sure, when he returned home at night the darkness closed in again, but at least he had a place to find peace. To escape.
Not only that, but he was also playing the best basketball of his life. He no longer second-guessed himself; he just let it fly. After all, a bad shooting night could never compare with what he’d been through. By January he was averaging nearly 20 points and shooting the highest percentages of his career. The Pelicans were winning, and Ryan was in the running for the Sixth Man Award and an All-Star nod.
Then, on Jan. 3, nearly six months after Gia’s passing, he lost his sanctuary. It was on a routine inbounds play: Ryan faked right, then cut left to receive the ball. Celtics forward Gerald Wallace plowed into him from behind, trying for a steal. Anderson flew forward, his neck jerking awkwardly. He fell to the floor in a daze.
When he came to, he felt a terrible pain in his arms. Looking up, he saw teammates and coaches and trainers. He wondered if he was paralyzed. A stretcher arrived. “No way I’m going off on a stretcher,” said Ryan.
“We need to make sure your spine is O.K.,” said Jon Ishop, the Pelicans’ head athletic trainer.
On the bench, Smith watched in horror. Of all the people for this to happen to, he thought. Monty Williams whispered, “C’mon Ryan, get up. Get up.”
Finally Ryan was loaded onto the stretcher, his head immobilized. Ishop whispered into his ear to give a thumbs up to the crowd, because that’s what you do in these situations. Ryan complied. He woke up the next day in a Boston hospital. The diagnosis: two herniated disks in his neck. He would miss the final 51 games of the season. The nerve pain in his arms was terrible -- just shaking someone’s hand was excruciating.
In the weeks that followed, Smith and other teammates video chatted with Ryan, trying to keep his spirits up. His parents moved to New Orleans to help him recover. But the pain persisted, and in April he flew to Los Angeles to see Dr. Robert Watkins, who’d performed a cervical neck fusion on Peyton Manning. Watkins did a similar surgery on Ryan, and Ryan noticed something peculiar: Now all anyone asked about was the injury. It was as if all memory of Gia had vanished.
For Ryan the opposite was true. If anything, basketball had just postponed the grieving.
Unable to hide in the game, Ryan became, in his words, “a detective.” He went through his relationship with Gia, focusing on the details, how her bizarre behavior in those final weeks led Ryan to suggest they go to counseling or take some time off. He read up on depression and suicide and talked with Gia’s mother and friends. He saw how uninformed he’d been. How small moments that seemed insignificant were warning signs. Such as the time Gia confessed to having thought about suicide once, and Ryan told her that anyone who hadn’t entertained such thoughts wasn’t human. She should look at how happy she was, how good her life was.
He thought back to the angry text message Gia had received from her father in May. Eugene Allemand was upset that Gia hadn’t sent a card to his mother on Mother’s Day. “Don’t bother calling me for father’s day I don’t want to inconvenience you,” he wrote. After Gia replied that she had sent her grandmother an email and that her own life was “much more peaceful” when Eugene wasn’t in it, he responded, “You have as much class as your mother. ... Your [sic] no daughter of mine. Too stupid.”
It was their last communication. “I regret what I said,” Eugene says. As for Gia’s suicide, he says, “They can blame me, but I don’t blame myself at all. Unfortunately my daughter needed professional help. She must have had demons inside.” In August 2013 the New York Daily News ran a story in which Eugene said of the texts, “It was lots of nasty things said in the heat of the moment. If she were still here, I would tell her I’m so sorry and that I love her and that she will always be my rainbow.”
Gia was shaken by the texts, Ryan recalls, but she tweeted, “Don’t ever let anyone make you feel like you’re not good enough. That person isn’t good enough.” Ryan interpreted this as Gia being strong, exhibiting what he calls her “hard shell.”
Now, going back through their life together, Ryan felt closer to the truth. If he just kept digging, he thought, maybe he’d figure it all out. Solve the puzzle. Find closure.
I had no idea. It’s a phrase you hear often after a suicide. He seemed happy. She seemed fine. There were literally NO red flags. Rarely if ever is this true. There are almost always warning signs. Research shows that 90% of people who die by suicide suffer from mental disorders or substance abuse. In most cases the condition is untreated. “People are really good at cloaking it, so to a certain percentage of people [suicide] does seem out of the blue,” says Christine Moutier, M.D., chief medical officer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “But that’s partly because they don’t know what to look for, and partly because mental health problems are so stigmatized that we don’t let on what’s going on inside.”
Why did Gia kill herself? Her mother believes it was because of childhood scars and PMDD, a combination that she also believes wrecked her relationships. “She destroyed her and Ryan, picking and picking and picking,” says Donna. “He didn’t know she had an illness, and she wouldn’t tell him.” Indeed, PMDD “may not sound like a big deal,” says Moutier, “but it can be in terms of how intense pain and depression can get.”
Meanwhile Becca Cohen, Gia’s childhood friend, always worried that Gia wouldn’t make it past 30. “I felt like a seer -- you don’t know why you feel that way, but you just get nervous,” Cohen says. “Since college, I was worried about her, because she lived so much of her life for other people. Some people have their lives planned out and what they want, and it’s very hard to deal with disappointment.”
The truth, of course, is that no one will ever really know. That’s one of the many terrible things about suicide. There are never conclusive answers, at least not satisfactory ones.
It took Ryan nearly a year to realize this: There were much deeper things going on inside Gia that he couldn’t solve. At the time he thought it was all about getting over the next hump, and then things would be perfect. But it was an endless succession of humps.
Now Ryan focuses on the memories. Most days he wears a key-shaped necklace Gia gave him. (She had the matching heart.) He keeps all the photos of her on his phone, though he can’t bring himself to watch home videos. He has made it through more than a year of firsts: the first Christmas, the first birthday, the first Valentine’s Day without Gia. It’s time to try to move forward. And the only way to do that is by telling her story. His story.
He begins at 4:30 on a Sunday afternoon in September, sitting on a white couch in his living room in Metairie, the same couch on which he and Gia used to watch their favorite shows. He starts slowly. It is the first time he has spoken at length to a reporter. Eventually it all tumbles out. Ryan speaks for five hours without a break, then three more the following day.
“I’ve been given a platform in the NBA,” he says. “I know when I’m done playing, people aren’t going to really care about me, the way I shot three-pointers. But during this time when I have a voice, I think it’s really important for me to talk about it.” He continues. "People need to put a face to [suicide prevention and survival], and I’m O.K. being that face.” He pauses. “I’m not overjoyed that I have to talk about the most painful experience of my life, but either I become that face or I tuck [myself] away in a corner and I let this rule over me.”
So, over the past few months Ryan has become an advocate. Along with Donna, and with the help of his father, he is starting the Gia Allemand Foundation. They’ll have a website, and they say they are waiting for IRS approval as a nonprofit. The goal is to help people in situations similar to Gia’s: young women who endured bullying, who have body-image issues and low self-esteem, who feel lost.
Over the summer Ryan joined an 18-mile Out of the Darkness suicide-awareness walk in Philadelphia. He filmed a short video for a suicide-prevention group called To Write Love on Her Arms. He spoke at a women’s shelter in Sacramento, an experience he found surreal: Seven women who’d been through hell -- abusive relationships, prostitution, living on the streets -- surrounded him and prayed for him. “If [Gia’s suicide] hadn’t happened to me, I’d walk into that room and I don’t relate to any of them, and they sure as heck don’t want to hear from me,” he says. “But now I have a story to tell.”
Ryan hopes that every time he hits a deep three or scraps for a rebound, fans will think about Gia. He hopes people will read this story or Google him and learn about depression and the warning signs of suicide. He hopes they will feel O.K. talking about it. After all, someone dies from cancer and it’s described heroically -- “a battle.” Suicide is viewed as selfish. “Anyone who knows Gia knows that selfish was the last thing she was,” Ryan says. “She would never want to cause anyone suffering. She just wanted to escape the pain.”
Who knows how Ryan will feel a year from now, five years, 10? The ripples don’t stop when you tell them to. He’s already been changed permanently. His innocence is gone. He’s more wary of the world, but also more empathetic. His friends see the man who has replaced the boy. “Ryan could have hidden this from the world,” says Mark Groves, “but he’s facing it head on.”
Ryan has no long-term strategy, he says, “but I can finally say after a long time of thinking that there’s no hope and there’s no future, I can see a hope and I can see a future.” He remains close with Gia’s mother. He visited her in Pennsylvania in August, and in October, Donna flew down with her teenage son, Dylan, to whom she says Ryan has become like a big brother. Meanwhile, Donna reaches out to troubled young women through Facebook and email. Recently she put up a young woman from California at her house for three weeks. (Ryan paid the girl’s airfare.) Donna wants girls to know that what Gia did wasn’t cool. They should not follow her example. Not try to be perfect. That it’s O.K. to be vulnerable. To ask for help.
Meanwhile, Ryan is back on the court, fully recovered from the neck surgery, averaging 16.3 points and 5.9 rebounds. He is playing 26.3 minutes a game, and the Pelicans look like a possible playoff contender. “I learned a lot from Ryan going through all this stuff,” Williams says. “I was in awe of his ability to come back, to address the team, to play as well as he did, to be the teammate that he was and is.”
The folks at the American Suicide Prevention Foundation are also impressed. Moutier says, “He has done nothing but spread truth in a very positive way.”
Positive. It’s an interesting word choice. Ryan still talks to Gia sometimes, when he’s alone at home or driving the car. When he’s having a bad day, he tells her he wishes she were still here.
Upstairs in his house he has the green dress from the night they met, in the Bahamas. He keeps it in a safe with other mementos: photos, cards, the silver giraffe necklace she loved so much. He hasn’t opened the safe in nearly a year. He can’t bring himself to. He is just now catching up on the shows they used to watch together, whole seasons of Game of Thrones and Homeland. It feels wrong, but he has to move on.
That’s not quite right. It’s not moving on so much as moving forward. Whenever he’s ready to date again, Ryan says, the woman will have to understand that Gia will always be part of who he is. That he is a package deal now.
This is what he’s figured out: You can let people slip away, and try to forget -- or, if you choose, you can bring them with you.