The Star Recruit Who Fought Depression to Find His Purpose

Former Syracuse guard Kaleb Joseph has a message: "It's not just you"

June 3, 2024 4:55 am
A split image featuring Kaleb Joseph (L) playing basketball for Syracuse and Joseph again (R) talking to an audience.
From top 100 recruit to rock bottom...and eventually to a new purpose entirely. This is Kaleb Joseph's story.
Rich Barnes/Getty Images; Courtesy of Kaleb Joseph

This article was originally published on the Substack Seth Davis Writes Again and appears in InsideHook courtesy of Seth Davis, longtime NCAA basketball sportswriter and broadcaster.

It’s a searing and salient profile of former Syracuse guard Kaleb Joseph, who saw his anxiety and depression rise as his performance and playing time cratered in the 2015-16 season. Davis charts Joseph’s journey from star recruit to rock bottom, spotlighting crucial, yet underreported questions that so many athletes must face: What if the dream dissolves? Who am I? What’s left?

We were deeply moved by Joseph’s story — by his pain, his vulnerability and his resolve to find his purpose. For more longform hoops storytelling, plus op-eds and insider analysis — including Davis’s recent ode to the late, great Bill Walton — sign up through this link.

He turned on the shower so no one could hear him sobbing.

It was March of 2016. Syracuse, which had started the NCAA tournament as a No. 10 seed, was in the midst of an unlikely run to the Final Four. It was supposed to be Kaleb Joseph’s dream come true, but instead it was his worst nightmare. The team was winning, but he wasn’t playing. He was disappointed, shocked, confused, and hurt. Most of all, he was ashamed.

This was not the life he had planned or imagined. He was once a hotshot prospect, a 6-3 point guard out of Nashua, N.H., who was ranked among the nation’s best high school seniors. He was tapped as Syracuse’s starting point guard as a freshman, but as the season progressed, his performance declined. So did his confidence. He began his sophomore season coming off the bench. By Christmas, he was out of the rotation altogether. During the 15 games prior to the 2016 NCAA tournament, Joseph played a total of five minutes. The Orange made the Final Four without him so much as stepping onto the floor.

Kaleb did his best to put on a brave face. He cheered from the bench, celebrated in the locker room, never complained to his coaches, the media, or anyone else. But inside he was dying. The only place he felt safe to break down was the bathroom of his hotel room. The shower sealed his isolation. “I felt shame because my entire identity was so intertwined with my performance,” he says. “Because if I’m not performing, and I can’t take care of my mom and I can’t take care of my family, then who am I? What’s my purpose here? What value do I have to the world?”

At the time, Joseph was certain things couldn’t get worse. He was wrong. The game which had lifted his hopes so high as a teenager would later crash around him as a young man, plunging him into the depths of depression and despair, loneliness and addiction. There were many days when Joseph didn’t want to live another moment. Staying alive for many years, much less living a life of purpose of fulfillment, was inconceivable.

Yet there he was last Dec. 15, walking around an auditorium at Westport High School in Massachusetts holding a microphone. When Joseph asked if someone would share what they were most afraid of, a young girl with long dark hair raised her hand. Joseph invited her to stand and handed her the mic.

“My biggest fear is being judged by my parents and anyone I talk to,” she said in a timid voice.

The girl sat down. Joseph placed his right palm on her left shoulder.

“It’s okay,” he said. “Look look look look. Watch this. Stand up.” Turning to the audience, Joseph said, “Raise your hand if you resonate with that, where you don’t tell the truth because you’re afraid of being judged. And raise ’em high.”

As hands went up around the room, the girl lowered her chin and raised a finger to her mouth. She sniffed audibly.

“Look. It’s not just you,” he told her. “And I know it feels isolating as hell. I know it does.” Joseph’s voice got louder as he again addressed the students. “Put your hands back up. Raise em high. It’s so important for you to see this. It is not just you.

Joseph may not have realized his dream of playing in the NBA, but he is playing a more important position now, a full-time evangelist driving to defeat loneliness and shame. Over the last 18 months, Joseph has spoken at hundreds of high schools, universities, and other groups. He has hopscotched from Vancouver to Dallas to California to Seattle and various points in between. He has met with students, athletes, teams, coaches, teachers, businesses, police officers – anyone who craves his message and the connections it forges. He delivers impassioned speeches to large audiences, conducts intimate breakout sessions, and counsels people one-one-one. He has branded his endeavor the Self-Help Tour, and while Joseph is no doubt teaching people how to help themselves, it is clear that he is helping himself most of all. “I need these engagements. I need these calls. I need these conversations,” he says. “It’s vital for my own recovery, because it keeps me so grounded. This has been a really, really healing journey, for my entire family.”

Kaleb Joseph standing in a basketball arena before a game.
Joseph was an enigma for the Syracuse coaching staff: a superstar in practice, but a question mark come gametime.
Brett Carlsen / Contributor

Joseph’s willingness to share his vulnerability – to turn off the proverbial shower, so to speak – stands in stark contrast to what he calls the “white knuckle existence” he lived his entire life. He grew up as one of 11 siblings, and the only child to divorced parents, in a public housing project in downtown Nashua. His father worked multiple jobs, so he was gone a lot. His mother, Ressie, suffered from depression so debilitating she sometimes wouldn’t get out of bed for days. The family moved nearly a dozen times before Kaleb was 12 years old. “The house was very, very dysfunctional,” he says. “It was easy to get lost in the mix.”

There was, however, one place where Joseph was able not just to function but excel – the outdoor basketball court just steps from Kaleb’s front door. His older sister Jennifer was a good player who would go on to play at a Division III college. Kaleb followed Jennifer around town, playing in games with kids (mostly boys) who were several years older. He learned early on that the cardinal rule of the playground was never to show weakness. He also learned that he was really good.

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By the time Kaleb was in fifth grade, he was drawing attention from AAU coaches all over town. It was the kind of attention he never got at home, and it showed him a path to a better life. “The best thing that I could come up with at that point was to go to the NBA, because then I can get a million dollars and take care of my family,” he says. “It created this unhealthy attachment to the game.”

When local coaches found out about Kaleb’s home life, they invited him to stay with them. He bounced around a lot, but that was still more stable than what he had at home. His nerdy glasses belied a fierce determination within. When his team went to a tournament in Florida and lost by 81 points, [he] was incensed at how easily his teammates shook off the loss. He was trying to get to the NBA; they were trying to get back to the pool at their hotel. From that point on, basketball stopped being fun. It became a mission.

Upon returning to New Hampshire, Joseph started waking up every morning at 5:30 for workouts. He was in eighth grade when he got his first college offer from Boston University. He transferred to Cushing Academy, a prep school located just across the Massachusetts border. Lots of college coaches showed interest, but for some reason – he still doesn’t know why – Joseph locked in on Syracuse as his dream school. He could hardly believe it when assistant coach Mike Hopkins offered him a scholarship his junior year.

“If I’m not performing, and I can’t take care of my mom and I can’t take care of my family, then who am I? What’s my purpose here? What value do I have to the world?”

Kaleb Joseph

As a senior, Joseph was ranked No. 52 in his class in the Recruiting Services Consensus Index. When he got to Syracuse, he was named to the preseason list of candidates to win the Wayman Tisdale Award, which is given to the nation’s best freshman. Joseph scored a team-high 19 points in the first exhibition game. He figured the season would be easy.

But then the real games started, and Joseph struggled, as most freshmen do. He played poorly down the stretch of an early December loss at Michigan, and his confidence never recovered. The coaches, in turn, lost confidence in him. He remained in the starting lineup, but his playing time dwindled. He was afraid at times to touch the ball. As his fortunes plunged, Joseph spent more and more time alone in his dorm room, humiliated by his poor play and petrified of facing the public.

To his coaches, Joseph was an enigma. He was clearly gifted and routinely dunked on teammates in practice. But when he got into games, he faltered, especially in high-pressure situations. “We thought he was very talented,” former Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim says. “He had all the skills, he was fast, he was a pretty good shooter, but it didn’t translate onto the court. Mentally, he was all over the place.”

After Joseph’s freshman season was over, Joseph was devastated to see a story on listing him among the most disappointing players in the country. “It was right there for everyone to see,” he says. He worked hard that summer in hopes of reversing his fate as a sophomore. Instead, Boeheim parked him on the bench and kept him there. Depression sank in.

Shortly after the 2015-16 season ended with a Final Four loss to North Carolina, Joseph transferred to Creighton. While he sat out that first season as a redshirt, he took classes for his major in Healthy Lifestyle Management. For the first time in his life, he considered his health in a holistic manner, binding together the psychological, physical and spiritual strains that braided inside him. “It was amazing,” he says. “Those courses helped me put the puzzle pieces together to show why I was feeling the way I was feeling.”

Kaleb Joseph playing basketball for Creighton.
Joseph transferred to Creighton, before logging some pro minutes in various leagues throughout Europe.
Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

He became eligible to play again in the fall of 2018, but he tore his hamstring early in the season and never fully recovered. He played just 15 games as a redshirt junior. The following year, he averaged 4.3 points and 1.2 assists in 15.9 minutes off the bench. The NBA was out of the question, so Joseph embarked on a peripatetic international career. He played in Slovenia, Macedonia, South America, and the Czech Republic, among other places. He spent summers at home in Nashua, where he mentored dozens of young players in the neighborhood who still idolized him. He organized volunteer boot camps in a local gym, where he put the boys through rigorous workouts and then talked to them about life. Joseph started imagining himself giving such talks for a living. He even formed an LLC through which he planned to operate the business.

Those exchanges were gratifying, but they were not enough to salve his pain. Joseph had been abusing alcohol and drugs ever since he was in middle school. After a few years of bouncing aimlessly around the world, those habits took a deeper hold. “I’m the guy who was addicted to everything,” he says. “Anything to help me escape.”

In the spring of 2022, his then-girlfriend visited him in the Czech Republic. He confessed how bad things had gotten. She convinced him to reach out to two of his best friends from Cushing Academy – Chris Mullin, Jr., whose father, the former NBA All-Star and head coach, is a recovering alcoholic, and Jaime Carey, whose uncle, Chris Herren, is also a former heralded basketball player turned addict. Both of them encouraged Joseph to come back to the U.S. and enter rehab, but his team was in the playoffs, and he wanted to finish out the season. It was a long, harrowing month. “I thought about killing myself every single day,” he says.

Joseph returned to the States later that summer and admitted himself into the Herren Wellness Recovery Center in Seekonk, Mass. His days there were full and structured – up at 6 a.m., breakfast, group meetings, individual therapy, workouts, more meetings, more therapy. He was only granted use of his cell phone for one hour every day, during which he would see messages from those kids in Nashua who were wondering where he was. One day his therapist noted how emotionless he seemed as he recounted his hardships. “It’s like you’re doing everything you can to not be vulnerable,” she said.

The word cut through the fog. “A light bulb went off in my head,” Joseph says. “I realized she was right. Once I was able to comprehend what vulnerability is and how it influences every single interaction, it was a message I wanted to share with the world.”

After three-and-a-half months in rehab, Joseph left the Herren Center and set out to build a new life. He did some substitute teaching to pay the bills, and he reconnected with many of the kids whom he had been mentoring. It was hard telling them the truth, but that led to some amazing conversations. He started sharing pictures and videos of his interactions on Instagram and TikTok. As those posts gained traction, he received a steady stream of messages from people, especially athletes, who related to what he had gone through. A man he met at the Herren Center asked him to visit a school in Massachusetts where his wife was a teacher. The reception there further convinced him of the value – and potential – of sharing his story.

The requests kept trickling in. Joseph asked his old friend, Jaime Carey, to help him field inquiries and organize his schedule. He spoke to players at the Nike Skills Academy and officers at the Massachusetts State Police Academy. Another friend connected him with executives at the Wasserman Media Agency who assisted him with marketing, logistics, production, and social media. The demand mushroomed and hasn’t let up.

Joseph may be a seasoned speaker, but in the minutes before he begins talking, he can become virtually catatonic with fear. He does not work with a script, so he worries that when he opens his mouth, the words will not come. But come they do, and once Joseph gets going, his body contorts with manic energy that courses through the audience as he stalks around the room. His talks carry many of the same themes, but the specifics are different every time. He’s not following a playbook. He’s opening up his heart.

Joseph is grateful that his impact has grown so big so fast. But he’s not surprised. “I knew there was a void that needed to be filled, especially in sports. It was clear as day that half the locker room (at Syracuse) was struggling with this,” he says. “I’ve had this vision my entire life. It was something I’ve always wanted to do. When you are aligned with what you’re supposed to be doing, and you’re moving with the right intention of just serving people, the world works in your favor.”

Joseph still lives in Nashua just minutes from his mother’s and father’s houses, although he’s typically only in town a couple days a week. His mother recently accompanied him to the Cushing School, where she heard him speak for the first time. Joseph typically does eight to ten appearances per month. He could do more, but it’s important for him to carve out time to attend to his recovery, which includes daily Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. If he’s traveling and can’t get to a meeting in person, he’ll find one on Zoom. He also speaks with his sponsors regularly.

Where is all this headed? Joseph isn’t sure, and he doesn’t want to guess. It’s enough to know that wherever this path leads, he is through hiding who he really is, and how he really feels. “I’m still healing through all this, still learning to forgive myself,” he says. “My own personal recovery journey requires me to take things one day at a time. Not future trip or think about the past, but just serve other people and get out of my own way. That’s really all I’m focused on, and all I want to focus on. Just continue to ask myself, what can I do today?”

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