“I feel like I’m fighting every day,” this was Nafis Ricks reality many years ago. Today, Ricks has a Master’s Degree in counseling psychology from the University of Missouri.
But, life for Ricks didn’t always taste this sweet. He was born in the rough streets of Philadelphia (Philly), Pennsylvania, in 1987. A tragic event took place when he was just three years old. Ricks’ parents split after 17 years together.
The answer to the age-old question of, “who gets custody of the kids?” followed. In a blink of an eye, Ricks and his younger brother, Amir, moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. With their grandfather and dad, Graddie.
Ricks’ older brother Michael remained in Philly with their mom, Robin Bell. Graddie recognized Philly wasn’t the best place to raise two impressionable Black sons. Ricks enjoyed his summers and holidays exploring the streets of Philly with his brothers, Amir and Michael.
Although Ricks and Amir’s new hometown had a sense of charm about it, Charlotte felt two worlds apart from life in Philly. As Ricks got older, he fell in love with basketball. For Ricks, basketball became his day-to-day lifeline. “I gravitated to basketball because I was in a foreign place. I felt like North Carolina was country. Wow, this was a dramatic shift from Philly.”
North Carolina had ‘“middle-of-nowhere” vibes. But Ricks experienced inner turmoil, trying to understand why he, his brothers, and dad weren’t with his mom anymore. He remembered thinking to himself, “My mom and dad didn’t have to break up.” But, he didn’t understand this truth as a child.
Confusion and disappointment flooded Ricks’ heart, and he always came up short with answers for why things were the way they are.
Sports was my outlet to release my anger. I was playing out of anger and fear, escaping how I felt.
Fortunately, Ricks didn’t cope with the pain through self-harming behaviors.
Ricks was the quintessential bad kid, as he tried to adjust to a new life in Charlotte. He received a lot of tough love from Graddie and his grandfather. Ricks and Amir were on their own under their dad’s roof. They had to take out the trash, wash their dishes, and the list goes on.
All the tedious chores Ricks did was annoying him at the time, but today he’s thankful for his experience. In his own words, “he learned how to be a man.” Ricks shared how he felt as a freshman in high school, “I was always trying to be perfect to people just to please people. I never wanted to get in trouble. I never wanted to get locked up.”
One ordinary school day, Ricks got a call from his dad. “Hey, Michael was murdered,” Graddie said.
“My mind was everywhere. I just talked to him last night. You don’t expect to hear that as a 14-year-old that you lost your brother to the streets.” Michael said these hair-raising words before he died, “if anything is going to happen, it’s going to happen now.”
Ricks tried to come to terms with the fact he’d never see or talk to his older brother again. There’s no chance to build a relationship. He thought to himself, “Should I entertain the streets? I want to retaliate against this person.”
He shrugged off this feeling because he realized he was only 14-years-old. “What do I know?” he thought. Instead, he played basketball at full force with all that he had. Ricks poured out all his pent up anger flowing through his veins on the basketball court.
After his older brother, Michael’s death, Ricks and his brother Amir moved back to Philly with his mom. The affection his mom showed him through warm embraces astonished Ricks. He was used to the tough love his dad and grandfather showed him. Their way of showing love was telling him to “take out the trash,” within seconds of him walking through the door.
Ricks soon developed an unhealthy way of relating to women. Ricks recognizes the power of love and affection today. He said, “Black women need love and affection. I messed up a lot of relationships with women in high school because I was immature.”
He said, “I never knew how I could mess up a woman’s mind by playing games.” Ricks never realized the hurt he could cause to women until he had his daughter.
There’s nothing like a child to bring wisdom and insight when you least expect it. It’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of everyday life, but Ricks daughter helps him stay mindful of his relationships (especially, with women).
Ricks has this uncanny self-awareness. He knows he can’t be a perfect dad. But, he’d do the best he can and lean on others for help. “I’m still a work in progress,” Ricks said. His number one goal is to raise a healthy and whole child. He understands it takes a village.
When Ricks finished high school, he enrolled in prep school at Maine Central Institute. And he played basketball there to avoid starting college right away. He left Maine within a year and was back in Philly, working for UPS.
This was a humbling experience for Ricks. The question, “aren’t you supposed to be in school?” came up often from his family and friends. You can imagine, Ricks wasn’t having a good time being back home. It didn’t help that his younger brother, Amir, was his biggest critic. Ricks felt motivated by the constant stabs Amir took at him.
Recruiting calls from 50 junior colleges started rolling in. A school in Kansas stood out to him. His friend attended this Division One school, so he figured he could too. Ricks’ success on the basketball court exploded, he quickly became MVP and won many awards.
During his sophomore year in the thick of his success, he heard that his cousin was murdered in North Carolina. Memories of his brother’s death rushed back in his mind as he sat there paralyzed after hearing the news.
What did Ricks do? He turned back to ballin’ once again as an outlet. “Whoo, I felt I was drowning. The depression, anxiety, and PTSD was crippling…,” he shared.
He reached his breaking point with the deaths of his brother and cousin, living in a broken home, and experiencing back-to-back trauma. Many children who grew up in broken homes like Ricks don’t realize the impact this can have on their mental health into adulthood.
Ricks suffered from a mental breakdown in his sophomore year. Eating and sleeping stopped. Here’s the deal. If you don’t care for your basic needs over a few weeks, it can mean you’re depressed.
I need help.
Ricks told his coach, Cuonzo Martin. These three simple words changed the course of Rick’s life forever. Martin didn’t judge and said,
Let’s get you some help.
In Ricks’ eyes, Martin wasn’t just a basketball coach, but a kind of life coach.
During Ricks’ worst episodes, he would sit in his apartment with his eyes open in the dark. He also experienced random fits of rage, coupled with screaming and yelling. He felt out of control, and couldn’t recognize, the man in the mirror.
Black mental health is still a hush-hush issue. Ricks shares, “I didn’t tell nobody I was seeing a therapist. I didn’t tell my mom. I was scared to tell my brother and my friends.” Back in the day, a girlfriend of Ricks supported him through the hardest time of his life. He hid his pain well.
Again he was conscious enough to know. He needed help. Harming himself or anyone else wasn’t an option. What sets Ricks apart is, he acknowledged the broken state he was in and sought out help for it.
And Martin provided him with the safe space he needed to see a therapist (minus the shame). Ricks reflected on the fact that there aren’t many Black doctors who understand mental health challenges. This fueled his motivation to seek out a career in psychology to help the Black and brown community with their struggles.
Ricks went back to play ball his senior year and upgraded to a full-time therapist. Funny enough, she was a white woman, he said, “she was great.” In his therapy sessions, he unpacked a lot of hidden trauma he carried over the years. He thought to himself at the time, “I can’t believe I’m exposing myself to a person I don’t know.” He continued his sessions.
Rick’s physical and mental health kept getting better and better in his senior year. One day Ricks’ team won a championship, people rushed to the court to greet the winners. Ricks’ family embraced him, Ricks began to sweat profusely, and his heart raced. His jersey was drenched in sticky sweat, and not because he played a good game.
Little did he know at the time, he had a panic attack. The profuse sweating continued throughout the day as he ate with family and friends. After eating, Ricks rushed back home to take a cold shower to calm the intense anxiety he was feeling.
He won a championship and was reunited with family and friends, why did he respond this way? Ricks said, “I was suppressing my feelings as a kid. I was chasing perfection and for people to validate who I was.” Living up to an imaginary version of himself, wore him down completely.
After this whirlwind episode, he graduated and no longer used basketball as a crutch. When he returned home to Philly, he stopped therapy as well. You know what, he was concerned his friends would call him ‘crazy’ if they knew he was seeing a therapist.
Many people in the Black community share this same sentiment. The unfortunate part is. People choose to go without the therapy they need because they’re worried about what people think. This can lead to catastrophic effects on one’s personal and professional life.
In 2018, he became a graduate assistant to Martin at the University of Missouri. Again, Ricks and Martin share a special bond. He wanted Martin to guide him on his path as a Black man in America. For what it’s worth. He wanted to achieve or even exceed the success Martin had. Martin had a great career, wife, and kids who could ask for more Ricks thought.
Along his journey, Ricks noticed the struggles people around him experienced. Over time he learned how to coach well, and he soon had many guys asking him for advice for tough situations.
This journey has led Ricks to where he is right now in the mental health space. He’s currently pursuing his doctorate in coaching psychology. Ricks hopes to shatter the stigma and taboo around mental health in the Black community for good.
“I’m an athlete, and most of us watch sports. If I come out about my mental health struggles, people will pay attention to me. He goes on to say, “if I need help with my mind, I’m going to the therapist. Period.”