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Who is Matt Dobek and why did he commit suicide?

By HBC Protocols September 20, 2010 0 comments

You probably haven’t heard of Matt Dobek. Few outside of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons basketball team had, until he took his own life. He worked as a liaison between the players and the press in the PR department. He was terminated a few months ago as part of a larger purge by ownership. That’s when things began to deteriorate.

In today’s Detroit Free Press, Michael Rosenberg of the Detroit Free press. remembers Dobek’s last days:

…when I talked to Matt shortly after he was fired, he seemed lost, and not just in ways you might expect. It wasn’t just that he needed a job. He sounded like he didn’t know what to do with himself. He had worked for the Pistons for 29 of his 51 years and suddenly he must have felt that it meant a lot more to him than it did to them.

It’s all a chilling reminder of depression’s potential to paralyze, engulfing lives in an instant, and leaving the rest of us shaking our heads in the aftermath. It’s a serious problem that all too often goes undiagnosed; moments like these remind us of the inherent gravity of it all.

So, if you have a second, read Rosenberg’s eulogy.

It didn’t matter who won or lost. It didn’t matter what I had written in recent days, weeks or months. After Pistons games, the team’s media-relations guru, Matt Dobek, would see me in the press room, smile and ask, “Did you rip us?”

The answer was almost always “no.” It is a forceful no today. Because today, I’m writing about Matt.

Last weekend, Matt Dobek took his own life. I suspect that a lot of fans did not even know who he was until he died. That’s a shame, because good people like Matt, who was one of several employees fired by the Pistons in May, are an essential part of the sports world.

Most fans do not know (or need to know) about the tug-of-war that goes on behind the scenes between reporters and athletes. Athletes often don’t want to give interviews; reporters, of course, would like to interview point guards as they dribble up the court during playoff games.

And in the middle are media-relations people. It can be a thankless job. But the best ones can bring both sides together in a way that helps the people who matter most: the fans. Matt was one of the best.

When he smiled and asked “did you rip us?” the key was not the question but the smile. It was a subtle acknowledgment of the tension beneath the surface. Matt never let that tension overwhelm the room.

One story should tell you what I mean. In the spring of 2004, I told Matt that I wanted a sit-down interview with the team’s controversial new forward, Rasheed Wallace. Matt did not know me that well, and Rasheed barely knew Matt at all, and Wallace was notoriously wary of the media. If Wallace didn’t like the interview, Matt told me, “not only will he be done with you, but he’ll be done with me.” Still, he said he would try.

And for a week or two, he tried hard, and kept trying, until finally Wallace said he would do it. Then I showed up to the Pistons’ practice facility to interview him, and Wallace refused to talk. “He’d rather spend an hour getting out of an interview than 10 minutes doing it,” Matt said, but he told me to come back the next day anyway.

I came back. And Rasheed blew me off again. And Matt told me he’d keep trying.

On the third day, I got a 45-minute sit-down interview with Rasheed Wallace. He was insightful, funny and honest — we talked about things he never would have discussed in a group interview. I thought about that interview every time I wrote about Rasheed for the next five years.

I don’t know the details of why Matt was fired. As far as I can tell, very few people know, and those who do haven’t spoken publicly. So I am in no position to judge the merits of the decision.

But I do know that when I talked to Matt shortly after he was fired, he seemed lost, and not just in ways you might expect. It wasn’t just that he needed a job. He sounded like he didn’t know what to do with himself. He had worked for the Pistons for 29 of his 51 years and suddenly he must have felt that it meant a lot more to him than it did to them.

It was bad enough that I talked to a few people about organizing a dinner for him — just a night for media people to let him know we were thinking about him. But it was summer, vacations kept getting in the way and the dinner did not seem urgent. I found out Matt took his life before anything was really planned. His funeral was Saturday.

Depression comes in many forms and sizes, but only one color, and I’m not so naive to think that one dinner could have led Matt out of his blackness. But I still wish we would have done it. I wish Matt could have sat in a room full of people who just wanted to thank him.

Not just because remembering Dobek reminds us of all the random players in life that brighten our days with an easy smile or a favor, but because remembering Dobek reminds us to pay attention to warning signs, lest we lose those easy smiles, and allow one of life’s good guys to drown in a self-made cascade of doom.

We can all do better than that. If not for Matt Dobek, then for someone in the future.


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