He still towers over most people, and his broad smile is back. However, former Seattle Sonic James Donaldson wants you to know he’s changed a lot since his playing days.
“Basketball has taken me around the world,” the longtime Seattle resident said. “I want to finish up right here.”
It’s been a heck of a journey for the 61-year-old. He was drafted out of Washington State University to the Sonics where he played for a few years before embarking on a 14-year NBA career. He eventually settled for good in Magnolia, and ran a chain of physical therapy centers.
But the bottom dropped out in 2015.
“Out of nowhere,” he said, during a conversation on the Seattle waterfront.
He was 57 years old at the time, a vegetarian and jogger, who never smoked, drank or did drugs.
“One day, I’m not feeling so good,” Donaldson recalled. “I remember seeing the reception desk (at Swedish First Hill) as I walked in, and then everything went black.”
Donaldson had emergency heart surgery, an “aortic dissection” as he calls it. He was in a medically induced coma, and friends thought he wouldn’t make it out. When he did, despite what he calls a good health care plan for NBA retired players, there was still $200,000 to $300,000 of out of pocket expenses.
“Financially, I went upside down.”
He lost his mother around the same time. His wife and stepson also moved out. His businesses collapsed under the weight of it all.
“All of this put me in a deep, dark scary place for a long time,” Donaldson said.
He admitted he battled depression, contemplated, and planned a suicide attempt.
“I really didn’t think I was going to make it Christmas of 2017.”
The suicide of WSU quarterback Tyler Hilinski around the same time impacted him.
“That resonated with me in such a way. One, that’s my alma mater. Two, I was a student-athlete walking the campus. (It) shook me to the core. I’ve gotta get out of this thing,” he said.
Therapy and friends helped him out of the darkness, and forge a new path.
He now believes it has given him a perspective few can see.
“Now I understand what mental health is all about,” said Donaldson, losing the trademark smile. “Any of this can happen to us at any time.”
Donaldson believes it translates to the problems facing the city of Seattle in general, and has prompted him to write another chapter.
“I’ve decided to run for Seattle City Council. I live right here in District 7,” he said, his face lighting up again. “We now have got some big problems, especially with homelessness, drug addictions, opioid problems, needles everywhere.
“We need more and more caseworkers, engaging with these people working with tents.”
It’s a key component of his campaign, which was launched just a couple of days before the filing deadline last month. He’s now trying to establish himself in a crowded field of 10 candidates, looking to represent Magnolia, Queen Anne, and Downtown Seattle.
Donaldson said he also wants to seek police reform, and disagrees with a recent decision by Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best to reinstate an aggressive police officer. The decision was backed by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan.
“He should have been terminated,” Donaldson said bluntly. He believes more officers should get out of their cars, and off their bikes, and “walk the city blocks again” to change public opinion.
Whether his every man message resonate with voters is another story. But Donaldson is now excited about the future for the first time in years.
“There is finally light now at the end of the tunnel," Donaldson said.