Jordan Bell is known for many things.
The Long Beach Poly alum, NBA champion, and Minnesota Timberwolves forward has been an elite basketball player and shotblocker for many years, dating back to his playing days in his hometown. He’s always been known as a talker, too–he talked back in class, he talked trash to opponents, and he gave great quotes to reporters.
In fact, the first time anyone ever saw Bell struggle to speak on a basketball court was in August, when he hosted his first-ever celebrity charity basketball game at Long Beach State. The event benefited Race to Erase MS, a charity supporting research in the hopes of curing multiple sclerosis.
Bell chose the charity because his girlfriend, Carissa West, had been diagnosed with MS during the previous NBA season. Standing at center court in the Pyramid, he explained to the crowd his rationale.
“A jumpshot won’t fix anything, but I can use my voice to raise money and bring awareness to the issue,” he said. “When the diagnosis happened in November I had to do something to show her I was with her. Obviously, I can’t help, I can’t physically do anything…”
Bell trailed off, his voice choked with emotion. He paused for several seconds, and was joined on the court by his mother, Carolyn Gray, and by West, who came up and hugged him as the crowd cheered. He wrapped his arms around both of them before continuing.
“I can’t help her,” he went on. “But doing this…I can’t help her get better. But I can do my part. This whole thing is to honor her.”
Two Kinds of Jackpots
Statistically speaking, Bell and West hit the jackpot.
Both are from Long Beach, Bell having attended Poly and West having gone to Wilson. The two are young, have been together for several years, and Bell is living out his dream as a professional basketball player in the NBA. It’s a job that’s afforded him the ability to right many of the wrongs that kids growing up in poverty experience. He’s made sure his mom has a nice place and a nice car, and in his first offseason, he took his entire family on a vacation.
“We’d never been on a vacation,” he explained.
But in November of 2018, the couple hit a different kind of jackpot, with West’s shocking diagnosis, incredibly rare for someone so young.
“One day I suddenly felt like I’d gotten drunk, out of nowhere,” she recalls. She had persistent vertigo but doctors couldn’t find anything wrong, so they told her to wait it out. She and Bell’s best friend, Sheldon Brown, drove her around for a few weeks while she regained her sense of balance. A few months later, her leg stopped processing temperatures.
“I would touch it to something cold and metal and my brain would process it as hot,” she said.
This time a doctor told her it was likely a pinched nerve.
A few months later, she and Bell were eating bacon cheeseburgers and midway through, the bacon started tasting so salty to her that it was to the point of being painful. A few minutes later the left side of her tongue went numb, and a huge headache came on. Doctors again told her there was nothing to worry about, that the headache was probably the result of her muscles being too tight. West pressed on, and doctors ordered an MRI–the results came back with a diagnosis no twenty-something ever expects: multiple sclerosis.
“It was honestly very, very tough,” said West of the diagnosis. “It was devastating to hear. They always say ‘Don’t go on Google’ but of course you do. I’m seeing that people lose the ability to walk or they can go blind. It was really scary.”
West was diagnosed a few weeks into Bell’s second NBA season with the Golden State Warriors. She was diagnosed on the day of a game, and she tried to hide it from him until that night so that it wouldn’t bother him while he was playing.
“He saw that my eyes were full of tears and asked what was wrong, I immediately lost it,” she said. “It was really hard, I know it was hard for him. It was scary for both of us.”
Bell spent the second half of the season planning his charity basketball game. In June he sent West a mockup of the flyer advertising the game–it included the info that the game would benefit Race to Erase MS.
“I was surprised by that, it caught me off guard,” she said. “It really touched me–he didn’t have to do that. It meant a lot to me.”
A Game, and the Future
West isn’t yet 25, and is still on her mother’s health insurance. Because she was diagnosed in the Bay, but has now moved to Minnesota with Bell after he signed with the Timberwolves, she has a new set of issues: navigating America’s labyrinth of a health insurance industry.
“They don’t have our insurance provider in Minnesota so essentially I was just told I need to fly back to California whenever I need to see a specialist,” she said. “My medication has to be shipped to me from my family in Long Beach, I take an injection every night and it has to be refrigerated. There’s a lot of hoops to figure out.”
Being frustrated with health insurance in your 20s is a fairly normal experience–having MS at that age is not. West has been able to put a lot of her anxiety to the side and enjoy life, but that doesn’t mean that she’s not thinking about it.
“I’m just scared that something else might come up, that’s what scares me more than anything,” she said. “Mostly, it’s a normal life. I exercise, I enjoy things. There are days when I’m really tired, but I have to remind myself I can live life. It’s not a death sentence.”
Her partner in that life is a talkative basketball player who’s been by her side through all of it. Bell’s high school basketball coach, Sharrief Metoyer, has been an important figure in his life and has been impressed by Bell’s maturity.
“It affected Jordan really deeply,” he said. “You saw that emotion at the basketball game, everything they’d gone through over the last 10 months came out of him at that moment. He’s caring for her, being there and being in those moments that we’re not privy to. Another 24 year old in his situation might have walked out and said, ‘I’m too young to deal with this.’ He’s been in her corner through all of it.”
West said she’s grateful to have Bell, and admitted she was surprised when the private pain of their situation left him speechless while holding a microphone.
“He’s felt like he needed to be strong for me, and I knew it affected him too but I hadn’t really seen that side,” she said. “In that moment, all I could think of was how much he must love me and care about me to be vulnerable like that. It was his true emotions, and I’m happy he could share those emotions.”
Jordan Bell has always been a talker, but at the first of many charity basketball games to come, it wasn’t about what he said–it was about what he did.