It doesn’t take many viewings of NBA basketball to understand just how abnormal basketball players are. They’re freakishly tall in most cases, and capable of stunning acts made possible only by their height. But there’s another side to the word “freak” the way it’s used for NBA players, and it’s one filled with chronic illness and pain, as ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan reports.
When a human’s body is larger than normal, it means more distance for the blood to cover, which means the heart has to work harder to pump it all the way around. For lots of players, including Larry Bird, that means complications like an enlarged heart and atrial fibrillation, which can cause the heart to beat erratically — that can obviously lead to a host of other issues. Bird told MacMullan he had one such episode while coaching the Indiana Pacers.
The waves of nausea and dizziness overtook him next, muddling his concentration and leaving him feeling light-headed. When the sudden arrhythmia would occur during his training sessions in his playing days — long before he’d informed any medical personnel about it — he would always lie down immediately and nap for several hours, because if he didn’t, he risked losing consciousness.
But on March 17, 1998, the 41-year-old coach of the Eastern Conference-contending Pacers, in the thick of a hotly contested game with the defending champion Bulls, could hardly recline and sleep it off. “Oh god,” Bird thought as he tried to steady himself on the Indiana sideline. “Please don’t let me pass out on the court.”
It’s a harrowing mental image, but these problems go beyond just fainting spells. NBA big men like Darryl Dawkins and Moses Malone have died suddenly of heart attacks at age 60 and 58, respectively, and they’re not alone. Bird wonders if NBA big men simply have shorter expiration dates than the average human.