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.
The clinical research Macmillan lays out in her piece proves that Bird may be on to something. Whether it be the heart issues that often crop up soon after the playing days are over, or the debilitating structural problems that can shorten careers and make life after them miserable, a big man can run into trouble simply because of their sheer size. For that latter set, Bill Walton is their hobbled poster boy.
Walton was a generational talent as a big man, but his career was shortened and irrevocably altered by a series of foot and back issues, for which Walton claims he’s had at least 37 surgeries. One recent procedure he had illustrates just how much hell his body’s been through.
In 2009, Walton underwent an 8½-hour spinal fusion surgery that required four bolts, two titanium rods and a metal cage — akin to an Erector Set — to put him back together. Now he travels the country advocating for athletes to be proactive in their treatment. “We athletes are our own worst enemies,” Walton says. “We don’t listen to our bodies, we don’t listen to our doctors. We don’t realize until later in life that health is everything. Without it, you’ve got nothing.”
More recently, Yao Ming’s career was cut short due to persistent foot injuries. The 6’9 Kevin Durant had a complicated Jones fracture (similar to the ones Yao endured) on his foot that derailed his 2014-15 season — he seems to be fully recovered, thank goodness, but the innocence of fans dreaming of his long future in the NBA has been lost.
While MacMullan’s research is impressive, it doesn’t take too deep a dive to connect the dots on all these issues. What’s more concerning is that it’s unclear if anything can be done. The San Antonio Spurs are the exemplars of minutes and exertion management for the way they’ve extended Tim Duncan’s career, and now they have LaMarcus Aldridge, who’s had heart issues in the past. How will they treat his golden years? Will it make a difference?
Not unlike the NFL and concussions, an NBA career simply seems to carry certain risks that can’t be eliminated from the game. As we continue to enjoy these athletes in the primes of their lives, it’s important to pause every once and a while and remember that they live beyond their careers, and not always comfortably.