After heart surgery, NBA players have support
They are bound by their hearts.
That might sound like a corny way to describe it. But, literally, it's true.
Four current and former NBA players who have had heart surgery communicate with each other regularly through phone calls and texts. One is playing in the ongoing NBA Finals, so it's no surprise the other three are paying close attention.
"It's been like a fraternity out there," said Miami center Ronny Turiaf, who had surgery to repair an enlarged aortic root in his heart in 2005 and whose Heat are facing Oklahoma City in the Finals. "We're just trying to stick with each other and show support with each other."
The other members of the club are former NBA guard and current Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg, Etan Thomas, a former NBA forward who wants to get back in the league next season, and forward Jeff Green, who missed this NBA season because of a heart surgery but is expected to return next season.
It all started when Hoiberg learned in 2005 he had an aortic aneurysm and had surgery. He soon reached out to Turiaf, then a 22-year-old Lakers rookie who had been diagnosed just a month later with his heart condition.
Hoiberg and Turiaf contacted Thomas after it was found out he would need surgery in 2007 to repair a leaky aortic valve. All three touched base with Green when it was revealed last December he would require surgery due to an aortic aneurysm.
"It's great having somebody to just talk to you who knows what you're going through," Thomas said. "It's kind of like a pay it forward. It is just like a fraternity. Everybody doesn't have the same (heart) situation, but there are a lot of similarities going through the situation."
Unlike Turiaf and Thomas and expected to be unlike Green, Hoiberg did not return to the NBA following his heart surgery. He said he could have come back but didn't because he was the father of four young children and didn't want to take any chances.
Hoiberg, then 32, was playing for Minnesota in January 2005 when he applied for a life insurance policy. Hoiberg was rejected for reasons not explained to him.
"I had a life-threatening condition," said Hoiberg, born with an abnormal valve. "My aorta was on the verge of erupting. I was a ticking time bomb."
Hoiberg had surgery June 28, 2005. There were some complications, and he soon needed a pacemaker installed.
"I had fully expected to come back and play again," said Hoiberg, who has been coach at Iowa State, his alma mater, the past two seasons. "I got myself back in shape. … I basically signed with Phoenix (as a free agent), and the team doctor said there wasn't much risk, but he couldn't tell me there was none. I could have played even with a pacemaker but, if there was a 1 percent chance (of dying), with four kids, I didn't want to do that."
Hoiberg eventually took a job in Minnesota’s front office. But while he had still been hoping to return as a player he saw that Turiaf, who had drafted out of Gonzaga by the Lakers the same day of Hoiberg’s surgery, had been diagnosed with a heart problem.
"I saw his press conference, and he looked scared," Hoiberg said. "So I reached out to his agent, and he called me and we talked about the recovery process."
Turiaf underwent a six-hour open-heart surgery July 26, 2005. His recovery time was estimated at between six and 12 months.
But Turiaf was able to come back quicker than expected, playing for the CBA's Yakima Sun Kings early the next season and making his Lakers debut Feb. 8, 2006. He only played a scoreless one minute, but it was a big moment.
"My inspiration was Fred Hoiberg," Turiaf said. "He told me to hang in there and told me stuff to expect (following the surgery). We were talking on a regular basis."
Turiaf said the recovery process was difficult. But Hoiberg, a month ahead in his rehabilitation, was there to help guide him through it.
"I didn't sugarcoat it," Hoiberg said about his overall talks with Turiaf. "I didn't lie to him. It's a tough surgery, a six-hour procedure. They just shut down your system. … I told him 'You're going to lose 20 to 25 pounds after the surgery,' and he did, but don't try to rush back.
"The biggest thing to talk about was the recovery is slow. Gradually, you feel better. You get better every day, but when you have setbacks, you just got to be careful."
Turiaf doesn't like to publicly talk much anymore about what he went through in 2005 because "they're not very good memories." But he has been willing to share his story with other NBA players who have had heart conditions.
Thomas learned of his leaking aortic valve during a routine physical prior to Washington's training camp to open the 2007-08 season. Thomas underwent surgery Oct. 11, 2007. During the process, Turiaf and Hoiberg talked with Thomas, who remains grateful.
"I had known Ronny a little bit from playing against him," Thomas said of his dealings with Turiaf. "He knew what I was going through, so he encouraged me and let me know what he had been through.
"He told me before the surgery I could talk to him after the surgery if I had any questions, and I took him up on that. I called him on a lot of different things ... just things that the doctors didn't cover. It helped just knowing the process is really slow, and at first it was really baby steps. ... And Fred Hoiberg talked with me. It really helped."
Thomas sat out all of 2007-08 but returned to play in the NBA from 2008-11. Although he wasn't active this past season, Thomas, who turned 34 in April, said he's not yet retired and will try to make a team next season.
If he's successful, Thomas figures to run into Green, diagnosed last December with an aortic aneurysm shortly after signing a one-year, $9 million contract with Boston. Green's contract was voided, and he underwent season-ending surgery Jan. 9, 2012.
Green, 25, is now doing well and expected to return to the NBA. That's welcome news to Hoiberg, Turiaf and Thomas, who all have had dealings with Green throughout his ordeal.
"I've talked to him just trying to show my support," Turiaf said. "I talked to him about hanging in there and about how everything is going to be all right."
Turiaf, who says he wants to be remembered for more than just basketball, does more than encourage NBA players. He has the Ronny Turiaf Heart to Heart Foundation, which was established in August 2009 to help provide medical care for children who can't afford the care and don't have health insurance.
For now, Turiaf has the NBA Finals to worry about. Although he didn't play in Miami's 105-94 loss in Game 1, Turiaf has started seven games during the playoffs and could be counted on at any time for minutes.
Hoiberg, Thomas and Green all are paying close attention.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson