Former stars have hearts checked at first NBPA-organized screening

ByJ.A. Adande ESPN logo
Sunday, December 13, 2015

A couple rosters' worth of basketball players got together at the Toyota Center in Houston on Saturday for health screenings, the first implementation of a program for retired players started by the National Basketball Players Association.

About 25 retired NBA players showed up for the screenings, which included heart testing. The NBPA initiated talks on the screenings at their July meetings, and the effort was given added urgency with the heart-related deaths of Moses Malone and Darryl Dawkins.

In a conference room provided by the Houston Rockets, physicians met with the retired players to discuss their medical history, test blood pressure, administer EKGs to check the heart's electrical activity, perform an echocardiogram to check the structure of the heart, scan carotids to look for plaque buildup in the arteries, check for sleep apnea and draw blood. The retired players also received attachments for their cellphones that can perform EKGs and send the results to cardiologists.

"Even in this small sample of patients that we've done, we've been able to get some abnormalities," said Dr. Manuel Reyes, a cardiologist with Houston Cardiovascular Associates at the Houston Medical Center. "A couple of incidents with decreased heart function, weakened left ventricle, which is the main chamber of the heart."

Since 2000, more than 50 former NBA players have died of complications related to heart disease, according to the Philadelphia-based news site Billy Penn. It is unclear if basketball players are more susceptible to heart disease, which was one of the secondary aspects of screening former players.

"That's one of the things that we're looking to benefit is the research component," said Joe Rogowski, the players' union director of sports medicine and research. "We're looking for trends. There's never been a real study that looks at this population and looks for norms and trends. They're bigger. They carry more weight, which leads to other factors, such as diabetes and high blood pressure."

Union executive director Michele Roberts and NBA commissioner Adam Silver both said earlier this year that cardiac testing was a high priority. Silver said the NBA was prepared to provide the union with both financial support and a vast array of medical resources.

Union representatives presented their vision of comprehensive screening for retirees to current players at their annual Las Vegas meeting in July. Sources said players voted to set aside funds to implement screenings. The larger -- and more costly -- issue of supplementing health insurance is slated to be addressed at their February meetings, when a more comprehensive blueprint would be available.

The ages of the deceased players are alarming. Malone was 60. Dawkins was 58. Caldwell Jones, who died last year, was 64. Other recent deaths of former players include Jack Haley, 51, and Anthony Mason, 48.

"Something's got to be done," said Rogowski, who was an athletic trainer and strength and conditioning coach for 10 years in the NBA. "The NFL is dealing with their issues with retired players. This may be our issue that we're dealing with retired players on."

It has injected a beneficial dosage of fear into a group that is unaccustomed to confronting their own physical weaknesses.

"Guys have said, 'If something's wrong, I don't want to know,'" said Harvey Catchings, 64, an 11-year NBA veteran who went to the screening in Houston. "I talked to guys: 'It's not about you. It's about your family, too. What happens to you affects them.'

"When you're out there playing, 'Nothing can happen to me.' Then when you start seeing guys fall -- we lost Moses, we lost Darryl, we lost Caldwell -- you start thinking about, we've got to do a better job of taking care of myself. Part of that is knowing what I've got to deal with.

"You get so much information from an EKG, from an echo. It's the reality of life. We're no longer spring chickens. You just understand that you've got to take good care of yourself."

No former player has felt the loss more than Major Jones, Caldwell Jones' brother who was a teammate of Malone on the Rockets in the early 1980s.

"I think of Moses in the same sense I think of my brother Caldwell," Jones said. "It's difficult. The memories, they'll always be with you. But you miss them physically."

Major Jones, 62, is a prostate cancer survivor. A test in April indicated the presence of a small hole in his heart. He adjusted his diet -- more vegetables and fruits, less red meat -- and said the hole could no longer be detected in the tests performed Saturday.

Sometimes the screenings can provide good news. Either way, it's important to be informed. That's a step the players' association took Saturday.

Information from ESPN Senior Writer Jackie MacMullan was used in this report.