THE SURGEON OFFERS to do it now, immediately, but Jeff Green isn’t sure. It’s too much for him.
It’s just before Christmas 2011, so he delays the procedure until after the new year. Then the date arrives, and the NBA forward stares up into the bright lights of an operating room at the Cleveland Clinic, the anesthetics about to take hold. He’s 25 and harbors doubts he’ll ever play again — and fears that even if he does, he’ll be a shell of himself. Dr. Lars Svensson tries to calm him, telling Green that he’ll be all right, as good as new, even stronger than before. Soon, Green is asleep, and Svensson grabs his tools and prepares to do what he has done thousands of times before since 1980. He’s about to repair a human heart.
Green has an aortic root aneurysm, which was detected in a routine preseason physical with his employer, the Boston Celtics. The diagnosis means that he has failed his physical, voiding his one-year deal with the team, and won’t play at all in the 2011-12 season. When doctors deliver the news, Green falls silent. He wonders how on earth he had played with this issue — and for years? But then the rangy forward considers the bouts of unusual fatigue that he’d suffered in previous seasons. It all makes a degree of sense. And then come the questions.
Will I ever play again? Yes, the doctors say, but only if you have the surgery.
If I don’t have the surgery, what could happen? You could still play, they say, and maybe nothing happens — or maybe you could die on the court.
So Green opts for the surgery and places his heart in the hands of perhaps the finest cardiac surgeon in the world. But for all Svensson’s experience, for all his skill in a trade in which even the slightest mistake, one millimeter one way or the other, can have fatal consequences, something happens when he opens Green’s chest and assesses Green’s troubled heart for the first time.
My god, Svensson thinks, catching his breath.
What he sees is this: Green’s aorta, the main blood vessel in the body, is paper thin. It is on the verge of rupturing. “I was so grateful that we got to him in time,” Svensson says now, “before he had a major disaster.”
Green would not know until later how close he had come to not just his career being over — but his life. It all happened on a day that he now refers to as his “second birthday,” the day he received a second chance — and newfound perspective.
“To me basketball is secondary,” Green says now. “I had to really fight for my life. I almost died over this game.”
THIS PAST OFFSEASON, when the Cavaliers signed Green, he returned to the city where his life was saved. He reunited with coach Tyronn Lue, who’d been tasked in 2012, as a then-Celtics assistant coach, with helping Green through nine months of rehabilitation. And he was now paired with LeBron James, who had come to admire Green after competing against him in the postseason for several years.
“To see the game be taken away from someone so young at that point in time, I was like, ‘wow,'” James said before the NBA Finals. “It gives you an opportunity to kind of think [about] the situation that you’re in. So it was always great to compete against Jeff — not actually knowing exactly what he went through, because none of us can actually know unless we’ve been through that, but you can be inspired by it.”
James was far from the only one.
In 2011-2012, while Green had been sidelined, Kevin Durant had dedicated the season to his former teammate. As teenagers growing up in the Washington, D.C., area, both hailing from Maryland’s Prince George’s County, the two had known each other for years. They had grown all the more close when they’d teamed together on the Seattle Supersonics and, later, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Now, during the Finals, they find themselves matched up against each other — the last two active players to ever play for the Sonics but, in truth, so much more than that.
“Our relationship goes deeper than that,” Green says. “You don’t see a lot of guys coming from where you come from at this point. So to be going against him knowing that you have two guys from our area competing for a Finals championship … “
Deeper than basketball. It’s a phrase Durant uses several times when he reflects on his relationship with Green — and the long, fraught path they’ve taken to reach this point. “Oh, yeah, it’s deeper than basketball, me and Jeff,” Durant said before Game 2 of the Finals.
“Of course, I’m happy to be playing against him, excited to be competing against him. I can remember summers for years that we worked out every day together. I’m just enjoying this time we get to play on the court together.”
SIX YEARS AGO, with the disaster averted and the five-hour surgery successful, Green fought to regain lost muscle mass while he healed — lifting, biking, running, downing one protein shake after another. He bore a 9-inch scar splitting the center of his chest that at first was an eyesore but soon became a point of pride.
After being cleared, Green signed a four-year, $36 million deal with the Celtics, re-joining them for the 2012-13 campaign, a customized padded tank top residing beneath his jersey to help protect his chest.
A little more than a year after his surgery in Cleveland, Green returned to face the Cavaliers. Throughout the game, Green had been searching the crowd for a certain face, the one to whom he owed his life. And as he left the court after a 21-point, seven-rebound performance, including a buzzer-beating, game-winning layup as time expired, Green found him near the tunnel. It was Svensson. The two shared an embrace.
In the locker room, Green recalled what it had been like to be under the bright lights of that operating table with no idea what waited on the other side. Freshly showered after the game-winner, he dedicated his shot to Svensson, saying, “That was for him. I owe it all to him.”
This February, Green reunited with Svensson for a local television interview, during which Svensson relayed how Green’s heart had to be stopped for more than an hour during the operation, information that made Green’s eyes go wide.
“To me basketball is secondary. I had to really fight for my life. I almost died over this game.”
After the interview, at the Cavaliers’ practice facility, the two men shot hoops a bit. Svensson, the chairman of the Sydell and Arnold Miller Family Heart & Vascular Institute at the Cleveland Clinic, had for years maintained a connection to Green. He’d made sure to gather around the television with his family to watch Green play, taping games if he couldn’t watch them live.
They watched Green’s clutch play in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, when he scored 19 points to help seal the win over the Celtics in Boston. After that game, James spoke glowingly of Green — and little of it had to do with his point total.
“This guy had open-heart surgery a few years ago,” James says. “The game was basically taken away from him, and they said it’s possible you’ll never play the game of basketball again. The fact that he can put on a uniform every day and do the things that he does out on the floor — for him personally, it’s the cherry on top.”
Svensson, for his part, reflects on the many professional athletes across sports whom he has worked with over the years. “Some bounce back and they cope with the challenge and they’re fighters, and they come back even stronger, having learned to mentally deal with the challenges — and some people don’t,” he says.
He thinks back to Green’s heart. When he first looked at it, he saw how close it was to failure. But Svensson also noticed something else, something that seemed unusual, even compared with those of the other athletes and NBA players Svensson had examined.
He could see what he described as a “massive network of collaterals” — or small blood vessels that had developed to feed Green’s heart with extra blood, bolstering it for the rigors of Green’s demanding profession.
Even though athletes tend to have larger and more efficient hearts, Green’s stood out in this regard. His was especially strong, powerful.
“His heart,” says a man who has seen thousands of them, “is absolutely remarkable.”