Bradley senior Taylor Brown can distinctly remember crying twice through it all.
The first time was on Nov. 11, 2010 when he was told by a doctor he wouldn’t play basketball again. Those were tears of sadness.
The second occurrence came on June 3, 2011, which happened to be his sister’s birthday, when he was told he was cleared to play basketball again. Those were tears of joy.
In between, Brown felt like crying plenty, but he never succumbed to it. As much as his situation seemed unfair and as much as he wanted to feel sorry himself, he wasn’t going to give in to his emotions until he was playing the game he loved again.
No more basketball
Brown’s story is a sad one, but it was beget by a much sadder one.
On Oct. 18, 2010, Bradley baseball player Phil Kaiser died of an undiagnosed heart condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The condition creates the heart muscle to thicken, which results in blood having a more difficult time leaving the heart. It’s often asymptomatic and not discovered until cardiac death.
Kaiser’s death led to Bradley enhancing its cardiac testing for its student-athletes. For anyone who was discovered to have heart murmurs or had any family history of heart diseases, they also were given an Electrocardiogram (EKG) test.
And this is how Brown found himself at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., being told by a doctor he had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and that his basketball career was over. It was one day before Bradley’s 2010-2011 season opener.
“His exact words were I wasn’t going to play basketball again,” Brown said. “I really just broke down inside of me. I tried to keep my composure and got back to my hotel room and broke down.”
Always an underdog
Brown enjoys telling his story of being an overlooked high school player to a Missouri Valley Conference star.
“I’ve been an underdog all my life,” Brown says.
At Dunwoody High School in Georgia, Brown was surrounded by basketball stars. Delwan Graham ended up at LSU after high school. Georgia’s Zac Swansey headed to Georgia. Pierre Jordan and Chris Singleton committed to Florida State.
Brown, a 6-foot-6 forward, did his part for the team, doing the dirty work and averaging seven points and seven rebounds his senior season. He helped Dunwoody to back-to-back state championships.
But Division I schools didn’t bite on Brown, and he attended a junior college. But he only lasted a semester at the school. He returned home to work on his game with his father, Rick Brown, a former NBA player.
During an exposure camp the following summer, Brown finally caught the attention of college coaches. He received offers from Bradley and Iowa State and later committed to Bradley.
Brown came off the bench as a freshman and provided a spark for the Braves. As a sophomore, he took a further step and averaged 13.5 points and 6.9 rebounds.
“His sophomore year he really broke out,” Rick said. “He was really playing some good ball. He worked hard during the summer. His junior year comes around, oh, he’s ready. Then the cardiac test came. It was so devastating.”
Clinging to hope
Brown never agreed with the Mayo Clinic’s diagnosis. His father had an athlete’s heart, and he was positive he did, too. Brown was told there was a small chance -- between 5-10 percent -- that was what he had, but not to cling to that hope.
Determining whether Brown had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy or an athletic heart wasn’t as simple as having an EKG done. Brown’s heart had to be de-conditioned for multiple months and in the end his heart would be measured. If it decreased in size, he likely had an athlete’s heart. If it didn’t, the original diagnosis was correct.
So, Brown began doing nothing, and he hated it.
“From November to March, I didn’t break a sweat,” Brown said. “That was very tough. It was the least amount of activity I did probably since before I could walk. Since the age of 2, there was a basketball in my hand. I couldn’t tell you if I’ve been idle for a week.
“It was tough too because it was during the season, and I had to go to the gym every day and see them doing something they love to do and I love to do.”
A welcome distraction
A bored Brown looked to put his time to use. An art major with a specialization in photography, Brown decided to do a documentary of what he was going through.
“Him just being a photography major, that was pretty much to keep him occupied with shooting us and filming things,” said Bradley senior Anthony Thompson, Brown’s roommate and teammate. “I’m sure he really enjoyed it. I wanted to be in it.”
Brown carried his video camera wherever he went, and he soon found it was therapeutic as well as time consuming.
“It definitely did help me with it,” Brown said. “It just gave me something to do. Just knowing I could have a big project in my head. A documentary could really open people’s eyes.”
Brown has edited some of the footage and has a working title of “90 Day.” He hopes to get some financial backing for it down the road.
“I want to see if I can make the film at a larger scale,” Brown said.
’Our prayers were answered’
As time passed during de-conditioning, Brown’s optimism grew, but those around him understood the reality.
“The chances are very slim that it would be an athletic heart,” Bradley head athletic trainer Marcus Ohnemus said. “While we were trying to keep him upbeat, the real reality was that he may never be able to play again. Behind closed doors we could have those discussions, but around him we could never mention that.”
Ohnemus traveled with Brown and his parents to the Minneapolis Heart Institute to recheck Brown’s heart. He and his parents went through tests for two days.
After the second day, Brown, his parents and Ohnemus sat before Dr. Barry Maron to receive the results. Maron informed them Brown’s heart had shrunk from 15 millimeters to 11 millimeters.
“It’s one of those moments where your heart just drops,” Ohnemus said. “You’re elated for them, and his parents were crying. That was a huge relief. That was a great day. To see the span of emotion over the six months he was out was truly incredible.”
“It was like dream come true,” Rich said. “It was like our prayers were answered. It was your hope and reams he would play again.”
The road back
Brown had further monitoring to go through while he began reconditioning, and he was finally cleared to play basketball again in June.
He will never forget his first day in the gym when he spent 30-45 minutes just putting up shot after shot.
“I can’t really explain it,” Brown said. “I can’t put it into words. It just felt surreal. It was a long time coming.”
On Nov. 1, 2011, Brown played in his first game since March 6, 2010 and had a memorable comeback with 25 points and eight rebounds in an exhibition game against Wisconsin-Parkside.
Bradley endured a rough season under first-year coach Geno Ford, though, and went 7-24 in the regular season. Brown was one of the few bright spots, averaging 14.8 points and 6.4 rebounds and earning honorable mention all-conference honors.
Brown’s season was cut short when he partially tore a ligament in his right foot against Drake on Feb. 15, and he won’t play in the Missouri Valley tournament when Bradley opens play on Thursday night in St. Louis.
It wasn’t the closure Brown hoped for, but he accepted it and hopes to play professionally next year.
“I would sum my career up as God’s will,” Brown said. “I just feel like who I am right now I wouldn’t trade anything for all these lessons. All I’ve gone through has made me the person I am right now. It’s made all my relationships with my family, friends, coaching staff all stronger.
“I view this whole experience as it’s a turning point in my life. It’s a wake-up call. Hopefully, this story can touch a lot of people and help them in their life.”