Celtics' Jeff Green faces his future
Forward voices thankfulness, not bitterness, two weeks before heart surgery
MIAMI -- It's a Tuesday night in Miami, about an hour and a half before the Boston Celtics take the floor for a game against the Miami Heat, and Jeff Green is sitting in a chair in the visitors locker room at AmericanAirlines Arena, talking.
Green is talking about health and about time, about life and death, about fear, about relief. It's the first time he has spoken to reporters since being diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm a week and a half ago, the first time he's talked publicly since his life's plans irrevocably changed.
It's the first time Jeff Green has felt like talking, really, since doctors informed him that his immediate future will be spent not on a basketball court, but on a gurney at the Cleveland Clinic; not on the Celtics' bench, but in bed, resting as he recovers from heart surgery on Jan. 9.
Heart surgery. It's a subject that in the context of an NBA locker room seems somehow foreign and abstract, silly even. Sitting in his chair before the game, Green is surrounded by lithe and healthy teammates, most of them stretching, bobbing, bouncing in anticipation of the night's game.
Across the room from Green, Celtics newcomer Brandon Bass limbers up. Next to him, Kevin Garnett sits silent, his head bowed in focus. Nearby, captain Paul Pierce jokes with reporters, his night a casualty of a lingering sore heel -- the kind of ailment basketball players are supposed to get. The rest of Boston's lineup is scattered about the room, either loosening up their bodies or listening to headphones, ready to compete on a national stage against the Heat, all of them trim, wealthy, world-class athletes. Green is one himself.
But world-class athletes aren't supposed to need heart surgery. The beer-soaked guy in the arena's last row, hot dogs resting on his ample paunch -- that guy needs heart surgery, not the players he screams for on the court. And yet here is Green, 25 and two classes away from a Georgetown degree, two weeks from having his heart repaired in an operating room in Cleveland.
And still, as he talks, Green, a former first-round draft pick and erstwhile $9 million man, reveals no bitterness, no anger, only thanks -- thanks for the life-saving work of skilled doctors, for the chance at a full recovery, for life. No resentment, just gratitude and relief.
"I'm very relieved," Green said, his eyes wide behind black glasses, "because I can play basketball again, you know? It's a blessing that it was found because you really never know what could have happened."
Green is one of five NBA players who have undergone heart surgery. Fred Hoiberg, Etan Thomas, Robert "Tractor" Traylor and Ronny Turiaf all had similar procedures. Three -- Thomas, Traylor and Turiaf -- recovered well enough to play professionally again. Turiaf, who had open-heart surgery in 2005, was so inspired by his experience that he decided to start the Ronny Turiaf Heart to Heart Foundation, which helps provide medical care to children who have heart problems but no health insurance.
Not every story has such a happy ending: Traylor, who went on to play overseas after heart surgery in 2005, died last spring of a heart attack. Though the specifics of his death remain unclear, it's a reminder of the seriousness of Green's condition and a testament to the importance of doctors finding it when they did. Green is aware of each man's story and has reached out to those who have survived.
"I've talked to Etan," Green said. "I haven't had a chance to reach out to Ronny yet -- I've talked to Ronny through text, and Fred Hoiberg, he texted me, so they reached out. But I'll probably give them a call within the next day or two, just get their thoughts on the whole procedure and see what might be ahead of me in the next couple weeks."
Turiaf has talked at length about his recovery, about barely being able to pull on his socks in the days following surgery, about the strangeness of finding himself staggered after a single court-long jog. He will be able to provide Green a revealing, first-person account of what's in store, something Green welcomes, he said, "because they've been through it. They know what it takes to get back and it's just something that I have to hear and get ready for."
Sitting just across the locker room from Green is another invaluable resource: Marquis Daniels, who underwent spinal surgery earlier this year and is all too familiar with the rigors of recovery. Green says the two have already spoken about Daniels' experience.
"He's just telling me some good things as far as the whole process [and] the rehabilitation stages, as far as just taking it easy," Green said of Daniels. "Being active and wanting to do stuff, you really have to take it easy because you have to let your body heal. That stuff helps, it's good to hear other people's situation. It kind of helps you relax a little bit."
Relaxation is a valuable commodity for Green these days. Calm does not come easy to a man confronting the thought of white-jacketed doctors mucking about in his flayed, helpless chest. Better to keep one's mind on basketball, on the game Green loves, on the game he swears he'll play again.
And so Green is here, in a locker room in Miami, having chosen to be with his teammates as they begin the long haul of a condensed NBA regular season. Rather than being back home, pacing the length a Boston hotel, Green sits here, with Daniels, with Jermaine O'Neal, with Garnett and Pierce and Ray Allen, with Bass, with his guys.
"It's like therapy, man," Green said looking around the locker room. "Being around the team, it really helps me relax and takes my mind off it because I don't want to be sitting around the house thinking about the whole thing. You can go crazy doing that."
Too much thinking is what Green wants to avoid, he says. As surgery looms, thinking can lead to worrying and fear, to anger, to despair, to thoughts of life and what it means, to thoughts of death and how very real it is -- subjects in which Green, an English major and theology minor, is already well-versed.
Earlier this month, Green talked about his second season in Boston and said: "I'm all good. I'm glad to be back, especially to get here early, get this training camp started right away. This is going to be good for myself and for the team. It's going to be fun."
On Tuesday night, two long weeks later, an infinitely older Green sat in Miami and his words caught in his throat.
"This is something --," Green said, stopping, looking at his feet as the minutes to tipoff tick down on a big digital clock on the wall to his left. "This is about life and my health. So I have to really, really sit back and just evaluate everything.
"But I'm in a good place right now," he continued, looking up. His voice is louder now, more defiant, resolute.
"I know the whole procedure and I know that when I come back I'm going to be stronger than ever. I know I'll be a lot better. So I'm ready for the whole process."
Satisfied, he sat back, hands clasped, done talking for the night -- save for one last thought:
"Whenever it's time," Jeff Green said, looking around the locker room at his friends and teammates, at his professional calling, at the trappings of the game he loves. "Whenever it's time, whenever the doctors give me the go, I'm going to [come back] and take it to another level."
Tom Lakin is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.
- Belichick: Followed Every Rule
- Bill Belichick addressed the media Saturday and was adamant that the Patriots did nothing wrong preparing footballs.