Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Men's College Basketball [Print without images]

Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Updated: October 11, 3:08 PM ET
Heart condition sidelined Nwankwo, but Kimble played on

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

Practice starts Friday night for all college basketball teams.

But as of Wednesday morning, there is still no official word if Gary Johnson, Texas' most anticipated incoming freshman, will be able to practice. In June, the Austin American-Statesmen reported that the school hasn't cleared Johnson to participate in any physical activities because he has a heart condition.

Johnson update
Texas trainer Fred Burnett cleared incoming freshman Gary Johnson to practice beginning Friday, but a determination on any game clearance will be made at a later date, the school announced.

Johnson was held back from basketball-related activities in June when a reported heart condition was found. The school allowed Johnson to participate in individual workouts once school started in late August, but it wasn't until Thursday that he was cleared to participate in official practice. Johnson's Houston-area Aldine High school coach Zeke Smith told ESPN.com that Johnson told him he had been going through individual workouts the past month.

Texas officials declined to say the exact nature of Johnson's heart condition.

The plan, according to a source, is to monitor Johnson throughout practice and then evaluate him. That's the reason why Texas won't come out and say Johnson will definitely be cleared for game competition as well. The university wants to keep an open timetable and have the situation continue to be fluid as they observe Johnson.

The 6-7 Johnson was expected to be a major impact player for the Longhorns this season as it looks to replace the void created by consensus national player of the year Kevin Durant's departure to the NBA.

Texas does return the Big 12 preseason player of the year in sophomore guard D.J. Augustin.

-- Andy Katz

Texas coach Rick Barnes and the school won't discuss Johnson's condition, citing privacy laws. A release is expected from the school before Friday to address the situation, but it's not clear exactly what information will be provided. Johnson has not been made available to the media to discuss the topic.

Johnson's high school coach, Zeke Smith of Houston's Aldine High, said Tuesday that Johnson told him he has participated in some individual workouts, "but they haven't told him yea or nay right now about practice [on Friday] or if he's going to be able to play this season."

Throughout the summer, though, Texas has sought additional input on how to handle a player with a heart condition, regardless of the exact nature.

Finding a player who had a heart ailment, had a procedure to correct it and then played again isn't easy.

But there is at least one former player and survivor who is making it his mission to be an adviser to anyone who calls: Will Kimble.

Earlier this summer, when Johnson's condition was first reported, Nebraska coach Doc Sadler, who coached Kimble as a transfer at UTEP, reached out to Barnes and implored him to give Kimble a call.

Barnes did.

"It was about two or three months ago," Kimble said. "Coach Barnes asked me questions like if I had any problems, did it affect me during the season or anything like that."

The "it" here is the defibrillator that was implanted in Kimble's chest after he collapsed in November 2002, just one game into his junior season at Pepperdine.

Kimble said he passed out during practice after a 3-on-2 drill. Later that night, he underwent an echocardiogram and sonogram at UCLA Medical Center. The tests discovered hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the heart muscle thickens, making it harder for the heart to pump blood. It is the same heart condition that killed Loyola-Marymount's Hank Gathers during the WCC tournament in 1990.

Kimble said he was told, "You shouldn't be playing at all and or never play again."

Gary Johnson
Texas freshman Gary Johnson was expected to be a big contributor this season, but he has been sidelined indefinitely with an undisclosed heart condition.

"The first doctor at UCLA told me I shouldn't do any physical activity the rest of my life and to take up golf," Kimble said. "That's not me. I'm not a golfer. I play basketball and love being active in sports my whole life playing baseball, football and basketball. It's not my thing to sit down and mope around the rest of my life."

So Kimble sought second and third opinions before he finally found Dr. David S. Cannom, the director of cardiology at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles.

Kimble said Cannom told him an internal heart defibrillator -- which monitors the heart for irregular rhythm and shocks the heart to correct it, if needed -- would allow him to play competitive sports again. He had the defibrillator implanted in December 2002.

Kimble sat out the remainder of the 2002-03 season and the following season as well. He wanted to return to Pepperdine to finish his last two seasons, but the school refused to let him play because of liability concerns. In the summer of 2004, Kimble was playing in the Say No Classic Summer League in L.A. when he said UCLA coaches noticed him and inquired about a potential transfer. Kimble said UCLA eventually passed on him because of the liability issue.

His name was then passed on to Billy Gillispie, who had just left UTEP for Texas A&M. But Kimble said A&M was also worried about the liability risks, and he was again passed over. Finally, his name reached Sadler, who had just been elevated from assistant to head coach to replace Gillispie at UTEP.

Sadler said he sought counsel from a number of people, including specialists in L.A. and in his native Arkansas -- notably Jim Counce, a member of the 1978 Arkansas Final Four team and a heart surgeon in Fayetteville.

I don't envy Rick's decision, if that's the case. You have to go with what the doctors tell the kid and tell the family, and if they clear him, then they clear him. Having experienced what I experienced, that would be a scary proposition for sure. I don't envy a coach in that situation or an administrator at a school.

--Kevin Stallings

"Jimmy told me, 'Doc, I wouldn't hesitate for a second to let him play,'" Sadler said. "There's just so many people, I guess because of lawsuits, that aren't willing to take risks."

Sadler said Kimble, who was 6-foot-10 and 230 pounds at UTEP, was one of the most "fit athletes" he had ever coached. So Kimble was cleared to play at UTEP after he signed a liability waiver.

"Will was put through more [medical] tests and critiques than anyone on my team," Sadler said.

Kimble said UTEP staff checked his defibrillator after every game. He played 33 games on the Miners' 27-win team in 2004-05, scoring 4.5 points a game. He played 31 games and averaged 4.9 points on the Miners' 21-win team in 2005-06.

"I played two seasons with no episodes," said Kimble, who had a pad fitted over his chest during games and practices.

And that's exactly what he told Barnes. He also said he didn't have any problems taking charges and suffered no side effects.

"He asked me if I had any problems during the season, what kind of care did they have for me at UTEP and how it affected me in any way," Kimble said.

Kimble said he wasn't told exactly what kind of heart condition Johnson has been diagnosed with.

And therein lies the problem: It's hard to gather a consensus on how to handle the issue because there are so many different kinds of heart ailments. Kimble, who had to seek a third opinion before he found one that suited him, was a sounding board for Barnes and said he has done the same for athletes in other sports, like wrestling and swimming.

But if Barnes were to call Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings, he would get a different story.

Davis Nwankwo is still on scholarship with the Commodores, but he isn't playing and hasn't since March 2006, when he collapsed during practice. Nwankwo, who suffered the same condition as Kimble's, had an internal defibrillator implanted as well.

But his episode was much more serious than Kimble's. Kimble said during his first episode, it seemed like he was asleep for a second. Nwankwo had to be resuscitated on the court.

"He was laying face down on our floor and a miracle away from dying," Stallings said.

"The decision was easy for us because our medical people said he absolutely cannot play anymore because of his enlarged heart. The family accepted that. Davis accepted that and we accepted that.

Davis Nwankwo
Davis Nwankwo was "dead" for two minutes on the practice court before being revived by a defibrillator. His playing days are over.

"He's expected to live a very normal, healthy life, but he just can't engage in the kind of physical activities that obviously a college basketball player does."

Stallings has never questioned the decision.

"My guy was dead for two minutes, before our trainer brought him back to life," said Stallings, who added that Nwankwo still does push-ups during practice and is constantly working on his muscle tone in the weight room. "I've never thought for one second about him playing. I'm so thankful that kid is alive.

"I don't envy Rick's decision, if that's the case. You have to go with what the doctors tell the kid and tell the family, and if they clear him, then they clear him. Having experienced what I experienced, that would be a scary proposition for sure. I don't envy a coach in that situation or an administrator at a school."

Smith said he stays in touch regularly with Johnson, and in multiple conversations, his former player never mentioned the use of a defibrillator. Smith said Johnson never had any physical problems while playing at Aldine, and the 6-foot-7 forward worked out to the max every day for the four years he coached him there.

"Gary worked like a dog, he worked like he was on the railroad," Smith said of the powerful Johnson, who averaged 26 points and 13 rebounds last season.

Smith said Johnson has already witnessed some real-life medical issues. Johnson watched Smith go through two transplants -- one for a kidney and another for a pancreas -- in 2005, when the 6-2 Smith was down to "126.2 pounds and when I had one foot in the grave." Smith said he is now over 200 pounds and feeling fine.

Still, Johnson has been vague about his own condition throughout the ordeal, but he's still confident he will get back on the court, Smith said.

Kimble is hoping to talk to Johnson and convince him it can be done.

"I know it's devastating for that kid at Texas," said the 25-year-old Kimble, now a first-year assistant men's basketball coach at Citrus College in Glendora, Calif.

"I'm not trying to convince anybody that it's OK, but I believe the most important thing about my case is that you have to have the right mind-set. I played like I didn't have anything. I wasn't into making excuses about my situation. If there is any doubt in your mind, then you shouldn't be doing it. The most important thing is to have the right frame of mind, be ready to do it and not play scared."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.