Commentary

Fred Hoiberg feels Jeff Green's pain

Updated: December 19, 2011, 5:41 PM ET
By Ric Bucher | ESPN The Magazine

Add a grave-sounding issue such as heart surgery to the Boston Celtics' notorious penchant for misleading injury diagnoses -- see: Garnett, Kevin in 2008 -- and it's hard not to wonder if Jeff Green indeed will be back next season.

Former NBA guard Fred Hoiberg, one of four previous NBA players to suffer the same heart condition Green has -- an aortic aneurysm -- is confident Green will return. At full strength. Even though Hoiberg never did. At all.

"He can definitely come back and play," Hoiberg says. "I had every intention of coming back, too, but I had a lot of complications."

Hoiberg is the only one of the previous four NBA players to have heart surgery not to play again. Etan Thomas, Robert "Tractor" Traylor and Ronny Turiaf all had the same procedure. Thomas and Turiaf are in the league today. Traylor didn't return to the NBA after his surgery in 2005 but played six more seasons of professional basketball overseas before dying of a heart attack last spring in Puerto Rico. The cause and circumstances of Traylor's death never have been publicized, but at 6-8 and well over 300 pounds, Traylor battled obesity for a good part of his life.

Green actually can thank Hoiberg, in part, for the discovery of his aneurysm. Hoiberg, then with the Minnesota Timberwolves, became aware of his condition only because he took an echocardiogram as part of a medical examination to qualify for a life insurance policy.

The insurance company didn't tell him why he failed, so Hoiberg assumed it was for an abnormal valve he'd had since birth and became aware of as a sophomore at Iowa State. He finished the season, led the league in 3-point shooting percentage and then went for another exam in May, where he learned the startling news.

Hoiberg's surgery, coupled with the death of Atlanta Hawks center Jason Collier a few months later from an enlarged heart, prompted the league to make echocardiograms a mandatory part of preseason physicals.

Five days after the original operation, a routine check-up revealed that in the process of repairing Hoiberg's aneurysm, the firing mechanism that triggers a heart to beat was damaged and that Hoiberg needed a pacemaker implanted.

After eight months of recovery, he had offers from both the Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves to finish the 2005-06 season with them, along with the chance to make history by becoming the first pacemaker-equipped NBA player. After discussing the risks with his wife and as a 32-year-old father of four kids, he elected to go into coaching instead, joining the Timberwolves' staff. He is now head coach at his alma mater, Iowa State.

If Green's experience is anything like Hoiberg's, the toughest challenge will be now through his recovery from the surgery.

"It's a tough blow, it really is," Hoiberg says. "There are no symptoms, so it's like a kick to the gut. I'll never forget the day they told me. But the hardest thing is the recovery process. You don't think you're going to run again. It's a very invasive procedure. They shut down your system and then they have to crack you open and wire you back together again."

Hoiberg says the abnormal valve now requires more surgery, so for the time being he is limited in the kind of exercise he can do. But he remains convinced that the only permanent impact on Green will be a change in his outlook on life. Green has only thanked everyone, via his Twitter account, for their concern and good wishes, but has not spoken publicly since the Celtics announced he would be undergoing surgery.

"It definitely changes your perspective on what's important," Hoiberg says.

Ric Bucher is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Ric Bucher

NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer