The Sixers’ general manager, the first Dominican-born NBA player (Al Horford’s father, Tito), former top-10 picks and a stylish man who goes by the name of World B. Free were all at the team's practice facility Saturday.
They went through a series of medical tests and consultations — including blood testing, an electrocardiogram and an echocardiogram — as part of the National Basketball Players Association’s retiree health screening. Sixers team physician Dr. Christopher Dodson and team cardiologist Dr. David Shipon were among the medical professionals assisting with the event. The free screening is one of six the NBPA will host across the country this year.
Joe Rogowski, the NBPA Director of Sports Medicine and Research, started running the screenings four years ago. They’ve now served over 500 retired players.
“With the rash of players in the last few years that have died from cardiac issues, that was a big issue that we saw at the NBPA,” Rogowski said, “so we wanted to do something to help guys and lay the foundation for our current players. This was something that [NBPA executive director] Michele Roberts put a high priority on to put a program on that could help identify issues that our retired players might potentially have.”
Sixers greats Moses Malone and Darryl Dawkins both passed away as a result of heart problems in 2015. Those connections are part of why Elton Brand and the Sixers wanted to host the screening.
“We’ve lost some of our loved ones and family members — Sixers family members — from heart diseases,” Brand said.
The core purpose of the screenings is simple — to detect potential medical concerns and allow ex-players to stay diligent about their health without having to worry about cost. Past screenings have identified serious conditions. Hall of Famer Nate “Tiny” Archibald discovered he had amyloidosis, a rare, life-threatening disease, after attending a 2017 screening in New York City, and he had a heart transplant the following year.
The stories shared at the event were far from uniform, though. Every retired player who went through the screening had their own reasons for being in Camden, New Jersey, on a Saturday morning in November.
‘Hank Gathers is with me every day’
Fifty-three-year-old Bo Kimble, a Philadelphia native, former star at offensive juggernaut Loyola Marymount and No. 8 selection in the 1990 NBA draft, said Saturday’s event was his third NBPA screening.
He has a deeply personal motivation behind his advocacy for proactive measures against cardiac conditions. His close friend and teammate Hank Gathers collapsed on the floor during Loyola’s West Coast Tournament conference game against Portland on March 4, 1990, and died that day. Gathers had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
Kimble founded the nonprofit organization 44 for Life.
(Bo Kimble — Image courtesy of the NBPA)
“I just wanted to make sure that I spread awareness and teach people as much as I can teach them about being proactive, having a defibrillator, being CPR-trained," he said.
It’s been 29 years since Gathers’ passing, but he doesn’t feel like a distant memory for Kimble. He remembers the basketball player, of course — Gathers was a special one, averaging 32.7 points and 13.7 rebounds in the 1988-89 season, No. 1 in the country in both categories. One of Gathers’ few weaknesses as a player was his free throw shooting. He even tried taking them with his non-dominant left hand for a time, which inspired Kimble to take and make three lefty free throws in the 1990 NCAA Tournament.
Kimble gets reminded about those on-court moments plenty, but above all that, he doesn’t forget who his friend was as a person.
Hank Gathers is with me every day. There’s not a place I’ve ever gone — I’ve been to about 42 countries — there’s not one time that I’ve traveled abroad that someone doesn’t bring up Hank Gathers’ name. ... So, they know about when Hank scored 48 points and had  rebounds against Shaquille O’Neal and Stanley Roberts, two seven-footers, in college.
"They remember the left-handed free throw when I honored Hank Gathers. Hank Gathers wasn’t a good free throw shooter, but he tried so hard that he switched to his opposite hand his senior year. And when Hank Gathers died, I felt it was very important to honor him by shooting left-handed. It wasn’t about making the shots, but I took the shot to honor Hank and all three shots went in. I’m glad it just had a positive impact on people, that they understood that Hank Gathers was a special athlete, but he was an extraordinary person.
“I miss his humor, but he’s with me every day. … People who know Hank Gathers, I can promise you, they think about him every day, multiple times a day. He had that kind of fun, playful spirit. He was one of the funniest people I’ll ever meet in this lifetime. Just imagine being one of the closest friends of Dave Chappelle or Richard Pryor. That’s who Hank Gathers was. His joke, his laughter, his spirit is with me every day, multiple times a day.
Thinking long term
For basketball fans, injuries typically matter when they impact a player’s availability to contribute on the floor. For players, they factor into day-to-day life beyond the duration of their careers.
“Achilles, labrum, meniscus, fifth metatarsal,” Brand listed. “Playing in the league as long as I did, lot of injuries that I have to deal with. Still feel things, but being able to have great screenings and healthcare afforded to me really helps me cope with everything and feel great.”
I played for 13 years [1975-76 to 1987-88] in the NBA,” said Free, a community ambassador for the Sixers. “I had a long stint. I played 37, 38 minutes a night — grueling. So, it does take a toll on your body. I thank God that he gave me a body that was durable. I didn’t even have as many problems as my fellow mates had. I know that guys have to go home, have to put ice on their knees every day. When you’re 60, guys have to go home and have headaches. A lot of things — the joints are wrong, bones in different places that they weren’t when they first started. It’s a whole different atmosphere when you play a long time and you go through that rigorous schedule of 82 games, beating up each other. It’s a game, but to come out and be healthy, that’s a good run.
(World B. Free — Image courtesy of the NBPA)
Kimble said he’s been dealing with a herniated disc for close to 30 years.
These players were part of a culture that celebrated and encouraged athletes playing through pain and often did not consider the larger picture of the rest of a season, the rest of their careers and the rest of their lives.
What would Brand the player have thought about load management?
“Just be thoughtful and strategic,” he said. “It’s day-to-day. It’s not anything that I can project and say, ‘Oh, I would have sat X amount of games.’ But with the rigors of today’s game, just be thoughtful and strategic about it, about how you feel and how you present. Everybody’s body is different.”
Brand the general manager uses his extensive experiences with injuries as a player to inform his approach. He said in October he’d be “more a part of it with the player in partnership for their care.” In his mind, players feeling they can have honest discussions about their health is essential.
“You have to have trust in those that have your career at stake, so that you know that not only do they have the organization’s best interests, but they have your best interests, also,” he said. “So, that’s important that you feel that and you know that and you understand that.”
The challenges of transition
The immediate relief of no longer having to sprint up and down the floor, crash into screens and leap for rebounds sounds nice in theory. But the adjustment to life after basketball is difficult for many players.
Diets and day-to-day routines must change. Continuing to exercise on a regular basis is obviously ideal, but it’s not possible for everyone.
“Some people don’t realize orthopedics, even though it’s dealing with bones and joints, directly affect our guys’ cardiovascular health,” Rogowski said. “That’s why we’ve added that, because if a player has had knee issues, ankle issues, and can’t exercise, then they’re more prone to put on weight and be less healthy.”
And, for people who have learned to live with and dismiss aches and pains, there very well may be a natural tendency to overlook potential health concerns.
“As a former pro athlete, I’m definitely very competitive,” said Carolyn Moos, a former WNBA player who now works as a nutritionist and trainer. “When you’re in the moment and you’re expected to perform and produce for your team, adrenaline is real. Sometimes you can push through things, other ailments, and then you realize that I need to listen to my body. … I think a lot of times when people are abnormal, that is their normal.
“They have no sense of what it means to be healthy, and that is true for someone who’s overweight, that’s true for someone that has hypertension, that’s true for someone that’s asymptomatic and developing Type 2 diabetes. … So, developing a basis of comparison where healthy is your new normal is a process.”
There are unique challenges for especially tall athletes, a category 7-foot-1 Tito Horford certainly qualifies for.
He’d attended a previous screening in Detroit but told Al he wanted to come to Camden for Saturday’s event, too.
This is something I talked to my son about it,” he said, “and when I found out they were doing it here in Philadelphia, I told him, ‘I’m coming to do it one more time.’ Because as a big guy, we all know what’s been happening in the past. Big guys have been having some issues and one of the reasons is we’re not taking care of ourselves sometimes. Having this screening here is going to help us and is going to educate us that we need to check ourselves. It’s so important for us to realize that having this done is for our own benefit.
Tito then headed to Wells Fargo Center to watch Al score 16 points and grab six rebounds Saturday night in the Sixers’ 113-86 win over the Heat. Not a bad day.
(Tito Horford — Image courtesy of the NBPA)
Filling a need, and looking to grow
Though the primary purpose of the screenings won’t change, Rogowski envisions further expansions. Cardiac health is the current emphasis, but he expects to add more testing as the NBPA gathers information and gains insight about other areas of health that are problematic for retired players.
“Every year it’s been growing,” Rogowski said. “And teams have been taking an active interest in providing a program like this for their players, so a lot of the teams are reaching out to us. We’re already in the process now of discussing adding new diagnostic tests to the program, adding new specialists in different areas, whether it’s mental health, whether it’s sleep.
"Those are all areas where if we can help provide for our retired players that they wouldn’t be able to get on their own — I think that’s the direction we’re headed.”
While plenty of current NBA players make millions of dollars, many retirees aren’t as privileged. According to Free, the screenings fill a need for a significant population who otherwise would have trouble accessing these services.
“A lot of our guys don’t have insurance,” he said. “A lot of our guys’ insurance, if they have it, is not as good. You’re coming in right now to get yourself something free that these people are putting in the time just to try to help and save people. You can’t beat that, if someone’s doing something like that. You have no other choice but to come out if your life matters to you. The life you save might be your own.”
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