Elton Brand, Tito Horford, Bo Kimble among attendees for NBPA retiree health screening at Sixers' practice facility


Elton Brand, Tito Horford, Bo Kimble among attendees for NBPA retiree health screening at Sixers' practice facility

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 [13] 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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Kobe Bryant's 7 best NBA moments in Philly

Kobe Bryant's 7 best NBA moments in Philly

We are paying tribute to a legend. 

NBC Sports Philadelphia will re-broadcast three of Kobe Bryant's landmark games Monday night — the 2008 Olympic gold medal game at 6 p.m., followed by Bryant's final game in Philadelphia at 8 p.m. and the 2012 Olympic gold medal game at 10:30 p.m. 

Bryant honed his Hall of Fame talents at Lower Merion High School and sharpened his skills and competitiveness in the Sonny Hill League and on playgrounds across the Delaware Valley. 

Bryant had his share of highs and lows as a professional in his hometown. 

He played 17 regular-season games in Philadelphia, finishing with a 7-10 record and a 22.8 scoring average. More importantly, he had a perfect 3-0 record in postseason games in Philadelphia, with all three wins coming in the Lakers' 4-1 series victory over the 76ers in the 2001 NBA Finals. Bryant averaged 25.7 points in those three games and captured the second of his five career NBA championships. 

Here's a look back at some of Bryant's most memorable moments in Philly. 

First NBA game in Philadelphia — Nov. 26, 1996
Bryant played his first professional game in his hometown as an 18-year old reserve, scoring 12 points in 21 minutes in a 100-88 Lakers win. He shot 4 of 10 from the field, 2 of 5 from three-point range and made both of his free throw attempts.  

Bryant's rookie counterpart Allen Iverson finished with 16 points on 6 of 27 shooting and 10 assists. Former Temple star Eddie Jones and Shaquille O'Neal each had a game-high 23 points for the Lakers. 

Bryant came off the bench in 65 of the 71 games he played as a rookie, averaging 7.6 points in 15.5 minutes per game. 

NBA Finals — June 2001
The Lakers and Sixers arrived in Philadelphia for Games 3, 4, 5 of the 2001 NBA Finals with the series even at one game apiece. The 22-year old Bryant famously proclaimed that he was coming to Philly to "cut their hearts out."

The Lakers went on to win the next three games in Philadelphia to secure their second straight NBA championship. 

Game 3 was the closest of the three games — the Lakers won 96-91 behind Bryant's 32 points. He had 19 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in a 14-point win in Game 4 before closing out the series with 26 points, 12 rebounds and six assists in a 12-point win in Game 5. 

2002 All-Star Game MVP — Feb. 10, 2002
Bryant's "cut their hearts out" comment was still fresh in the minds of Sixers fans eight months later when the 2002 All-Star game was played in Philadelphia. Bryant was booed throughout the night, but he fed off the negative energy to score a game-high 31 points and win the first of his four career All-Star Game MVP awards. 

He was subsequently booed during the All-Star MVP presentation and admitted that his feelings were hurt by the frosty reception from his hometown crowd.  

Bryant averaged 25.2 points during that 2001-2002 season and led the Lakers to a third straight NBA championship. 

44-point outburst — Dec. 20, 2002 
Bryant's best game in Philadelphia came 10 months after that 2002 All-Star Game, when he posted 44 points and 10 assists in a 107-104 loss to the Sixers. He shot 16 of 35 from the field, 2 of 5 from three-point range and made all 10 of his free throw attempts. 

Iverson led the Sixers to victory with 32 points, nine steals and five assists. Keith Van Horn had a double-double with 20 points and 11 rebounds. 

The 2003 Lakers came up short in their quest for a fourth straight NBA title, losing to the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals.

Snapping the streak — Dec. 21, 2007
Bryant and the Lakers got their first regular-season win in Philadelphia in nearly eight years, beating the Sixers 106-101 to snap a six-game losing streak at the formerly named Wachovia Center.

Bryant had 19 points in the win, but Andrew Bynum stole the show with 24 points and 11 rebounds. Andre Miller led the Sixers with 21 points and eight assists. 

The 2007-2008 season marked the first of three straight trips to the NBA Finals for Bryant and the Lakers. They would lose the 2008 Finals to the Celtics before beating the Magic in 2009 and winning a rematch with Boston in 2010. 

Last great performance in Philadelphia — Dec. 16, 2012
This was Bryant's last vintage performance in his hometown. The 34-year old Bryant had 34 points and six assists in a 111-98 win over the Sixers. Nick Young led the Sixers with 30 points, while Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes each scored 16 points. 

Bryant's 2012-2013 campaign ended with a torn Achilles tendon late in the 80th game of the regular season. The Kobe-less Lakers were swept by the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. 

This turned out to be Bryant's last great season. He averaged 27.3 points, 6.0 assists and 5.6 rebounds to earn First Team All-NBA honors in his 17th NBA season. 

Final game in Philadelphia — Dec. 1, 2015
Bryant's last game in Philadelphia came nearly 14 years after he was booed during the 2002 All-Star Game. That proved to be plenty of time for old wounds to heal. He was showered with applause and tributes in his Philly farewell, and for a while it looked like he would deliver one final great performance in his hometown. 

Bryant opened the game by hitting 3 of his first 4 three-point attempts, whipping the Wells Fargo Center into a frenzy. But at 37 years old, Bryant eventually ran out of gas and finished 7 of 26 from the field in a 103-91 loss to a Sixers team that entered the game with an 0-18 record. 

Bryant scored 20 points and finished his 20th and final NBA season with a 17.6 scoring average.

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Sixers Talk podcast: Will Sixers have a chip on their shoulder if playoffs happen?

NBCSP/USA Today Images

Sixers Talk podcast: Will Sixers have a chip on their shoulder if playoffs happen?

On this edition, Danny Pommells and Paul Hudrick discuss:

(2:12) — Questioning Joel Embiid's fitness is like beating a dead horse; will the Sixers have a chip on their shoulder?
(13:22) — Charles Barkley calls Moses Malone trade a disaster to his career.
(20:20) — Would the season being cancelled be worse than watching our most hated rival winning the Finals?

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

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