LAS VEGAS — Until last week, the last time former NBA champion and four-time All-Star Spencer Haywood had his heart checked is when he was playing in the league. That was more than 30 years ago.
Thanks to the resources and accessibility of a health initiative sponsored by the NBPA and NBA, Haywood took advantage of a free heart screening recently at the Mandalay Bay resort in his residence of Las Vegas. Haywood was one of 16 retired players and in-state residents, including Stacey Augmon, Adonal Foyle and Tracy Murray, who participated in the heart screening program, which is the first of its kind for former NBA players.
It was started by the NBPA last fall in light of the recent heart-related deaths of Darryl Dawkins, Jack Haley, Moses Malone and Anthony Mason. Last month, Sean Rooks also passed away from heart disease.
“For the NBPA to put this on, it was a must for me,” Haywood said. “I’m so grateful for Michele Roberts, Chris Paul and all the young players who are making so many things possible for the retired players. This is most important for me.”
Inside a makeshift clinic set up in a conference room at the hotel, the players went through six different main stations: 1) a medical history evaluation checking for heart disease risk factors; 2) full echocardiogram checking for problems with heart muscles and valves; 3) carotid ultrasound checking for thickness of the carotid wall as an indication of atherosclerosis; 4) blood pressure and a resting 12-lead EKG checking for arrhythmias and heart muscle damage; 5) LabCorp-performed blood work and a complete lipid panel checking for cholesterol and triglyceride levels; and 6) consultation with a group of cardiologists to discuss the test results and recommendations for further testing and treatment, if indicated.
The cardiologists were able to review the results quickly from the heart screening using a cloud-based EMR (electronic medical record), which enables preliminary diagnoses to be made promptly on site.
“It takes a while to schedule these tests and this is boom, boom, boom. We’re trying to get the accessibility out there more,” said cardiologist Dr. Alfred Danielian, M.D. “I thought [the program] was fantastic, especially what we’re seeing nowadays with former athletes. This is my first time working with [retired NBA players]. I actually have a training background in sports cardiology, which is new and growing. We would screen athletes from the collegiate level to professional, including NBA players, so that’s why I wanted to come out here. It’s important for us to focus on that they need to take care of themselves once they’re done playing.”
After the on-site consultation, the players were able to make appointments with the cardiologists for follow-up health needs. They will plan to meet with the players in their office in the following weeks to discuss the blood work and possibly administer other tests.
Overall, each player saved thousands of dollars to go through the heart screening.
“What we envisioned with the program is to make it a customized concierge service for retired players,” said Joe Rogowski, the NBPA’s director of sports medicine and research. “We can perform the screening in an hour’s time frame, so it really expedites the whole process from that standpoint. And the other added benefit is that our standard of care is the same from city to city, so we have the same staff of experts and specialists that travel to do this testing.”
After the NBPA had discussions with the union’s Executive Committee last July about how to address heart disease, by December the first screening took place in Houston. Following that, Rogowski and the traveling staff have been to Atlanta, Orlando, Detroit and then Vegas, testing more than 100 retired players, ages 40 to 70. There are more events in store, with the goal of reaching 10-12 cities.
“This program is a first step in retired players’ health assessment,” said Rogowski, who was previously the director of science and research for the Rockets, and the head strength and conditioning coach for the Magic. “The main reason behind this is to get them to acknowledge their health, find a cardiologist in their area and build a rapport with him. And then from there, now they have a cardiologist they’re familiar with. It may have been something difficult to do on their own without our guidance. Now, we’re helping to bridge the gap for them and make it accessible. The players have been very appreciative of what we’ve done.”
Haywood, for example, couldn’t have been more pleased. During their meeting with Haywood, Dr. Danielian and his colleague, Dr. Jacques Lamothe M.D., told him, “Nothing but good news.”
“To let me know that what I’ve been doing in life culminated with this news, this is so awesome,” Haywood said.
“They’re really all engaged and it’s cool to share the good news,” Dr. Danielian said. “I love the fact that they’re really interested in their health, they want to know how good they’re doing. I think it’s awesome.”
Haywood said he prepared well for his future with his fish diet including mostly soy products for 30-some years, with no meat. And he averages 10,000 steps per day that he monitors on his bracelet tracking device.
“I just know that I’ve got to maintain what I’ve been doing,” Haywood said.
As it turns out, Dr. Danielian called most of the players he met with “pretty healthy.”
“They are much healthier than the average mid-60s patient that we see with a lot of cardiovascular disease,” he said. “I think their upbringing and the way they took care of their bodies and their health and their diets really has kind of protected them. Most important is to keep active, keep exercising, keep watching their diet, don’t get complacent. I think they have to just keep doing what they’re doing. We want to make sure that they keep following up, make sure they keep a good eye on their health moving forward.”
That’s the most critical part. According to a report in a story by the Philadelphia-based news site Billy Penn, at least 53 retired NBA players have died from heart disease since 2000. And 33 of them have been under 70 years old. The rate of deaths from heart disease for former NBA players during that time is about 224 deaths per 100,000, which is slightly higher than the American male average of about 214 deaths per 100,000. Overall, according to the CDC, heart disease is the leading cause of deaths in the country.
Out of the roughly 100 players who have gone through the screenings in five cities, some lives could be saved.
“We’ve definitely in our screenings found some abnormalities that needed immediate attention, whether it’s medication or surgery,” Rogowski said. “It does bring awareness to how many guys do need help.”
Haywood believes things would’ve been different for two of his basketball friends.
“Leonard Gray and Lonnie Lynn,” he said. “If they had this program, they would’ve been alive today, and so many other players I know.”