Five years ago today, Jeff Green underwent the longest ordeal in his life: a five-and-a-half-hour surgery to repair an aortic root aneurysm near his heart. Green was fortunate that a routine physical with the Celtics in Dec. 2011 caught the problem, because often it goes undetected until the aneurysm bursts. And once it does, there’s a high risk of immediate death.
But Green made a remarkable return to the NBA just nine months later in Oct. 2012, and since then he’s been one of the best role players in the league who can play either forward position. Off the court, he’s been enjoying a fulfilling life. He received his bachelor’s degree from his alma mater, Georgetown, and became a voice for the American Heart Association, assisting young patients with cardiac issues during his time in different NBA cities. And last summer, he proposed to his fiancee, Stephanie, and they’re expecting their first child next month.
Green spoke in-depth with the NBPA about his memories of the life-changing experience, mindset today, medical outreach and much more. His conversation is presented below in a first-person perspective and edited for clarity and length.
Every morning waking up and every night going to bed, I look at my scar.
And I tell the Lord, “Thank you,” for the blessing that he’s given me to keep living, to keep playing, just to continue to breathe everyday. I’m very fortunate and thankful everyday to the man up above because without him, and my friends and family, I wouldn’t be here.
The scar is now just a reminder. But for the first couple of years after the surgery, it was definitely like a “wow” factor because growing up, you never think you have to go through anything like that. You’re playing basketball having the physical tools, thinking that everything is fine, and then one day you’re being told, “You’ve got to have heart surgery. You’ve got to put your basketball career on hold and you might not be able to play again.”
It’s just a blessing to still be in the NBA and still playing, to have gone through dealing with the surgery and the progression of still being healthy. It’s still amazing that I can live a normal life. The times that I’m very thankful for are just being able to walk the mall with my fiancee, or just go out and hang out. I had to put a lot of that on hold that year.
I definitely have more of a greater appreciation for all of the little things—like just breathing or just hanging out, being with family—because I almost lost my life at that period of time. And I’m able to continue to spend time with my family and not over-obsess about material things now or take time for granted. I realize how precious all those little things are.
These days, I don’t have to take any medication. That stopped a couple of months after the surgery, so I’m glad that’s over. That was a lot of pills I had to take. What I do now is a checkup before the season, which is mandatory by the NBA, and I’ve been doing it after the season as well. The doctors said I don’t have to do a second one, but it’s just a mental refresher that everything is OK.
I’m definitely thankful that the NBA makes us go through the preseason stress echocardiograms because all of the tests and checks for everything allow us to have a clear mind on good health. Also if anything does come up, they give us an opportunity to get it fixed or get it checked up to make sure that we’re OK.
Former NBA commissioner David Stern was amazing to me and my recovery. He allowed me to be with the Celtics during that period of time, even though I didn’t have a contract, because he knew how much basketball meant to me. He knew how being with the Celtics could help me in my recovery, physically and mentally. So I definitely owe him a huge thank you for what he did for me.
I remember everything about what happened.
I went up to Boston on Dec. 9, I did the physical and then I went through two days of doctors examining the images from the stress test. And then on Dec. 11 or 12, that’s when the doctors told me that I needed the surgery. I’ll never forget—my best friend, Willie Jennings, was at every doctor’s appointment with me. And when I got the news, it was just a shock.
Once I found out I did have the aortic root aneurysm and played with it for several years, I definitely thought, Damn, what if something happened at that time? While I had been playing well in my first few years in the NBA, I definitely had my ups and downs—body fatigue, body shock. You could ask the Boston head strength and conditioning coach, Bryan Doo. During the 2010-11 season, I definitely had to take a couple of weeks off from doing any lifting or extra work on the court because my body was at a point where it was at shock. I was in major fatigue during the season.
My first question to the doctors when I heard the news was, “Will I ever be able to play again?” And they said that I had to have the surgery to play again, and I said, “If I don’t get it, what could happen?” I could play with it like I had done for the last couple of years, and nothing could happen, or I could play with it and possibly die on the court, like Reggie Lewis who played in Boston. Or I could die in any strenuous activity. The tissue could rupture and that could be it. So it was no question that I definitely had to get the surgery.
After a day or two, I came to grips with it and told myself, “I had to be better for me to play again.” And then Jan. 9 was the day of the surgery at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
Everything happened so quick. I definitely didn’t have a lot of time to just think. I had to quickly tell myself that I’ve got to be good with it, I have to make sure that I’m well prepared for what I’m going to go through, because I don’t think people understand. It’s not an ankle surgery, it’s not ACL, it’s not a shoulder, it’s not a back—it’s heart surgery. And I think people take for granted what I had to go through. I don’t think they realize what I had to deal with to try to get back.
The hardest part was four days after the surgery—my heart rate was very high, I was choking, I couldn’t cough, and I started crying. And it was seeing the way my chest looked, definitely deformed. I’m a fit guy, I’m a skinny guy, but to look in the mirror I was bloated with all of the meds. It definitely did not look like myself and that was the hardest thing to see, but the doctors told me that that was the first thing I needed to do—look at myself in the mirror and see who I am now and deal with it and try to get back after that, because it was going to take a while before I was able to start the rehab process.
I stopped watching basketball for almost two months because I couldn’t take it, I couldn’t think about me playing. Mentally it was frustrating, but I was able to go back to school at Georgetown and graduate, so that was the biggest thing that I did at that time.
— Jeff Green (@unclejeffgreen) January 9, 2013
In March 2012, I started the therapy in Boston with the team doctors, and then after I was cleared to go back to D.C. I was going back every summer to Georgetown prior to the surgery, and I had another two courses to finish that year. I was in the classrooms, I was doing the lectures two hours a day, and I was able to graduate in May with a degree in English and minor in theology. I walked, had the cap and gown, and my family was able to come, so it was a big moment.
Also, my Celtics teammates were all there for me during that time and they helped me get through the surgery. Without them, mentally I definitely would’ve been frustrated, I would’ve been mad. I couldn’t touch a basketball for six, seven months, so for them to talk to me always, “Everything’s going to be OK,” they definitely helped me out mentally to prepare myself for what I was going to go through to try to get back on the court.
I didn’t have any hesitation about my heart when I returned to the NBA in Oct. 2012, because when I was playing pickup basketball at Georgetown that summer, I played without a padded vest. In the NBA, I wear one. I was talking to the kids, “Just hit me. I don’t want you to pull back anything.” And that’s how I got the confidence to go back to playing the stye of play that I play, which is physical. By the time for the season, I had no kinds of hesitations whatsoever as far as driving to the lane or just playing.
For my first two games back—in Istanbul and Milan—it was definitely a lot of butterflies. Both games I played pretty well, which was a shock as far as the contact and the speed. I was definitely out of game shape, but it was fun though. And the first game in Boston was definitely priceless, walking back in the Garden and having the fans being there.
After that Christmas 2012 game against Brooklyn, which we won and I scored 15 points, that’s when I was, like, “I’m back.” I felt my body was coming back around then. That’s when it hit me that I’m happy to be back, I’m very thankful, I’m very appreciative of the moment.
I’ve made helping young cardiac patients a big part of my life because when you don’t have to deal with heart issues, you’re blind to them.
The fact that I did have to go through that procedure, I’ve met so many kids—at NBA games and local hospitals—who have gone through that at an early age. And you only think, Wow. You bring a smile to their face and they look up to you, but they also do something special for you. To see the smiles on their faces as they go through the pain, go through the surgery, it definitely makes you appreciate everything you have a lot more. They’re so young and you wish that they didn’t have to go through that.
I did one event in Boston with the American Heart Association for some kids at the practice facility. One of the messages was they all said that they felt different, they all felt like they were viewed as being different. And I just told them, “Don’t view it like that. You’re still normal, but now you’re a superhero.”
When I had my surgery, I always stayed positive and one of my favorite superheroes is Iron Man. And that was always my alter ego. It’s everything to me, so that’s what I told them, “Continue to live your life and know that you’re still the same. Just have a spot to prove that you’re building character and that you’re stronger now.”
When I was with Memphis, I went to Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital quite a bit with the American Heart Association. I want to do an event here soon in Orlando.
I like working with the American Heart Association because of how they try to gain attention to these things. Because like me, I didn’t even know; I played with my aortic root enlarged for several years and I didn’t even know. So it was definitely a scare. Some kids, because they don’t have to do the physicals all the time, might have it and might not know. So the American Heart Association definitely brings awareness to the situation and they try to make sure that parents are getting their kids checked, because you never know what could happen at any given time if they do have it.
— Memphis Grizzlies (@memgrizz) August 20, 2015
I definitely would love to continue working with young patients after I’m done playing basketball. Every voice, like mine, that speaks on the situation would definitely bring light to what I had and definitely help somebody out. A lot of people want their kids to play sports, and if you bring awareness to it, it can change some kid’s life. And that’s my goal and that’s my plan with that.
I’ve also talked to a couple of NBA guys about their heart conditions, like Ronny Turiaf and Etan Thomas, who I played with when I was in OKC. Also, I’ve talked to guys who had the scare, but didn’t have to do the surgery, like Chuck Hayes. I saw him a couple of weeks ago and asked him how he was doing, and he said everything was good. When you get faced with that scare, you realize much more how precious that time is, life is. When someone gets hit with it, you try to make sure they’re OK, you try to keep the relationship. That’s what I have been doing. It’s also great to hear about the NBPA’s heart screening program for retired players.
I never knew the late Anthony Mason, but I met him a couple of times because during my time at Georgetown, his son, Anthony Jr., was at St. John’s. You don’t want anything bad to happen to anyone, especially something as serious as the heart and going through that type of pain. You just wish that legends like Anthony could’ve been helped in any kind of way.
I wish they could’ve been saved.