Of all the possible words one could use to describe the throbbing bass and discordant pulse of dubstep, few would choose inspirational. But that’s exactly the word Phoenix Suns forward Channing Frye uses. For Frye, the music usually associated with lasers and music festivals reminds him of the countless frustrating hours he put in on a hospital treadmill as he underwent the cardiac recovery program that would save not only his career, but his life.
In September 2012, a routine preseason heart test by a Suns cardiologist revealed that the then-29-year-old Frye suffered from an enlarged heart caused by a virus. A few days later, three weeks before the start of the preseason, the team announced that Frye would be shut down indefinitely. The strain that playing basketball would put on Frye’s heart, several doctors told him, would be life-threatening. In fact, he was told to avoid all strenuous activity until his heart had a chance to recover. Frye initially thought he would be back on the court well before the All Star break. He ended up being shut down for the entire 2012-2013 season.
“Basically you’ve got to sit and do nothing for months on end,” says Frye. “They're like ‘Yeah you can walk.’ But basically if you sweat, they don’t want that.”
For nine straight months after his diagnosis Frye had to keep his heart rate at a minimum. This became more difficult as the inactivity eroded what fitness he had.
“Even walking the stairs I’d be out of breath,” he says.
Frye took up golf, always using a cart, and started performing the simplest of yoga exercises to try to keep limber. He cleaned up his diet, focused on developing a healthy sleep routine and worked to eliminate stress from his life.
“We started very slow. [My yoga instructor] would have to stop mid-way after the first month or two because I was so out of shape,” he says. “I couldn't even go through one sun salutation without having to stop because I was getting sweaty.”
In July, Frye finally got clearance to do some light exercise as long as his heart rate stayed below 80% of his maximum. When you’ve been sitting idle for the better part of a year, it doesn’t take much to get the blood pumping fast. Frye’s fitness was essentially gone. His wife would laugh at his feeble attempts to do pushups. Frye traveled to Portland, Ore., to work out with his friend and trainer Ryan Force.
“[The heart is] a much more sensitive area,” says Force. “But it’s a lot like rehabbing any sort of injury. You have to slowly progress and you have to take your time doing it. You do feel a little bit of added pressure, knowing that this is potentially life and death.”
At the same time, doctors put Frye on a tightly-managed cardiac recovery program to get his heart back in shape. He spent countless tedious hours slowly peddling a stationary bike or jogging on a treadmill, making sure to keep his heart rate from spiking.
“I’m running next to these old people who have just had hip surgery,” says Frye. “I’m looking out the window and I’m bored and I don’t want to be in there.”
So it went for two months. The workouts started with simple body weight exercises like stretching, lunges and pushups. Frye didn’t touch a weight for weeks. Though he was getting stronger, he struggled with the frustration of having to stop his workouts each time his heart monitor read a dangerous level.
“The biggest thing with athletes, their mindset is that ‘I’m kind of unstoppable and I’m fearless and I can do a [difficulty level] 10 even though I haven’t done more than a two for more than eight months,’” says Force. “We’re in a workout and we really didn’t do a whole lot. In your mind you’re thinking ‘Why is my heart rate so high?’ Then we had to sit there and wait until it came down so we could continue. That was hard. But [Frye] bought in. He understood.”
Frye got regular assessments from a number of doctors during his rehab. Around the end of September, Frye knew that something had changed. He felt good, healthy for the first time in a long while. His availability for the coming season would depend on one last doctor visit three days before the start of training camp. As Frye expected, a doctor at Johns Hopkins gave him a clean bill of health and clearance to push himself as hard as he wanted.
Clearance from doctors didn’t mean the end of Frye’s recovery, though. He came into camp 20 pounds heavier than his playing weight of 245 (at a height of 6-11). Though training with Force had gotten him into vastly better shape than before, he knew he had a long ways to go before he was ready to play basketball at an NBA level. The first drill of training camp, a simple three-man weave, proved that point.
“I was so tired. I hadn't sprinted,” he says. “I had run up and down the court. It would be like 60, 70 percent stride but this was actually an NBA-level sprint…I was like, Holy crap, I am freaking tired and we only ran up and down one time.”
His coaches gave him the choice to sit out at any time he wanted, but Frye hasn’t missed a game, practice or even a drill since that first three-man weave. He played 28 minutes per game for a surprising Suns team that nearly qualified for the playoffs in the brutal Western conference. He says he has no fear. He cherishes his opportunity to be on the court more than ever.
“Every player says, ‘I’ll be fine when I’m done,’” he says. “They're thinking on their own terms they’re done. But when something is taken away from you, you really have to come to the reality of who you are.”
Before each game, Frye pops in his headphones and cranks up the dubstep. The pumping beats bring him back to that recovery, back to where he started.
“I always remember those thoughts looking at that stupid-ass grass outside my window while I’m running [on the treadmill] or I’m on this bike,” he says. “When I listen to that music or when I’m out there playing, no matter how good or bad it is, I just am so happy to be out there.”