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Secrets Of The Heart Larry Bird reveals that he has long suffered from a cardiac condition

Sept. 06, 1999
Sept. 06, 1999

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Sept. 6, 1999

Secrets Of The Heart Larry Bird reveals that he has long suffered from a cardiac condition

As the Boston Celtics began to sink into mediocrity in the late
1980s, the press was full of stories about Kevin McHale's feet
and ankles and Larry Bird's heel and back and, later, the tragic
death of Reggie Lewis from heart failure. It turns out that
another significant medical story involving those Celtics never
became public: Bird, now coach of the Indiana Pacers, was--and
still is--plagued by an irregular heartbeat. The condition,
called atrial fibrillation, bothered him frequently during
off-season workouts in hot weather, and in 1998 it almost caused
him to pass out on the sideline during a tense late-season game
against the Chicago Bulls. Bird reveals all this in Bird
Watching: On Playing and Coaching the Game I Love, a book
written with SI senior writer Jackie MacMullan that is scheduled
to be released on Sept. 15.

This is an article from the Sept. 6, 1999 issue

"I always knew there was something funny about my heart," Bird
writes. Occasionally during off-season workouts when he was a
player, he would feel sudden exhaustion and his heart would
start "jumping around." Bird wasn't sure what it was, but he
would take a long nap and the feeling would pass. What he calls
his "episodes"--his resting heart rate would double, to 104
beats per minute, resulting in light-headedness, disorientation
and profuse sweating--apparently didn't occur during the regular
season, and he never told Celtics doctors about them. That
sounds incredible, particularly given the M*A*S*H atmosphere in
which the Celts were playing in those days, but that was Bird,
always intensely private.

The arrhythmia was discovered after his playing days, while he
was working in the Boston front office. The episodes began
occurring more frequently, and that compelled Bird to tell team
physician Arnie Scheller about his heart. Scheller arranged for
tests at New England Baptist Hospital, and Bird had a name for
his condition. Atrial fibrillation generally isn't
life-threatening, and it's not nearly as serious as ventricular
fibrillation, which doctors believe is what Lewis experienced
when he died while shooting baskets. Nor is atrial fibrillation
as serious as the so-called thick heart condition that
contributed to the death of Loyola Marymount's Hank Gathers in
'90. Roger Blumenthal, director of preventive cardiology at
Johns Hopkins Hospital, describes atrial fibrillation as
"generally benign" but notes that it may have long-term
consequences. "People with atrial fibrillation are more likely
to experience enlargement of the heart, which can lead to blood
clots and stroke," he says. About two million Americans have the
condition, and more than a quarter of those over 65 with atrial
fibrillation will suffer strokes.

After his condition was diagnosed, Bird was told to exercise,
eat and drink alcohol only in moderation and was put on
medication. Still, his condition worsened in the spring of 1997,
about the time he started talking to the Pacers about becoming
their coach. "I got a little scared, because it didn't seem like
it was going away," writes Bird. At one point Indiana team
cardiologist King Yee, who had gotten involved after Bird had
tests at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, used defibrillator
paddles to jolt Bird's heart back to its normal rhythm.

Yee warned Bird to take particular caution in hot weather and at
high altitudes. Sure enough, Bird suffered an attack during a
road trip to Denver early in the 1997-98 season. Bird admitted
to Yee that he had forgotten to take his medication, which
included blood thinners, and thereafter Pacers trainer David
Craig was appointed to remind Bird about his medicine. Bird
writes that he was fine until the Bulls came to town on March
17, 1998. At one point during the game, Bird's heart began
fluttering and he started sweating profusely. "I was standing on
the sideline and hoping for a television timeout, because I felt
like I was gonna pass out," he writes. "Finally, the ref
whistled time. Whenever we have a timeout, they always put a
chair on the court for me so I can sit down and talk to the
guys. This time I fell into that chair, because I was going
out." The feeling passed by the end of the game, which Indiana
lost 90-84.

The episode against the Bulls led to sterner lectures from Yee
about taking the condition seriously. "I guess Dr. Yee was
trying to scare me," writes Bird. "I'm not going to be stupid
about this heart condition, but I'm not going to live my whole
life in fear of this thing either. If it goes, it goes." That
sounds like Bird. But let's hope that he has learned a few
lessons and that Yee won't have to repeat something he told Bird
after he forgot to take his medication in Denver: "You know,
Larry, you're not the most compliant guy in the world."

COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER
Bird's atrial fibrillation almost caused him to pass out on the
sideline during a tense game against the Bulls.