The first question Jeff Green said he asked the doctor who would open his chest and repair his heart was if he’d be able to play his game again — driving to the basket, drawing contact, etc.
Dr. Lars Svensson told the Celtics forward yes, and that if he were stronger and more powerful, it was going to be easier to block out any fear.
“And I trusted him,” Green said recently.
Green worked hard to regain the muscle mass he lost while his body healed, downing protein shakes like water before his appetite finally returned, lifting weights, biking, running.
And he also set a goal to not only play his game, but to play his game in every game a season after playing none while he recovered.
That meant every regular-season game, and each one in the playoffs, including Game 5 on Wednesday, when the Celtics face the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden, trailing, 3-1, in the best-of-seven first-round series.
He stood at his locker April 17 in Toronto after the final regular-season contest, the 81st, and beamed with relief: he’d played in them all.
“Man, I’m truly blessed,” he said. “Coming from heart surgery one year ago to come back and play the way I did and get better as the year went along, it was all I wanted.”
From afar, Svensson, a renowned cardiac surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, kept tabs on his former patient and grew more impressed as the season went along, as Green’s scoring average rose from 9.4 points in the team’s first 42 games to 16.5 in its last 39.
Green is also the Celtics’ second-leading scorer in these playoffs, averaging 20.8 points to Paul Pierce’s 21.3.
It wasn’t just that Green, 26, was nearly 16 months removed from surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm; it was that he returned and was playing the best basketball of his career.
“That’s really quite remarkable,” Svensson said in his thick, native South African accent. “That shows an incredible amount of discipline and self control and mental stamina that he has.”
At the start of this season, Green grew fatigued and was concerned about being hit in the chest, where a 9-inch vertical scar is centered.
But after that first blow, he’d realize he could withstand it.
“All right, let’s move on,” he said he’d tell himself. “Because I’ve got to move on. That’s the only way.”
Green has worn a customized padded tank top beneath his jersey to help protect his chest. But, in truth, Green’s chest is stronger after the surgery, Svensson said.
“It’s very porous in the breastbone, and that’s because a fair amount of blood is produced in the breastbone,” he said. “But after this, the bone scars up and it becomes very strong and dense.”
Green is on pace to be completely recovered, though it’s unclear when, Svensson said.
“From some of the studies we’ve done, it takes about six months and patients tend to be back to normal activity level, but that’s not a super player playing in the NBA,” he said.
“It’s obviously going to take longer, first, to get their muscle bulk back again and to get practices in to get hand-eye coordination going again. As you know, that’s a lot of practice and habit forming to get those right again.”
Green acknowledges he still gets fatigued, though not nearly as often as in the beginning of the season.
“I hope I’m past it,” he said. “You never know. If my body talks to me and tells me to chill out a little bit, that’s what I’ll do.”
And Svensson has told Green how impressed he is that he bulked back up so quickly.
“He’s taken great pride in showing how he’s been able to come back,” Svensson said. “It seems to have stimulated him even more to work hard. I think it’s paid off.”
For context, the surgery itself was, Svensson said, “a bit of a tricky operation.”
It involves, the doctor said, the section of the heart where the four valves come together. It’s also near, he said,“the electrical system of the heart.”
He added, “We are very careful about not interfering with the electrical system because, especially in the athletes, the last thing we would want to do is have them end up with a pacemaker.”
Naturally, Green had concerns.
He even wondered if he was the youngest patient Svensson had operated on. The doctor said no, that he had performed a similar surgery on a girl closer to 21 just a day or two before.
Green can’t remember her name, but the two got in touch and stay connected through social media. “She’s doing all right,” Green said.
As for Green and Svensson, they haven’t talked much since the surgery.
“He’s busy saving people’s lives,” Green said.
And Green is busy playing professional basketball, playing his game.
Green said he sent Svensson and his assistant autographed jerseys, and the doctor and patient saw each other in Cleveland in late March, when the Celtics played the Cavaliers.
Svensson was sitting near the tunnel the Celtics used, and as Green left the court after making the winning layup at the buzzer, Svensson called out to him.
Green heard him, came back toward the court, and hugged Svensson, to whom he dedicated the game.
“That was extremely kind and gracious and generous of him,” Svensson said. “I didn’t expect that at all.”
Nor was Green expected to play at this level and in every game following open-heart surgery.
“It shows that he has a strong heart,” guard Avery Bradley said.
In more ways than one.