Dr. Lars Svensson has performed hundreds of heart surgeries, preserving the quality of life for patients from all walks of life, of different nationalities and backgrounds.
He works at the renowned Cleveland Clinic, one of the foremost hospitals for heart treatment and surgery. It is where Celtics forward Jeff Green and center Chris Wilcox had their lives and NBA careers saved with aortic surgeries separated by three months.
Svensson performed both operations, and while he attempts to form a personal bond with all of his heart patients, he takes special delight in watching Green and Wilcox continue to play in the NBA.
Green had an aortic aneurysm detected during a training camp stress test in December 2011 and was operated on less than a month later. Celtics doctors detected an enlarged aorta in Wilcox in March 2012, and he had surgery that month.
Green and Wilcox have similar vertical scars that begin just below the Adam’s apple and end midway down the chest, and they have bonded because of their similar medical problems.
When the Celtics played in Cleveland last Tuesday, Svensson made the trip to Quicken Loans Arena to see the two, whom he feels a strong kinship with.
“I did both operations and am very proud of what they have been able to achieve,” he said. “I thought they should be able to get back to playing at a super sportsman level, and certainly they are super sportsmen, but it’s not just the physical side, it’s the psychological side of getting back to that level. And they’ve really done a wonderful job of getting back into shape and at an extraordinary level.”
While Svensson said the chances of two professional athletes in their late 20s/early 30s on the same team having aortic issues are “pretty slim,” they are prevalent in taller human beings.
“It’s in one of the most critical areas of the heart, because it involves the pumping chamber, it involves the aortic valve, it involves blood supply to the heart, and it involves electrical systems to the heart,” he said.
“I would say it’s a bit like the Port Authority of Boston Harbor saying, ‘There’s a big leak in the tunnel and we’ve got to shut down everything, but Boston has to keep on functioning.’ It’s really the sensor of the heart, it’s the soul of the heart. It’s a complex surgery and that’s why it’s not done all that frequently.”
One of the more difficult aspects of the process was explaining to Green and Wilcox — professional athletes in their prime — that their bodies had malfunctioned but that they could return to the rigors of NBA play.
“I approach them gently and go through the whole situation and I tend to show illustrations, and what I reassure them is that we’ve got good long-term proof that the success rate is very high,” Svensson said. “It means, after surgery, get back to normal life expectancy and a normal quality of life.
“The downside is that you have to go through an operation that has a fair amount of risk, but we’ve done pretty good with that.”
Svensson was able to speak to Green before the Celtics faced the Cavaliers, but he missed Wilcox.
“He was the guy who basically saved my life,” Green said. “It was good to see his face. Good for him to see me do well. Good to see when I’m feeling a lot better and not in a hospital bed.
“Overall, I was just happy. He was excited. Obviously, he didn’t care if we won or lost. He was just happy to see me running around, see me playing.
“It was a long year and a tough surgery to come back from. For him to see me playing is a blessing.”
Green had not been back to Cleveland since the surgery, and last week’s visit, just about a year later, was a little eerie.
“Everything brought back the memories, because that is something you never forget,” Green said.
Said Wilcox, “It was cool because he had a chance to see his work in progress. I think it was a great opportunity for us and at the same time a great opportunity for him to see how good of a job he did with us.”
Celtics fans are still pained by the untimely passing of Reggie Lewis in 1993 because of a heart defect, and Svensson said modern medicine has made great progress in treating heart-related problems in athletes.
“There has been a huge advance in the management of patients with heart rhythm disturbances,” he said. “There are a lot more options now. There are different ways of treating them with medications and there are also these medical advances that work like internal defibrillators.
“That’s the big advance — surgery, [internal] injections, and medication. The surgery has become so much safer. We’ve been able to make that a very predictable and effective operation.
“It is normal to get nervous about having a heart operation, but I think nowadays for most patients, they can come into a heart operation with a confidence that 99 percent of the time or better, they are going to do just fine.”
BACK IN THE USA
Roberts feels at home again
He played in the NBA Summer League to showcase himself but fully expected to head back to Germany, where he enjoyed much success. Brian Roberts played in the Hornets’ five summer games with vigor, standing out despite the presence of the more heralded Austin Rivers. Roberts showed NBA speed and the skills to be a quality backup point guard.
Having lost Chris Paul and having to use the inexperienced Greivis Vasquez at the point, the Hornets needed another savvy guard, and Roberts, with four years of international experience since leaving Dayton University, was their choice.
Roberts has turned into one of the league’s more unlikely success stories. He is averaging 6.5 points and 2.2 assists in 14.5 minutes per game. He shook off an ugly ankle injury sustained Jan. 16 against the Celtics, missed one game, and then scored 10 points in New Orleans’s loss to San Antonio last Wednesday.
Roberts offers hopes for overseas players working arduously for that one chance to play at home at the highest level.
“My approach was just go out and play my game and see what happens,” said Roberts. “Being overseas over the last few years, I knew I wanted to give it another shot. I just kind of let it all hang out in summer league to see what happened.
“I felt like I was playing well and I was positioning myself to at least get [a training camp] invite. I was feeling confident out there and that’s all I could do at that point.”
Roberts played his initial professional season in Israel and the past three in Germany, leading Brose of Bamberg to three German League championships. Some players relish the success and salaries they can have in Europe and forgo the opportunity to compete for a roster spot and minimum contract in the NBA. Others always have the NBA in their minds.
“That’s the big thing, is the right timing,” said Roberts. “Having that opportunity. Not only getting that opportunity but performing. It was a blessing that everything fell into place and I got the opportunity.
“It is great to be able to stay here and be closer to family and friends and not have such a big distance between us. The time change is a big deal, too. Everything has worked out great and I am just trying to fight to keep it that way.”
The Euroleague is filled with NBA-caliber talent, but with limited spots here, and politics sometimes a factor, many players choose the security of a guaranteed contract overseas.
“There are plenty of guys over there that are right there [on the cusp of the NBA],” Roberts said. “It’s definitely something that I’ll remember. I spent [four] years over there. Being here, you really don’t know what it’s like to be in Europe and to get that experience and to see a new culture, how other people live. It’s something that I’ll cherish, not only the basketball part of it.”
Roberts, 27, is one of the older guys on a roster that features rookies Rivers and Anthony Davis, third-year guard Vasquez, and fifth-year guard Eric Gordon. Roberts is the team’s second-oldest player next to veteran sharpshooter Roger Mason Jr.
“It’s good,” said Roberts. “We’ve had a lot of growing this first part of the season and I think everyone has bought into what coach [Monty] Williams wants to do with this young team.”
Fratello feels Rivers’s pain
Mike Fratello was DocRivers’s first NBA coach, in Atlanta, and now he is a respected analyst for TNT and NBA TV. Rivers is struggling with the Celtics, frustrated by their lack of passion and consistency, and Fratello understands.
“I see in the Celtics that they are consistently inconsistent,” Fratello said. “That’s what makes it so hard for Doc right now, is that early on he was searching, scratching, scrambling.
“His initial statement early in the year was, ‘I may start three or four starting lineups depending on who we’re playing, if we want to play big, play smaller, if I want to play KG at the center spot, if I want to put him over at the power forward position, [Darko] Milicic at the center spot.’ All that stuff was way back at the beginning of the year.
“Once they got into it, and he started to get a feel for what he had, he still couldn’t get the consistency. Avery [Bradley] comes back and all of a sudden, ‘Now, maybe this is what we were missing.’ They go on a nice little roll there, and all of a sudden they have fallen back into some of the same stuff they were going through.
“So it’s hard because of the lack of consistency night in and night out from key guys. It’s not just the backup guys.”
Fratello said the entire roster has struggled to maintain a playoff-caliber level.
“You can’t have the plethora of turnovers the way they have had, the easy baskets they have given up,” the former coach said. “And if I am hearing his voice correctly, some of the stuff he’s saying, it’s not the same consistent effort night in and night out.
“Let’s face it, are they good enough if they play at the top of their game to do damage? Yes they are. Are they good enough to give only 80 percent from the five starters? No, they are not.”
Fratello said the key to improving consistency is more practice time, but that is always a challenge with the Celtics considering the ages of Kevin Garnett (36), Paul Pierce (35), and Jason Terry (35).
“The older guys may need more rest than they need practice time,” he said. “You are dealing with the double dose of ‘should we practice?’ and ‘how long should we practice? Or should we sit them out? Or do we need to sharpen up our stuff and see what the intensity is.’
“He’s caught in a number of major decisions for a head coach because of the squad he has and the roster that he has.”
Rivers’s connection with his players, especially the newcomers, has been questioned. When asked if he attempted to relate to his Generation Y players, Rivers said he wasn’t interested in their clothes or music, as long as they showed up to play nightly.
Fratello, who coached a 20-something Rivers, said it can be difficult to relate to players who are considerably younger.
“You find the balance,” he said. “Let me put it this way: You don’t spend 90 percent of the time worrying about relating to them.
“Do you try to relate to them? Yeah. Try and learn what’s going on in their world, what do they pay attention to? All of those kinds of things you want to have an ear to, but your coaching stuff occupies so much time. Preparation for the next game, scouting, video, requires so much time.
“You can only spend so much time trying to get into their world. They all, as a team collectively, have to buy into your world, getting ready for that next game. It’s not like the coach always has to do everything; they need to do some things to be in tune with the coach.”
Wallace may be back soon
New York’s Rasheed Wallace has missed most of the season with a sore left foot but said he is getting close to returning. He was working at TD Garden prior to Thursday’s Celtics-Knicks game and could be a key down the stretch.
One coach convinced of Kyrie Irving’s All-Star status is Rivers, who mentioned that he had voted for the second-year Cleveland guard after Irving dropped 40 on the Celtics Tuesday. Rivers said it was difficult to vote for a player from an 11-win team, but Irving is one of the league’s emerging point guards and is critical to the Cavaliers’ success . . . There were several players around the league unhappy that Stephen Curry was not elected to the Western All-Star team . . . It’s widely believed that Jared Sullinger will make the Rookie-Sophomore Game after an impressive month. He has been Boston’s best reserve . . . While Jon Leuer can tell his grandkids that he was traded for three players, his move from Cleveland to Memphis for Wayne Ellington, Marreese Speights, and Josh Selby had everything to do with the Grizzlies dipping under the luxury tax threshold and increasing their chances of holding on to Rudy Gay or making a deal for the swingman with more of a return. The Grizzlies have Gay, Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, and Zach Randolph all attached to long-term contracts and would like some freedom, hence their interest in moving Gay in the right deal . . . The Suns named Lindsey Hunter interim coach after Alvin Gentry and the organization agreed to part ways. That caused major dissension among Gentry’s coaching staff, including Dan Majerle, the Suns great who believed he was next in line. Majerle has left the team, as has fellow assistant Elston Turner. Hunter had been seen as a future coach since his playing days, and with the rebuilding Suns, he may get a bona fide opportunity to earn the permanent job.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.