The tragic death of former NBA center Sean Rooks from heart disease on June 7 was felt around the league because of the 46-year-old Rooks’s relatively young age and that he was perhaps lighter than his playing weight.
That news, along with the deaths of Darryl Dawkins and Moses Malone in the span of 17 days last year, has created more awareness about heart issues with former players, especially big men. The Players Association decided to hold free heart screenings in various cities for former players, including a screening in Las Vegas during the conclusion of the summer league. At no cost, former NBA players could take heart-related tests, receive up-to-date health information, and speak with cardiologists about how to enhance their quality of life.
One ex-player who took advantage of the screening was Cherokee Parks, who had surgery to repair an aortic valve in 2013 and is a proponent for comprehensive health care for former NBA players. The issue for many ex-players who did not get lucrative contracts may not only be lack of attention to potential health issues, but the inability to afford quality health care if problems are discovered.
“It’s unfortunate that we’ve had fatalities to bring all of this stuff to the surface, but quite frankly it’s bad,” Parks said. “We all prepared to get to the NBA since we were 12, 13 years old, and basically when you get to college and you play in the NBA, you’re babied. You’re shown what doctors to go to, don’t pay for anything, you go in there and when you get the results back, you don’t even get the results, they all go to your team physician.”
Parks said that there are major issues for players medically when it comes to post retirement.
“When you leave the league, there’s no exit strategy health-wise, no physical examination when you leave, and you also have no medical records from your entire time in the league because the team has possession of it,” he said. “My grandmother worked for the phone company for 20 years and she had health insurance for life when she retired. When we get done, and they kick you a little health severance package, that was it. You’re left to your own devices.”
Parks said Rooks’s death has had a profound effect on a lot of players from his generation.
“I think with Sean Rooks, maybe it was the final straw right there,” Parks said. “Players leaving the league after a certain number of years should have full health coverage for the rest of your life. And the league should be able to put the funds together where they can maintain and say, ‘Hey you’re 40, go get a CT scan. At 45, you should be getting this blood work done.’ We’ve been babied for so long, you are just really learning at 35 how to take care of yourself for the first time on top of how to pay for these things. For me right now, it’s a major part of my life.”
Parks said he was diagnosed with an enlarged aortic root but he did not undergo any procedure until after a stint in France in 2013.
“I was completely on my own, I had no outside help in finding doctors,” Parks said. “There was no support group, figure out economically how to handle all these things, the best doctors to go to, where to get second opinions. I had to feel my way through the dark on that.”
For many former NBA players, it’s not only overeating that may cause heart issues, but chronic physical issues may prevent the ability to work out. Former NBA sharpshooter Tracy Murray, who underwent the screening, said a recent hip replacement prevents him from playing basketball as he once did. He has to find creative ways to exercise.
“Things that you could burn off back in the day, you can’t burn off anymore,” Murray said. “When we were younger we were taught how to eat when we got [to the NBA]. That excludes all the stuff that you really like to eat, like soul food or pizza, and when you’re done [playing], No. 1 you don’t want to run anymore for a while and No. 2, I want to eat whatever I want to eat and the end result of that is you start gaining weight. It’s best to stay on top it.”
“I’m not doing too much playing, that’s done. The hardwood is unforgiving. With beating our bodies up, there comes a limitation of keeping your bodies up. You can no longer play basketball like you used to. You’d rather do that to stay in shape but we can’t. So now we’re limited to bike rides, ellipticals, walking on treadmills to get your heart pumping. The days of running out there in the neighborhood are over if you want your hip replacement to last.”
Murray, who played AAU ball, in the Pac-10, and in the NBA against Rooks, was devastated by the news of his death.
“Sean was my brother, we grew up together, I’ve never seen him in better shape than he was in,” Murray said. “When I saw him during the season, I said, ‘Man, you seem like you continue to lose [weight].’ He just dies at 46, it’s just tough.
“With guys like Sean dying at 46, it should be a wake-up call to a lot of people. I’m right there, I’ll be 45 [on Monday]. There are a lot of [people] that are in great shape that don’t really know what’s going on inside their bodies. We have to find out.”
BETTER WITH AGE
Beasley learns from his mistakes
Michael Beasley participated in the Las Vegas Summer League for the Rockets. Although he’s only 27, he was old school in that environment. The former No. 2 overall pick was supposed to be a perennial All-Star as a lefthanded small forward with a smooth shooting touch.
Off-the-court issues along with a disregard for defense among other skills have made Beasley a basketball vagabond. After stints in China, Beasley returned to the NBA with the Rockets last year and averaged 12.8 points in 20 games, including an 18-point effort at Boston that sparked a Houston victory.
With his place in the league unsettled, Beasley decided to play in one summer league game this season, collecting 7 points and nine rebounds. He was more of a veteran presence on the bench during the rest of the week, understanding that being more about team will help his reputation.
Beasley was asked about his delusions of grandeur as a 19-year-old after being picked second overall in 2008 by Miami.
“I don’t think anybody knows that guy — I was young, man, I was 19, with everything in the world,” he said. “Live and learn, fortunate to still be here. It’s a good opportunity to be great, fortunately that God gave me multiple chances.”
Although Beasley has been considered a troubled player, it’s a mystery why he was relegated to China when he obviously has NBA skills. Beasley said he isn’t bitter or dumbfounded about his professional journey.
“You take what’s thrown at you, you handle it, and you move on,” he said. “I’m a big believer that God won’t throw you anything that you can’t handle. I pray, wake up, put one foot in front of the other, and let life happen how it happens.”
Beasley has played with four teams in eight years, including two stints with the Heat. He’s only 27 and perhaps with discipline and a couple of breaks could develop into a dependable rotation player. That’s why he was in Las Vegas.
“I feel as if I’ve always been prepared. I’ve been one to take my game seriously, but it’s just a little more special, a little more precious, just slow down and enjoy the ride this time,” he said. “My first time, I was 19, 20 years old, I thought I knew everything and y’all gave me all the money in the world, so I wasn’t thinking to look at y’all [in the eye] anymore. I’m doing it the right way this time, slowing down, enjoying the process, falling in love with the process.
“You see young players and I try to give them a little bit of what I learned and what I’ve been through.”
Beasley spent two seasons in China, including one with the Shanghai Sharks, the same club that Celtics rookie Guerschon Yabusele is signed with for next season. Beasley’s thoughts on his experiences in China and playing in the league, which is known for its high scoring and lack of defense, are complimentary.
“That’s the misconception a lot of people get, NBA guys go to China and average big numbers and automatically you think the talent is not as good,” he said. “It isn’t, but it’s not that far off. It will be the same thing if I was here [in the NBA] and my team was giving me the ball all 48 minutes.
“You get the ball a lot, so you ain’t gotta force no shots or take no bad shots — always taking the right shots, making the right plays. Your IQ and talent will take over from there.
“Man, it’s phy-si-cal. It’s physical here, don’t get me wrong. In the CBA, it’s 92 NBA physical [on a scale of 1-100]. You get knocked out of bounds and you get back on defense. It’s frustrating at first, but once you get used to it, it makes you a better player.”
Howard a natural in coaching role
Juwan Howard has become a staple on the Heat bench since his retirement following the 2012-13 season, winning a title with the team in his next to last season as a player, and later becoming an assistant on Erik Spoelstra’s staff. With top assistant David Fizdale leaving to take the Grizzlies head coaching job, Howard has been bumped up the ladder, and he guided Miami’s summer league team in Las Vegas.
Of course, the Heat will be dramatically different after losing mainstay Dwyane Wade to the Bulls after 13 years during which he set most of the team’s records. With Hassan Whiteside returning along with newcomers Wayne Ellington, James Johnson, and Willie Reed, and returnees Goran Dragic and perhaps Chris Bosh, the Heat will try to move on.
“He’s going to be missed,” Howard said of Wade. “I love him. He’s an ex-teammate of mine and he’s a brother and he will always be a brother to me.”
Bosh’s status could determine the playoff fate of the Heat. The club re-signed potential cornerstone Whiteside but was unable to nab Kevin Durant and then added some complementary pieces that could develop into difference-makers. But without Wade, the Heat will be a dramatically different team next season and hardly expected to compete for one of the top spots in the Eastern Conference.
“We’ll have some new faces, which means as one of the coaches we’ll have our hands full instilling the Miami Heat culture in a lot of the new guys,” Howard said. “But our organization did an excellent job of picking up some awesome talent, some guys with high IQ, some shooting. I trust that they will buy into what we teach and I trust that we will be very competitive.
“I played for eight teams and Miami was my last stop and now on the coaching staff. Miami does it a certain way, they do it a special way. When you talk about the Miami Heat culture, it starts at the top. We’re going to continue to keep building for a championship, because that’s all we talk about, winning championships.”
Howard played in seven games in 2012-13 and then helped out on the coaching staff the rest of the season before being named an assistant in September 2013. That wasn’t his plan.
“It came towards the end of my career when I joined the Heat. David Fizdale is one of the guys who inspired and talked me into coaching,” Howard said. “I’m always going to point the finger at him. At first my mind-set was built on working in the front office, being a scout, and building my way up.
“I had a great conversation one time. Coach Fizdale came to my house and we had a drink of wine and we were talking and he felt like this team needed me. He felt also the way I grabbed the respect from the guys in the locker room and the leadership qualities and also my knowledge and experience from the game of basketball, that it would be needed on his staff.”
Instead of pursuing a front-office position, Howard decided he wanted to coach. “I couldn’t turn that offer down and I have the bug because of him and learning from a guy like [Spoelstra], one of the best coaches in the NBA,” Howard said. “He doesn’t win championships by mistake, obviously he’s doing something right. This is one of the most bright individuals I’ve ever met and that is a fact.”
Howard played for one of the most popular and recognized teams in NCAA history with the Michigan Fab Five of the early 1990s. Now he’s coaching players who were born after the quintet left Michigan and have only YouTube video to reference those days. Twenty-plus years later, Howard fully understands the dismay he may have caused some of his coaches, and he uses that experience with his twenty-something crew.
“They’re not driving me crazy. They’re human,” Howard said of the Heat summer leaguers. “They make mistakes. I made some of the same mistakes. They test my patience. I’m going to keep coaching them up and the best thing about it is there’s a carryover. They prove to me that they listen, and I love that.
“You’ve got to find ways to get into their mind-set and make yourself uncomfortable. Some of the things that they do and they say may be off in left field. I allow them to be themselves. I don’t try to overcoach or micromanage them. That’s when you lose the respect. We are different in many ways and I understand that. I want them to just enjoy the game and trust what we’re teaching and I’ll help them grow, not only as a player but as a person.”
It was an interesting summer league for the Timberwolves at point guard. Kris Dunn flourished in the two games he played and then sustained a concussion and missed the rest of the Las Vegas portion. Last year’s first-round pick, Tyus Jones, a Minnesota native, took over and was named summer league MVP after leading the Timberwolves to the title game despite their 0-3 start. So where does that place Jones in the point guard hierarchy? Minnesota has Dunn, Ricky Rubio, and Jones, and Dunn is considered the team’s point guard of the future. Rubio may be on the trade block, but he has three years remaining on his contract at more than $41 million . . . After an impressive Utah and Las Vegas summer league performance, there are questions as to why Spurs rookie swingman Dejounte Murray dropped to the 29th overall pick with all of his talent. There were reports about some off-the-court issues he faced in high school, which may have scared some teams off. There was also a consensus that San Antonio was the best place for the gifted guard from Washington. There will be little expected from him during his rookie year, and he can develop on and off the court . . . Although the free agent market appears to be drying up with established veterans such as former Celtic Brandon Bass accepting the league minimum, some solid players remain available. Oklahoma City wanted to create salary-cap space for a potential Russell Westbrook extension and allowed Dion Waiters to become an unrestricted free agent. The former Syracuse standout seeks to become a starter and a main scorer but those slots may be filled. J.R. Smith remains a free agent and don’t be surprised if teams begin trying to create salary-cap space to make room for the Cavaliers sharpshooter. While Smith appears destined to return to Cleveland, which still hasn’t re-signed LeBron James, he could be swayed to sign elsewhere with a more lucrative contract. The Celtics are in need of shooting and could potentially make a bid for Smith after failing to acquire shooting in free agency.
Meanwhile, former Celtic David Lee, who wanted to make a big splash last season to earn another lucrative contract, remains a free agent and is likely going to have to sign a contract much lower than the $15 million he earned last year. He actually played well in 25 games for the Mavericks, averaging 8.5 points and 7 rebounds in 17.3 minutes.
Tim Duncan, who announced his retirement on July 11, leaves the NBA as one of the most accomplished players in history. He helped the Spurs become the dominant franchise over the past two decades and won five championships. Here’s a look at his career:
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.