WALTHAM — Practicing shirtless, Jeff Green spins toward the basket, all long limbs, muscled torso, and scar. The Celtics forward lets everyone see the slightly raised, foot-long line that runs down the middle of his chest, almost inviting curious stares.
“I show the scar off whenever I can,” said Green, who had open heart surgery nearly 10 months ago. “It is a part of me now. I love it. It is a reminder that I’ve battled something that a lot of people doubted I was going to come back from.”
When Green takes the court in the season opener Tuesday night, he will be defying even his own expectations. His return may be the comeback story of the 2012-13 season.
Diagnosed with an aortic root aneurysm last December and needing surgery as soon as possible, Green, 26, was among those who doubted he would ever return. When he awoke from surgery on Jan. 9, he could not move. He had a breathing tube down his throat, three drainage tubes in his chest, three IVs, a tightly bandaged rib cage, and a catheter.
He wondered: “How the hell am I going to come back and play basketball after going through this?”
The answer, he found, was that “It was like being a baby . . . I had to relearn everything.”
Over several months, Green progressed from a patient too weak to clear his own throat to a player capable of averaging 13.9 points per game and 29.3 minutes per game, as he did during the preseason earlier this month. Now, with an integral role on the Celtics assured, Green has silenced critics who thought general manager Danny Ainge foolishly signed the versatile forward to a four-year, $36-million-dollar deal in August.
“There was a maturity about how Jeff handled it from the very beginning,” said Ainge. “He was determined to come back and be better than he’s ever been. Watching Jeff and knowing him, I believed him.”
Green feels like he is “still trying to get into the swing of things” and “still learning the game and learning my teammates.” He figures he is 85 percent back, and knows he needs to work on his conditioning.
When asked how many minutes he expected Green to play this season, Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, “I don’t think we can get him enough. He needs to be on the floor a lot and we need to figure out a way of getting him as many minutes as possible.
“If we win a championship this year, it’s because Jeff Green had a lot to do with it.”
In a doctor’s office at Massachusetts General Hospital in December, talk such as that was unimaginable. When Green learned he needed heart surgery, he stayed silent for 90 minutes. He tried to comprehend the diagnosis, tried to understand how surgeons would repair his bulging aortic root with a tube-shaped Dacron graft and sew his leaking aortic valve back together. But it was too much.
“Being told you need heart surgery, everything flashes before you,” said Green. “I was young, four years in the NBA. My first thought was, ‘Everything is over with. The thing I love to do most is being taken away from me so fast.’ I just sat there with my shirt over my face and started crying.”
From there, it was a whirlwind of doctors’ appointments and tests, of talking with people who knew what he would go through. Six current or former NBA players have undergone heart surgery for aortic aneurysms during their careers, including Celtics teammate Chris Wilcox.
“We’re scar buddies,” said Green.
Aortic aneurysms in the chest are diagnosed in roughly 10,000 people each year, with the asymptomatic condition appearing more frequently in taller people. The problem often goes undetected until the aneurysm bursts. Once it bursts, there is a 40 percent likelihood of immediate death. If patients make it to the operating table after it bursts, they still have a 5 to 25 percent risk of dying during surgery.
Green was extremely lucky. His preseason physical led to the discovery of the aneurysm, which was growing at an alarming rate. Said Dr. Lars Svensson, who performed Green’s heart surgery at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, “One could say it was providence that we operated on Jeff as early as we did...”
By the time Green arrived in Cleveland for surgery, he had recovered from the initial shock of the diagnosis. Still, the night before the operation, he could not sleep. He played video games with his best friend, Willie Jennings.
“He was so upbeat and I wasn’t going to let him be sad,” said Jennings. He took a picture of Green holding two thumbs up before hospital staff wheeled him into the operating room.
Green’s surgery took 5 hours and 26 minutes, with his heart stopped for 1 hour and 35 minutes. During that time, Svensson essentially wrapped the faulty aortic root and valve in a Dacron tube and reimplanted them. In consideration of Green’s NBA career, Svensson said he used a wider tube — 34 millimeters as opposed to 30 millimeters — “because of the extreme amount of stress Jeff puts on his valve and his heart.” The surgeon wanted to make sure “there would be no compromise at all on his ability to pump blood out of his heart and to all of his body.”
The results, he said, “are very good, with patients enjoying a normal life expectancy.”
Green left the Cleveland Clinic believing he would enjoy a normal NBA career, too, though in mid-January it seemed an impossibly long road back to the Celtics.
One week after surgery, Green went to the mall with his college roommate and lasted 15 minutes before he was overcome by fatigue. The surgery had robbed the 6-foot-9-inch, once 235-pound Green of his appetite. He was weeks away from resuming exercise. He was months away from picking up a basketball. Green kept telling himself, “Everything is going to be all right,” a mantra he repeats to this day.
In March, he returned to the Boston area and started rehabilitation, biking for 15 minutes and walking on the treadmill for 15 minutes.
“There was no better feeling in the world than to be able to do that,” said Green.
Soon enough, he was running on the treadmill. In May, he started working on his game, regaining his shooting rhythm. Green was ready for competition by July, and headed to his alma mater, Georgetown University, for a pickup game against college players and overseas professionals home for the summer.
At Georgetown, Green was the Big East Rookie of the Year in 2005 and Player of the Year in 2007. He declared for the NBA draft after his junior season, in 2007.
When Green returned to Georgetown for his first post-surgery pickup basketball game, he wanted opponents to treat him the same way they always had. He needed a hard, honest test on the court. He told the players, “If I go to the lane, I want you to hit me.” The first time Green got the ball, he drove to the basket and an opposing player hit him squarely in the chest, right on top of his scar. Instinctively, Green looked up and watched the ball fall through the net.
“I saw that and I was like, ‘I didn’t feel anything,’ ” said Green. He said to himself, “You’re fine.’’
To protect his chest, Green wears a customized lightweight vest, but he is past the biggest mental and physical hurdles. The chest discomfort he experienced early in rehab is gone, though his doctors caution that he will not feel completely normal until 18 months after the surgery. Green will undergo annual echocardiograms to check his heart function, but he does not need special monitoring beyond that.
“Watching him work out for about a month before the season, I knew he was going to be fine,” said Rivers. “Knowing he was going to be a player, that came in training camp and exhibition season. . . . I thought he would be tentative, scared of contact, and he was none of that. I don’t even think about the heart surgery anymore.”
But Green still thinks about it, especially when he looks at his scar. It reminds him to take nothing for granted.
“Before the surgery, my whole focus was basketball,” said Green. “With the snap of a finger, it was taken away from me. The surgery allowed me to sit back and think that basketball is not going to be there forever.”