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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Basketball lifer faces his mortality

He has always been an imposing figure on the bench, towering and vocal and demanding. That is by design. Leo Papile's day job might be assistant executive director of basketball operations for the Boston Celtics, but his passion has long been to mold native city kids into collegiate scholarship athletes. The challenges that accompany that, as you can well imagine, tend to be daunting. He's got to be gruff, unbending, and, at times, a little intimidating.

That's why his Amateur Athletic Union players were so stunned when Papile, their basketball lifeline, lay sprawled on the floor of Celtics coach Doc Rivers's kitchen in Winter Park, Fla., last July, vomiting, convulsing, and, to hear them tell it, dying.

''We were having so much fun, then, in a blink of an eye, he's shaking all over the place and we're wondering if he's going to make it," said Newton North star Anthony Gurley.

''Leo is tough -- that's his style," said Chris Driscoll, the general manager of Papile's Boston Amateur Basketball Club team, one of the top AAU programs in the country. ''For the kids to see him that helpless, it really shook them up."

They weren't the only ones. Rivers, whose son, Jeremiah, played for Papile last summer, had invited the team to his home for a barbecue following the Nike Super Showcase tournament in Orlando. It was a sticky summer day and Papile was lounging in the kitchen, sipping a glass of wine, when he turned to Driscoll and said, ''I don't feel right. I'm think I'm about to go."

''I thought he meant he was going to leave," said Driscoll. ''Next thing I know, he's going down."

Driscoll's quick thinking prevented Papile, 51, from splitting his head open on the tile floor. It was immediately apparent he was having a seizure, so Doc instructed his wife to call 911, then bolted out of the house and ran two doors down to enlist the help of a neighbor who is a doctor.

''He wasn't home," Rivers said. ''I tell you, we were in a panic. Leo passed out four times. He'd come to for a minute, then his eyes would roll back in his head. Each seizure was worse than the last one.

''By the time he went down the fourth time, the paramedics were there. They had just hooked up a heart monitor to his chest. When he went out, that line went flat.

''I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, he's going to die right here in my house.' "

He didn't. The Celtics tapped off last night against the Memphis Grizzlies, and Papile, looking tanned, trim, and fit, sat in his customary spot in Rivers's office in the locker room, watching the game. He has been given a clean bill of health, and therefore was willing to discuss in detail for the first time what happened that day.

The diagnosis, after a battery of tests involving his brain, heart, and kidneys, may surprise you: dehydration.

''He was dehydrated, a little exhausted, and it caused an electrolyte imbalance in his body," explained Celtics team physician Brian McKeon. ''That lowered his threshold for a seizure."

Papile, in fact, remembers feeling lightheaded the day before his episode, shortly before his team played its first game. He went into the bathroom, splashed water on his face, and pushed on. By the next day, when he and his team were visiting the Rivers family, he felt slightly nauseous, and again, lightheaded. He only drank half a glass of wine before he went down.

''It was a weird feeling," Papile said. ''I was fighting to stay awake. I felt like I used to feel when I was a kid and I was going to Mass in the morning."

The first time he lost consciousness, Papile woke up and asked, ''Am I alive?" Driscoll, Rivers, and BABC team assistant Reggie Saladin helped him to a couch, where he vomited, then suffered a second seizure. Saladin and Driscoll steadied his head and kept his jaw open to prevent him from choking on his tongue. When he came to after the third seizure, he vomited, then asked for some water. Saladin, who had worked with handicapped children and had some experience with seizures, knew enough not to give him any water to avoid choking.

As the adults feverishly administered to Papile, the players were momentarily forgotten. At one point, Rivers looked up and saw them gathered in a semicircle, their faces ashen.

''The kids were in shock," Rivers said. ''There was this eerie silence. My wife got them all out of there."

Papile was transported by ambulance to Winter Park Hospital. He underwent an electrocardiogram, a brain scan, and numerous other tests to pinpoint what triggered the seizures. When Papile was released after two nights, those tests continued back in Boston, under the watchful eye of the Celtics' physicians and a team of specialists at New England Baptist Hospital and later Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

In August, he wore a helmet with a computer attached to monitor his brain waves. He wore a round-the-clock heart monitor, with an eye on detecting an arrhythmia.

All of his tests were normal.

''When they first called me from Florida, I was thinking heart attack," McKeon said. ''When those initial tests came back negative, I was thinking, 'Really?' So we started to look into other things."

The final determination -- dehydration -- is what happens when you don't sleep much, swim in the hotel pool without rehydrating, go to the steam room and fail to rehydrate again, all on multiple days that exceeded 100 degrees. Throw in the stress of coaching and keeping track of a group of teenagers hundreds of miles from home, as well as the possibility that he mistakenly took a double dose of his daily medication, and the diagnosis became a logical conclusion.

''I'm lucky," Papile said. ''I don't need a reminder of how fragile life is, but I got one anyway. I almost died that day."

McKeon said dehydration is one of those things that is so easy to take care of, yet often so easily neglected.

''There are a number of cases every year where football players at the college and pro level die from it," McKeon said. ''If you are in a situation where you suffer severe dehydration on the court or on the field, it's too late. And this is not isolated to elite athletes. It can happen to anyone."

Papile knows how fortunate he was. He pales when he thinks back to the fact that he was driving three kids in his car just hours before his seizure.

He's grateful for the outpouring of emotional support he received from his players, normally taciturn kids who are far too cool to show someone they care. Leo may be intimidating and demanding, but he's always had their back.

''I remember Jeremiah talking to me about it a week or so after it happened," Rivers said. ''He said, 'Dad, I feel so awful about Leo. Do you think we made him sick? You know, we played really horrible the other night.' I told him, 'No, Jeremiah, it wasn't you.' But that's how kids think."

Papile has taken his health scare to heart, and knew it was necessary to get in better shape. He is working out regularly and swam a mile every day at Nantasket Beach until the weather turned. He's dropped in excess of 30 pounds and, aside from a bum knee, has never felt better.

''I'm not a fat, old guy anymore," he cracked. ''Tell people the reports of my demise have been exaggerated. The AAU community can be a cutthroat place. I had other coaches trying to recruit my kids by telling them I had some kind of mysterious illness."

No mystery here. Just a basketball lifer who plans on sticking around for the long haul.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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