Earlier in the week, an announcement from the Miami Heat ended Chris Bosh’s season for the same reason as last year. Blood clots in Bosh’s lungs have cut the year short, but concerns are circulating about his ability to continue his career and even whether there is a serious threat to his life.
This news comes at the end of a year during which numerous sporting careers have been ended by conditions not normally associated with elite athletes. Cricketer James Taylor’s promising young career was cut short by a serious heart condition. Boxer Nick Blackwell slipped into a coma following his fight with Chris Eubank Jr and will never fight again. NFL stars Patrick Willis and Chris Borland retired from the sport concerned about the mental damage they were suffering, both giving up incredibly lucrative contracts in doing so. What these cases remind us is that athletes competing at the very top level of their respective sports are more vulnerable then we care to admit.
Ours is a society that has always celebrated physical and sporting excellence. Men and women are idolised and made wealthy beyond their wildest dreams as a result of their physical skill and endurance. It is easy for us as spectators to forget that these people, who play out our hopes and frustrations in the arena, are human just like you and me. Athletes are put on such a pedestal by those who adore and follow them that it is shocking when we are reminded of their humanity and mortality. It is assumed that the things that kill and trouble us; heart attacks, strokes and mental health issues can’t affect these superstars. Surely they are too strong, too quick and too mentally strong to be affected by such trivialities. This year has reminded us that they are just as vulnerable.
This issue is particularly pertinent in basketball. Not just because of Chris Bosh’s condition but also due health issues suffered by the games stars of old, in particular the 7 footers. Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Larry Bird have both had heart surgery and greats such as Moses Malone have been tragically killed by heart attacks. There is a theory that the pressure that being 7 foot tall puts on the heart combined with the rigours of NBA basketball is simply too much for the human body to take.
The NBA is changing. The era of the lumbering 7 footer is over, big men are now expected to run the floor and keep up with the ever increasing pace of the game. The question is are these increasingly athletic big men, such as Hassan Whiteside and DeAndre Jordan, putting their health and even their lives at risk to keep up with a league that is shrinking. The NBA has introduced screening measures in an attempt to identify those at risk before it is too late. These measures will hopefully prevent any tragic consequences, such as the death of college star Hank Gathers who collapsed on court in 1990.
The big guy in the middle is a huge part of the appeal of NBA basketball and there will always be a place for a skilled big man in the NBA. However, is the 7 footer becoming an increasingly endangered species? The league is becoming smaller, quicker and with more of an emphasis on those who can shoot with range, add to this fears that the increased athleticism expected of them is putting their hearts under too much strain and you wonder how much longer the 7 footer will feature prominently in the league.
We all hope to see Chris Bosh back to his dominant best next season. However, it is up to the NBA to put the safety of their players first, to remember they are not all as invincible as we would all like to believe.