Jason Collier may be the least celebrated of all SI's nominees for Sportsman of the Year, but the cause for his nomination is the most noble. His death must be recognized so that others may be saved.
Collier was 28 when he died of cardiac arrest on Oct. 15. His wife, Katie, said he was "an angel sent to touch my life." The couple had a 1-year-old daughter, Elezan.
Collier was a backup center for the Atlanta Hawks who appeared to be in exceptional physical shape at 7-feet and 260 pounds. He had no idea that his heart was 50 percent larger than it should have been, which was cited as a cause of sudden heart rhythm disturbance by the Georgia chief medical examiner Dr. Kris Sperry. "We have the unfortunate advantage of taking the heart out and weighing it,'' the coroner said.
I spoke to an NBA general manager who was personally shaken by Collier's death. He was disappointed that the coroner's statement raised more questions than answers. "Isn't the heart a muscle that gets bigger the more you exercise it?'' the GM said. "If you measure all of the players' hearts, you're going to find that a lot of them are enlarged based on what these guys put themselves through every day running up and down the court.''
This is why commissioner David Stern and players union chief Billy Hunter need to work together, in coordination with the best medical advice, to decide how to thoroughly investigate the health of NBA players. The technologies of medical testing and the ethical issues they raise are in constant flux, and as such they must be addressed in a thorough and serious way.
To honor Collier is to learn from his death, to save others from the same fate, to convert grief into hope. When I think of the money and hours that routinely go into discovering the truth about a player's vertical leap, his criminal background, the style of clothing he should be wearing on the team bench, the millionaire salary bracket to which he is entitled -- altogether it is less important than finding a way to rescue current and future players from the path of Hank Gathers, Reggie Lewis and now Jason Collier.
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Sports Illustrated will announce the 2005 Sportsman of the Year winner on Friday, Dec. 9 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. Check back every weekday until then to read more Sportsman picks from SI writers.