As the Boston Celtics began to sink into mediocrity in the late 1980s, the press was full of stories about Kevin McHale's feet and ankles and Larry Bird's heel and back and, later, the tragic death of Reggie Lewis from heart failure. It turns out that another significant medical story involving those Celtics never became public: Bird, now coach of the Indiana Pacers, was—and still is—plagued by an irregular heartbeat. The condition, called atrial fibrillation, bothered him frequently during off-season workouts in hot weather, and in 1998 it almost caused him to pass out on the sideline during a tense late-season game against the Chicago Bulls. Bird reveals all this in Bird Watching: On Playing and Coaching the Game I Love, a book written with SI senior writer Jackie MacMullan that is scheduled to be released on Sept. 15.
"I always knew there was something funny about my heart," Bird writes. Occasionally during off-season workouts when he was a player, he would feel sudden exhaustion and his heart would start "jumping around." Bird wasn't sure what it was, but he would take a long nap and the feeling would pass. What he calls his "episodes"—his resting heart rate would double, to 104 beats per minute, resulting in light-headedness, disorientation and profuse sweating—apparently didn't occur during the regular season, and he never told Celtics doctors about them. That sounds incredible, particularly given the M*A*S*H atmosphere in which the Celts were playing in those days, but that was Bird, always intensely private.
The arrhythmia was discovered after his playing days, while he was working in the Boston front office. The episodes began occurring more frequently, and that compelled Bird to tell team physician Arnie Scheller about his heart. Scheller arranged for tests at New England Baptist Hospital, and Bird had a name for his condition. Atrial fibrillation generally isn't life-threatening, and it's not nearly as serious as ventricular fibrillation, which doctors believe is what Lewis experienced when he died while shooting baskets. Nor is atrial fibrillation as serious as the so-called thick heart condition that contributed to the death of Loyola Marymount's Hank Gathers in '90. Roger Blumenthal, director of preventive cardiology at Johns Hopkins Hospital, describes atrial fibrillation as "generally benign" but notes that it may have long-term consequences. "People with atrial fibrillation are more likely to experience enlargement of the heart, which can lead to blood clots and stroke," he says. About two million Americans have the condition, and more than a quarter of those over 65 with atrial fibrillation will suffer strokes.
After his condition was diagnosed, Bird was told to exercise, eat and drink alcohol only in moderation and was put on medication. Still, his condition worsened in the spring of 1997, about the time he started talking to the Pacers about becoming their coach. "I got a little scared, because it didn't seem like it was going away," writes Bird. At one point Indiana team cardiologist King Yee, who had gotten involved after Bird had tests at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, used defibrillator paddles to jolt Bird's heart back to its normal rhythm.
Yee warned Bird to take particular caution in hot weather and at high altitudes. Sure enough, Bird suffered an attack during a road trip to Denver early in the 1997-98 season. Bird admitted to Yee that he had forgotten to take his medication, which included blood thinners, and thereafter Pacers trainer David Craig was appointed to remind Bird about his medicine. Bird writes that he was fine until the Bulls came to town on March 17, 1998. At one point during the game, Bird's heart began fluttering and he started sweating profusely. "I was standing on the sideline and hoping for a television timeout, because I felt like I was gonna pass out," he writes. "Finally, the ref whistled time. Whenever we have a timeout, they always put a chair on the court for me so I can sit down and talk to the guys. This time I fell into that chair, because I was going out." The feeling passed by the end of the game, which Indiana lost 90-84.
The episode against the Bulls led to sterner lectures from Yee about taking the condition seriously. "I guess Dr. Yee was trying to scare me," writes Bird. "I'm not going to be stupid about this heart condition, but I'm not going to live my whole life in fear of this thing either. If it goes, it goes." That sounds like Bird. But let's hope that he has learned a few lessons and that Yee won't have to repeat something he told Bird after he forgot to take his medication in Denver: "You know, Larry, you're not the most compliant guy in the world."