- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
A LOT OF HEART
First, Joe Rhett just wanted to live. Then he wanted to play basketball again. Then he wanted to play well. Each wish has come true as Rhett's comeback story has become more and more amazing.
Rhett, a 6'8" junior forward at South Carolina, had a pacemaker installed in his chest last Feb. 22 to stimulate his irregular heartbeat, which would stop at times for up to seven seconds. Many people, including Rhett, at first thought his basketball career might be over because of the heart condition, but he has returned to the Gamecocks this season, and he's playing better than ever.
He made the all-tournament team two weeks ago at the Great Alaska Shootout, where he was the top rebounder, then topped himself last weekend as South Carolina beat North Carolina 76-74 and Houston 74-70 to win the Tournament of Champions, in Charlotte. Rhett had 15 points and six rebounds against the Heels in the first meeting between the teams in 18 years. For Gamecock fans, beating North Carolina was cause enough for rejoicing. But Rhett followed that with 21 points and 12 boards against Houston and was named the tournament MVP. Last weekend, after five games, he had averaged 14.2 points and 9.4 boards, a significant improvement on the 11.0 points and 7.9 rebounds he averaged in 22 games last season before his heart condition forced him to the bench.
"It's pretty hard to believe," he said. "I was hoping that eventually I'd get back to where I used to be, but I didn't know how long it would take. I'm just grateful."
Rhett first became aware of his problem when he nearly blacked out in a Louisville hotel room during a road trip. He became nauseated and his body grew numb. "I thought I was having a heart attack," he said. "I couldn't move anything, and that really scared me. Then my heart started racing, and I couldn't move. I was really sweating."
Less than two weeks after the pacemaker was installed, Loyola Marymount's Hank Gathers, who suffered from cardiomyopathy, collapsed while playing and died. Rhett was moved to tears. "It made me see how easily it could happen, how one minute you could be playing and the next.... I used to lie awake at night wondering if I could play again, if I should play again."
Doctors eventually told Rhett that playing wouldn't put him at any increased risk. He takes no medication and says he can't feel the half-dollar-sized pacemaker, which is located near his collarbone and keeps his heart rate from falling below 40 beats a minute. But he doesn't deny thinking about the pacemaker.
"I never think about it when I'm playing, but sometimes when I'm sitting alone in my room, I wonder what will happen if I get an elbow there or something," he said. "But three doctors have told me I'm fine, and I feel fine."
Even Rhett has trouble explaining why he's playing better than he did before the pacemaker was implanted. "Maybe it's because I know that people are watching me, not wanting something to happen to me but curious to see if it will," he says. "I guess I'm just trying extra hard to prove to them that I'm fine."