NBA’s ‘Zipper Brothers’ Overcome Heart Ailments
Minneapolis — Three years ago, Jeff Green joined one of the most exclusive clubs in the NBA. He didn’t ask to be a part of it. Didn’t even know it existed until a doctor told him that he had an aortic aneurysm and his career with the Boston Celtics was in jeopardy.
Open-heart surgery was looming and Green never felt more alone, more uncertain. That’s when the calls, the text messages, the overtures started coming. First from Fred Hoiberg and Etan Thomas, then from Ronny Turiaf.
They offered advice. They offered encouragement. They had all been there before. And just like that, Green wasn’t alone. But as he quickly found out, it was so much more than a club.
Hoiberg calls them the “Zipper Brothers” — a small and tight-knit group of players who have overcome serious heart ailments to continue playing at the highest level of a game that tests an athlete’s heart as much as any does. Hoiberg cut his NBA career short after having open-heart surgery — and getting the zipper-like scar on his chest that birthed the nickname — to address an enlarged aortic root in 2005. Thomas and Chris Wilcox were able to play after their own surgeries and Turiaf, Green and Phoenix Suns forward Channing Frye all missed a year while recovering but are still playing to this day. Chuck Hayes never needed surgery, but a heart abnormality found during a routine screening in 2011 did require significant testing before he was cleared to continue playing with Toronto.
“It’s definitely a brotherhood,” Turiaf said. “It’s something that’s hard to put into words. We don’t have to talk all the time. But when those instances happen, we talked, each and every one of us, some way, somehow, was linked with the other. And whenever we see each other, it’s like, we made it.”
Unlike torn knee ligaments, blown Achilles tendons or dislocated shoulders, heart defects carry with them a much more frightening outlook. Boston’s Reggie Lewis, Loyola Marymount star Hank Gathers and Atlanta Hawks center Jason Collier are among the players who have died during their playing careers from heart problems.
So when the diagnosis comes, so do the Zipper Brothers. Hoiberg, who now coaches Iowa State, was there for Turiaf. Turiaf was there for Green. Green was there for Frye. And Frye will be there for the next one.
“The surgery that we had is rare and there’s only a few guys that have had it,” Green said. “We formed a bond that if we can help in any kind of way to help another fellow player or person that’s having the surgery get through it, we’re going to do it because it’s rare that you really hear about an athlete having to go through something like this.”
And as important as the encouragement is for every player faced with the grim realities of his situation, what stuck with Green even more was the blunt perspective Turiaf and Thomas offered about the hard road ahead.
“It wasn’t all you’re going to be great, you’re going to be great, you’re going to be great,” Green said. “They told me you’re going to have pain, you’re going to go through this. But the one thing you need to do is be positive to try to take your mind off it. They really eased my mind through the whole process, but I still had to go through it and that was something I had to go through. I think that happened to each one of us.”
None of the active players really knew each other all that well before their heart issues were revealed. Now they seek each other out when their teams play each other regularly and swap texts.
“This whole league is a fraternity, but when you know somebody has gone through the same situation you have, you reach out to them, you ask them about their condition,” Hayes said. “You ask them how they’re doing. My situation wasn’t as extreme, God bless, as Ronny’s and Channing’s and Jeff Green’s. So I didn’t get the full effect of what they went through. But when my situation first came up, they were the first ones that came through and sent their condolences.”
Two years removed from his surgery, Green has been one of the few bright spots in a tough season for the Celtics, averaging a career-high 17.0 points while Hayes has given the Raptors some veteran, defensive toughness off the bench. Turiaf has been in and out of the lineup with various nagging injuries for the Timberwolves, but given the one he’s already overcome, the smile rarely leaves his face.
“I take pride in having that as a legacy to help others going through a situation that I know is probably the worst situation that I had to go through as a professional athlete and as a man,” said Turiaf, who wears No. 32 with the Timberwolves in honor of Hoiberg. “So it’s definitely something that I wished never happened because it’s kind of difficult to deal with. But it happened to good people that just want to give back to others. The earth is becoming a better place by trying to help the other.”
Together, they have laid down a blueprint that they hope no one else ever has to follow. Every day they pray that their group doesn’t get any bigger. But if does have to grow, they’ll be there to welcome the next member just as they were welcomed.
“I think we take it to another level when it comes to pride of coming back from an injury,” Green said. “This is heart surgery. All injuries are bad, whether it’s an ankle or an ACL tear or anything. But to come back and have that pride in saying I had heart surgery and I came back and I continue to do what I love, it’s big. We take pride in that. We enjoy the fact that we have battled and fought back and got back to the level of playing that we are capable of playing at.”