Comeback Chris: Wilcox battles back from heart surgery

Comeback Chris: Wilcox battles back from heart surgery
March 5, 2013, 12:15 am
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The silence was deafening as Chris Wilcox waited to hear word on his future.

Day after day, he sat in his North Carolina home wondering where -- and if -- he would be playing basketball this season.

The scar that ran down his chest served as a constant reminder of the hurdles he had to overcome to earn another roster spot. Yet when he looked in the mirror, he didn't recognize a heart surgery patient. He saw an NBA player who wanted to … needed to … get back on the court.

Wilcox pushed himself. Without a contract or any certainty of his career, he didn't think he had any other choice. Besides, he had been given a new lease on life and he couldn't imagine it without the NBA.

* * *

It has been almost a year since Wilcox heard the words that turned his world upside down.

Then 29 years old, he was eagerly thinking about his first playoff run. The possibility of retirement seemed years away. But during a routine doctor's visit he received earth-shattering news: He had an enlarged aorta and required a season-ending heart operation.

Within seconds, everything Wilcox had been planning for was in question. Overwhelming thoughts of uncertainty swarmed through his mind creating a haze of anxiousness, doubt, and an overwhelming sense of pressure.

Would he be able to play again? How long would his recovery last? When could he return to the court? Who would offer him a deal? What if he didn't play in the NBA this season? How could he provide for his family?

Wilcox was on a one-year contract with the Celtics. Once he had the operation, his season and place on a team would be over. He underwent surgery on March 29, 2012 at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. It wasn't long after that he began looking ahead to the upcoming season, one that he knew he wanted to be part of in the NBA.

Wilcox joined the Celtics as soon as he was cleared for travel during their playoff run. He attended home games, visited the team in the locker room, and sat courtside with Jeff Green, who also had gone through heart surgery. When the C's were on the road, he watched the games while working on his cardio. The difference between his conditioning and that of the players sprinting up and down the court was glaring.

"I would do walking on the treadmill when we would play on the TV," he said. "I'd see if I could get my wind up, but it wasn't happening for me."

Refusing to be held back, Wilcox pushed on. He heard rumblings of cynicism and was determined to quiet the naysayers. While many were projecting he would be ready to return in November or December, Wilcox didn't think he could wait that long. By that time the season would be underway, and he wanted to be ready for training camp.

"It's crazy because I had surgery the end of March, almost like the first of April," he said. "When I got out of the hospital it was April 3 or something like that. April, May, June, July, I had to start back working out four months after my surgery when I wasn't supposed to do anything until probably like six months. So I'm back working out running and I'm not even supposed to."

He continued, "[The doctors didn't really know what I was doing], but I had to do what I had to do to get back on the court. Nobody knew. The doctor was just like, 'Man, things are coming around so much quicker for you' because I was like, 'I've got to get out of (rehab).'"

Wilcox tested his limits. At times his mental strength outlasted his physical endurance.

"One time I was working out and I get home and I'm sitting down in the bed and I'm like, damn, I'm hurting, I'm hurting, I'm hurting," he recalled. "I went to the hospital and they told me I had to calm down, chill out, I was doing too much. I had built fluid up around my heart. I had fluid pockets around my heart and my lungs from being out in the weather probably when I wasn't supposed to, working out, just different things. That was probably two and a half months, three months after the surgery. I had to get on a breathing [mechanism] and I had to take medicine to get the fluid pockets down. It's been tough, you know?"

As Wilcox continued his recovery, he asked his agent about potential suitors. He understood he had a ways to go, but firmly believed he could rehab ahead of schedule.

"(My agent) said, 'It's tough right now because nobody knows if you're going to be back in time. November, December, that's what everyone is saying about you being back,'" Wilcox recounted. "I was like, 'I've got to get back out there.'"

Last season Wilcox had gelled with Rajon Rondo on the court and proved to be a big man who could run in transition. He also had a tight-knit group of teammates away from the game, which included Rondo, Kevin Garnett, and then-Celtics Marquis Daniels and Keyon Dooling. Wilcox wanted to return to Boston. He couldn't help but wonder if the Celtics would feel the same way.

"I think my lowest moment was when I was home in recovery, not knowing if I was going to play again," he said. "I was knowing Jeff (Green) was back playing, but I knew everyone's situation is different. I was like, 'Jeff is young so they might take a chance with (him) and look at me as being the older guy, no chance at all."

Facing the possibility of life outside of the NBA, Wilcox explored options to support his family through avenues other than basketball. He focused on his business ventures and investments to assure financial stability. He also became more involved in the American Heart Association as a way to reach out to others.

"It definitely helped me out a lot (to plan for my future)," said Wilcox, now 30. "It's a reality check. What do I have to do to make things happen at home? … You put it all in perspective. What do I want to do and where am I at?"

Wilcox received a call shortly after free agency began that answered that question for him. The Celtics offered him another contract and he re-signed with the team in mid-July.

“It was very difficult when we lost Chris last season due to his heart ailment,” Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge said in a team statement announcing the deal. “In bringing Chris back to the team, we are gaining a very versatile guy who is capable of banging down low in the paint and is able to run out on the break as well.”

Securing a roster spot was only half the battle. With his contract situation settled, Wilcox still battled with physical hurdles. He had little appetite due to stress leading up to the surgery and struggled to maintain one post-operation because of his medications. He dropped from a mid-season weight of 250 pounds to 227 pounds following his surgery.

Wilcox suffered a back injury during training camp that prevented him from going through weight training he hoped would increase his muscle mass. The big man who was lifting 315 pounds last season was limited to 135 pounds to stay toned.

"(Going into training camp) I was probably like 70-percent overall," said Wilcox. "Everything was OK with my heart, but I couldn't lift weights until the beginning of November."

Wilcox was a DNP (coach's decision) on Opening Night in Miami and made his 2012-13 season debut in the Celtics first home game on November 2. Less than two months later, he was sidelined by an ulnar collateral sprain in his right thumb. He missed 12 games during December and January.

Heart surgery, a back injury, a sprained thumb -- Wilcox has been tested more in one year than some players are their entire careers.

This season has been a transition for Wilcox. While he returned to the same team and already knew the system, he was physically a different player than he was before. As he works to get back to pre-surgery version of himself, he has struggled with consistency. Wilcox is averaging 4.4 points and 2.7 rebounds in 13.0 minutes per game, down from 5.4 points, 4.4 boards and 17.2 minutes last season. His desire to win, though, has not lessened.

During the recent trade deadline Wilcox was involved in talks as a piece in the Celtics deal with the Washington Wizards to acquire Jordan Crawford. Wilcox, though, did not waive his Bird rights and the C's moved Jason Collins instead. Wilcox said his agent communicated with the Celtics while he focused on his desire to stay in Boston.

"It's a place where I wanted to be," he said. "Danny gave me a second chance to get back out on the court, period, so I just wanted to play here and show them that I appreciate everything they did to help me get back."

In order to further help the team, Wilcox approached head coach Doc Rivers to discuss his role. Without Collins, he was Kevin Garnett's backup center.

"I just wanted to know what he needed from me," said Wilcox. "We had a conversation, he told me they need me to go out, play hard, be aggressive, bring energy every night. That's what I've been trying to do these last couple of games."

Wilcox is averaging 6.5 points and 4.5 rebounds in 20.3 minutes in the four games since the trade deadline. On Friday, he posted eight points and seven rebounds during 22 minutes in the Celtics win over the Golden State Warriors. Following the game, Rivers noted Wilcox's recent performances.

"Since we made the trade, I think Chris has been pretty good," he said. "He’s playing with great effort, he’s running the floor, setting picks. He’s been good for us.”

Wilcox strives to be good for the Celtics because they have been good for him. He appreciates that they gave him another chance when he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. He also considers the first time he saw his jersey hanging in his locker to be the high point of his recovery -- "It's real now. For everyone who had doubted you, I'm here now," he beamed.

Now as Wilcox once again eyes his first playoff berth, the pain, hustle, and obstacles he experienced over the past year are worth it. When he thinks back to the days when he pushed himself to the limit -- and sometimes far beyond -- he would not have approached his comeback any differently.  

"Nothing," he said of changes he would have made. "It's a grind and I knew this is what I wanted. If this is what I wanted, I knew I had to work for it. I had to do whatever it took to get back out here."