Allan Chaney gets another chance to play the game he loves
By By Connor Letourneau
The Baltimore Sun|
Aug 18, 2012 | 6:58 PM
Standing in the living room of his mother's Belair-Edison home late one summer evening, Allan Chaney raised his plain white T-shirt below his collarbone. He had just been asked to show his chest, to reveal the remnants of a more than two-year ordeal that threatened his life — let alone the once-prized recruit's basketball career.
Directly over his sternum lies a 3-inch scar, a byproduct of last March's surgery to remove abnormal tissue surrounding his heart.
But the scar tells only part of Chaney's story.
"At the time I got this, I felt like I was the king of the world," said Chaney, pointing to a circular image — half basketball, half globe — with a crown adorning it.
The tattoo, which the scar partially obstructs, was done in 2010 — the year NCAA regulations required Chaney to sit out after leaving Florida for a fresh start at Virginia Tech. At the time, he seemed fated for the riches of the NBA. He was set to become an unquestioned leader, a go-to player on one of the Atlantic Coast Conference's top teams.
Chaney collapsed during an offseason workout in April 2010. He figured he was just dehydrated, but doctors soon determined he had a severe case of viral myocarditis, a potentially fatal infection of the heart that causes inflammation.
The setbacks began to mount: Specialists told him he would never be cleared to play again, Virginia Tech said he'd never be allowed to practice or compete as a Hokie, and acquaintances encouraged him to give up on his dream all together.
In May, a University of Pennsylvania cardiologist gave Chaney a second chance. He granted the 6-foot-9 forward medical clearance to resume his basketball career.
Now, the young man who felt like the king of the world in 2010 is ready to help set a precedent in 2012. He committed to High Point University earlier this month, and school doctors have cleared him to join its men's basketball team. He will become the only Division I basketball player next season to compete with a defibrillator in his chest.
"If I was a bum and I knew I couldn't hoop, I'd pack it up easy. I'd get into coaching or something like that," Chaney said in June. "But I feel like I'm good enough to play, especially in college. And I feel like I'm good enough to play at the next level, so I can't short myself."
'It was a wrap'
Chaney had just finished one of his best workouts since transferring to Virginia Tech. He estimated he hit 14 of 15 attempts during a shooting drill before stepping to the free-throw line.
But all of a sudden, he couldn't catch his breath. He was just out of shape, he thought. After all, he had sat out that year after leaving Florida.
And then he realized something was seriously wrong. Unable to breathe, he walked over to the sideline and took a seat. A team manager asked whether he wanted some water, and Chaney's last memory is answering, "Yeah." Chaney then fell out of the chair with the ball in his hand, lying on the floor in a fetal position.
A trainer administered CPR for about 30 seconds before Chaney regained consciousness.
"That probably was one of the scariest days of my life," said Malcolm Delaney, Chaney's childhood friend and former Hokies teammate. "I still didn't know what the situation was. I just thought he was maybe dehydrated or had like a light seizure or something."
The diagnosis was worse than anyone could've imagined. After a day of cardiac tests at a Blacksburg, Va., hospital, Chaney learned he had viral myocarditis. He had passed out from what specialists call a "cardiac episode," a result of the severe strain his condition had put on his heart.
Desperate for answers, Chaney visited a renowned heart specialist at the University of Virginia who said he needed an ablation procedure to remove scar tissue and prevent future inflammation. The ablation, which specifically aimed to reroute the electricity around the scar, was unsuccessful in lowering his risk of having an irregular heartbeat.
Of course, that didn't make it any easier to stay off the court. While home during the summer of 2010, Chaney played in a pickup game at a Baltimore YMCA and passed out again. A week later, he met with Dr. Mark Estes, a prominent cardiologist based out of Boston. Estes gave Chaney the opinion he had long dreaded: No doctor would ever be able to clear him to play basketball again.
Sitting in Estes' office, Chaney struggled to hold back tears. Just a few months earlier, he seemed destined for the NBA draft lottery. Now, he was grappling with the reality that his career could be over before it ever truly began.
"Basically he was telling me it was a wrap," Chaney said. "So, yeah, of course, I cried a little."
But after talking it over with his father, he decided he wasn't ready to give up.
After all, he had done his research. He was familiar with the stories of Reggie Lewis and Hank Gathers — basketball stars whose lives were cut short by heart conditions. He knew they didn't take the necessary steps to recover from their conditions before returning to the court, and he felt confident he could resume his career if he just gave himself the necessary time to heal. He would simply talk with other doctors to see if anyone shared his sentiment.
"We knew that his condition was serious," said Allan's father, Arthur Chaney, a Philadelphia firefighter. "But I don't think any of us resigned ourselves to a realization that he would never play again."
Moments after walking into Dr. Francis Marchlinski's Philadelphia-area office for the first time in the fall of 2010, Chaney received the most positive news he had heard since collapsing in practice six months earlier.
Marchlinski, a University of Pennsylvania cardiologist who specializes in electrophysiology, had already looked over his medical records and told Chaney he could get him playing competitively. He mentioned a new wireless defibrillator, one that would be less likely to break or malfunction during extreme physical activity.
The only problem? It was a brand-new device and already had a two-year waiting list.
No matter. Marchlinski helped secure him a spot in a case study for the defibrillator — rapidly accelerating the process.
So last November, six months after Marchlinski performed a successful ablation procedure on Chaney, the doctor installed a backup defibrillator into the 22-year-old's chest. It offsets the possibility of irregular heartbeats and dramatically lowers the risk of another heart episode occurring.
However, because doctors were still able to induce irregular heartbeats when testing him under extreme conditions, Chaney underwent another surgical ablation procedure at Pennsylvania in March. Immediately after the surgery, Marchlinski stimulated Chaney's heart and "could not initiate any [irregular heartbeats]," Marchlinski wrote in a June news release.
After several more tests, Marchlinski granted Chaney medical clearance May 18 to resume his basketball career.
During the weeks after his clearance, Chaney trained daily with a high school friend. He played in pickup games at the Carmelo Anthony Youth Development Center, and said he held his own against the likes of Memphis Grizzlies guard Josh Selby and former St. John's star Marcus Hatten.
He then spent much of June in Blacksburg training with David Jackson, Virginia Tech's director of strength and conditioning. To the casual observer, the return trip might have seemed an odd decision.
After all, Virginia Tech's sports medicine department announced last August that it would never allow Chaney to practice or compete with the Hokies. Dr. Mark Rogers, the Hokies' team doctor, said earlier this summer that they don't typically re-evaluate such decisions.
"We wanted to make a decision in the best interest of Allan," Rogers said. "The last thing we would ever want is for another Hank Gathers-type situation to happen."
The issue over whether athletes with heart conditions should be permitted to play raises questions of medical ethics, free will and legal liability. Schools and doctors must consider the player's well-being, of course, but they also must consider their own.
And when the stakes are literally life or death, the typical response is to refuse participation. If an athlete can't play, after all, he can't die playing.
"The schools want to save themselves," said Will Kimble, an assistant men's basketball coach at Cathedral High School (Calif.). "It's easy just to say, 'You can't play.' It's a quick fix."
Kimble should know. After collapsing during practice at Pepperdine University in November 2002, he was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy — the same heart condition that killed Gathers during the West Coast Conference tournament in 1990.
He spoke with three doctors, all of whom told him he would never play basketball again.
But then he met Dr. David Cannom, the director of cardiology at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles. Cannom implanted a defibrillator — complete with cords and everything — into his left shoulder.
By all accounts, the procedure was a success. After Texas A&M and UCLA retracted scholarship offers because of liability concerns, Kimble latched on with Texas-El Paso. He averaged 4.7 points over 64 games in two seasons (2004-05 and 2005-06) with the Miners and experienced no cardiac episodes.
"I never even thought about [the defibrillator]," Kimble said. "I just went out and played my hardest every night. I took charges and whatnot, and it was never a problem."
To this day, Kimble is the only Division I men's basketball player to complete a full season with a defibrillator implanted in his body. Chaney could be the second.
But why is that? There have been tremendous advances in defibrillator technology the past decade. Why has no one replicated Kimble's success?
There have been opportunities. In 2006, former Vanderbilt forward Davis Nwankwo (Georgetown Prep) walked away from the sport after being resuscitated during practice. He got a defibrillator, but decided his condition was too severe to contemplate a return.
And just last year, New Mexico forward Emmanuel Negedu stopped playing after his internal defibrillator produced a reading that alarmed doctors. He had played in only 10 games for the Lobos after Tennessee declined to clear him.
"It all comes back to the individual," said Cannom, who Marchlinski consulted before implanting the defibrillator in Chaney's chest in November. "If a doctor feels comfortable enough to clear him to play and the player feels ready to do so, he should have that option. Because at the end of the day, it's their lives at risk in the first place."
And according to recent findings, that "risk" might not be as high as previously believed.
Starting in March 2006, Cannom helped lead a study investigating the safety of sports for athletes with internal defibrillators. The research tracked 372 athletes with internal defibrillators for a six-year span, checking in with them every six months.
The results were encouraging. While 9 percent of athletes received a defibrillator "shock" during competition, no serious adverse consequences were reported. Cannom said he hopes the data help change the way doctors view defibrillators, that physicians and schools become more willing to let athletes return from heart conditions.
"These defibrillators really work," Cannom said. "People may be wary of letting athletes play with defibrillators, but the results are very clear. It's safe."
High Point coach Scott Cherry first approached Chaney in June when a scholarship opened up late in the offseason. Although he had never seen Chaney play in person, he was familiar with his career and heard from a colleague he was available.
The school's doctors reviewed all of Chaney's medical records and agreed with Marchlinski's decision to clear him. Chaney, who chose the Panthers over about a half dozen other mid-major offers, is eligible to play next season since he graduated from Virginia Tech in June with a degree in apparel, housing and resource management. He will have one guaranteed year of eligibility and plans to apply for a medical redshirt to gain a second.
"We felt like the kid deserves a chance," Cherry said. "All he wanted was a chance to prove to everybody that he was healthy and could still play. And from everything we've read and everything the doctors and the cardiologists here have said, they don't see any reason why he couldn't."
Cherry added that he's confident Chaney still possesses the same talent that made him a top-75 recruit in the country in 2008, and that he believes he can earn All-Big South honors next season.
But right now, Chaney isn't too concerned with his potential. If the past two years have taught him anything, it's that nothing in life is guaranteed. He's just focused on completing what he affectionately calls "The Comeback," on making the most of a new beginning.
It's a philosophy Chaney shares every morning. Before he shoots a text or picks up a basketball, he writes the same message on his Twitter account: "Thank you Dear LORD for waking me up today!!!" It's a personal reminder of the importance of living each day to its fullest, of appreciating everything he is given.
"Just being a good person is what is important because you never know who you'll need along the way," Chaney said. "And in my situation, I'm going to need a lot of people. A lot of people. And right now, I have a lot of people, so I don't think there's no way I can fail, man."
Chaney still feels like the king of the world. Just maybe not for the same reasons he did 28 months ago.