Denver Nuggets’ Jeff Green is taking nothing for granted in the NBA Finals
The 16-year league veteran has overcome heart surgery, reinvented his game to get to championship series
MIAMI – NBA veteran forward Jeff Green has good reason to take pride in being called “OG” and “Uncle Jeff” by his Denver Nuggets teammates.
The 36-year-old is one of the NBA’s oldest players and has played on 12 teams in 16 seasons. If the Nuggets win their first NBA championship, Green will become the 15th player in league history to win a first title at age 36 or older. Most importantly, the Nuggets forward merely playing basketball after major surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm in 2012 offers encouragement from the NBA Finals to those facing a similar health nightmare.
“Your life is not close to being over,” Green told Andscape. “It’s just something that you have to deal with to live life. At the end of the day, everybody has to deal with some obstacle throughout their life. That’s just a part of life. You deal with stuff, you get better from it and you get better yourself from it.”
Green stands a svelte 6-feet-8, weighs 235 pounds and has a muscular build. Don’t let his age fool you — the athletic Green can still dunk on anyone in the NBA. The Miami resident credits his fitness guru wife, Stephanie, and men’s health and wellness coach Andy Lucas and others locally for keeping his body ready for the demands of the NBA. Green has averaged 12.4 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 1,107 NBA regular-season games.
And when the Maryland native played in his 101st playoff game on Wednesday, a 109-94 victory over the Miami Heat, he scored four points in 17 minutes to help the Nuggets take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven NBA Finals.
“We got a win. We’ve got to do it again,” Green said after the game. “We have another game in a couple days. We’ve got to bring the same amount of energy and effort. It’s just one game.
“Everybody has said it throughout the playoffs: It’s the first to four. So, we’ve got to duplicate what we did [in Game 3], plus a little bit more.”
Back in 2011, Green probably would have thought that such an NBA Finals scenario would have been a fairy tale. A routine preseason physical with the Boston Celtics in 2011 revealed an aortic aneurysm. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, aortic aneurysms can dissect or rupture, and they are the “cause of most deaths from aortic aneurysms.” Green’s diagnosis led the Celtics to void his one-year contract for the 2011-12 season and caused him to miss the entire season as well.
Cardiac surgeon Dr. Lars Svensson of the Cleveland Clinic led Green’s surgery on Jan. 9, 2012. Since Green had a paper-thin blood vessel that was on the verge of rupturing, Svensson told ESPN in 2018 that he was glad that he was able to perform the surgery on the then-25-year-old before there was a “major disaster.” Svensson stopped Green’s heart for an hour during the successful five-hour surgery. Green proudly bears a nine-inch scar that goes from the bottom of his neck to the top of his abdomen.
“It helped me appreciate playing in the NBA a lot more,” Green said. “When you’re young, you think you’re invincible until the one time you get hurt or you have to have a surgery. It’s like, ‘Wow, I could have lost it all.’ That was my fifth year. I could have been gone in five years. So, for me, it made me appreciate every moment more. That’s why when I was playing through minimums [contracts], I didn’t let it affect me in my play or in trying to push to prove to people that I wasn’t [a health risk].
“People put a stamp on who you should be instead of allowing you to become who you are. And I didn’t allow that moment to do that when I was in a minimum contract for a couple years in a row. I just stayed true to who I was. But it made me appreciate the moment of being here and to allow me to really continue to work hard. So, I definitely appreciate it.”
Green returned to the NBA during the 2012-13 season after signing a four-year, $36 million deal with the Celtics. Today, he is long removed from any heart concerns but does get an annual checkup. Since his surgery, Green said, he is really in tune with and listens to his body.
At the time of Green’s surgery, there was an aspiring NBA player paying close attention to his comeback, then-University of Arizona forward Aaron Gordon. Green and Gordon ended up being teammates on the Orlando Magic during the 2016-17 season. Green took Gordon under his wing then, and still has his arm around him.
Gordon is now in his ninth NBA season, but he still appreciates the words of wisdom that he is receiving from Green, who is his teammate again in Denver.
“He’s a true professional, great guy, great person. Incredible talent,” Gordon told Andscape. “I’ve been watching him since I was a kid. He’s like family to me at this point. For him to come back from heart surgery is incredible. And the guy just has the biggest heart in the world.”
While the Nuggets are playing in the Finals for the first time, Green is hoping to win his first title in his second appearance.
Green was a member of the 2018 Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers starring LeBron James. The Golden State Warriors, however, swept the Cavaliers to win the 2018 NBA championship. Now with another chance to win a title with the Nuggets, Green definitely isn’t taking this moment for granted either and won’t be comfortable until the job is complete against the Heat. As a veteran and a team leader, Green won’t let his teammates forget that Miami is a four-time NBA champion playing in its seventh NBA Finals since 2006.
“I know who’s across that hall,” Green said. “So, for me it’s about making sure that our group is ready. I think we have what it takes to really want it. But winning it would mean everything. It’s a special opportunity that we have to win a championship. But for me, I try not to get ahead of myself. I try to stay focused at this game and let the rest come when they come. But for right now, my thoughts [are] on [each] game, trying to do whatever it takes to win and then we move on.
“So, I’m just living in the moment, relishing this moment. Because as you know, 16 years for me, second time here, they don’t come often. So were just appreciating everything.”
If the Nuggets do win a championship, keep an eye on Green’s emotions after all he has been through with his health. The term heart of a champion will certainly have a deeper meaning for the “OG.”
“My story is more so about the perseverance of fighting through all this life of the NBA, man,” said Green, who is averaging 5.7 points in the Finals. “You have guys who been in the NBA five years and been with five teams. I’ve been with 12 teams in 16 years. Every year, I had to reinvent who I was through a course of seven years to make sure people understand I could still play this game.
“That in itself shows the hard work, the adapting, the maturity of staying with it. But people [are] going to come up with their own story about what it really was, or I didn’t do this, I didn’t do that. But they don’t really know the ins and outs of everything. So, I just try to keep my mental fresh of understanding of what I know I had to do to be at this point.”