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The NBA seeks to address a spiking problem with heart disease

Sean Rooks’ recent death and others shed light on increasing league issue

Golden State Warriors assistant coach Jarron Collins learned about yet another heart-related death of a former NBA big man after receiving a call from his twin brother and fellow ex-NBA center Jason Collins on Tuesday night. The stunning news was that Sean Rooks — a 14-year pro center, most recently an assistant coach with the Philadelphia 76ers — died at age 46 after suffering a heart attack. The 38-year-old twin brothers were both shaken as they talked about the “extremely sad news.”

“It’s definitely disturbing when guys seem to be healthy and just pass way too soon,” Jarron Collins told The Undefeated Wednesday morning after the Warriors’ shootaround in preparation for Game 3 of the NBA Finals. “It’s scary. It’s sad. It’s tragic. It’s tough.

“The doctors could probably point to something with our [ex-NBA big men’s] hearts. But I don’t know. It’s definitely sad. I was just thinking of the big picture and the loss [the Rooks family] is suffering right now.”

NBA alumni are concerned about the string of former big men like Rooks who have passed in recent years due to heart problems.

Hall of Fame center Moses Malone, 60, died on Sept. 13, 2015, of heart disease. Former NBA forward Darryl Dawkins, 58, died on Aug. 27, 2015, of a heart attack. Former journeyman center Jack Haley, 51, died of heart disease on March 16, 2015. Former NBA forward Anthony Mason, 48, died on Feb. 28, 2015, weeks after having a massive heart attack. Former NBA and ABA forward Caldwell Jones, 64, died after suffering a heart attack on Sept. 21, 2014.

In a statement to The Undefeated, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver expressed his sadness over Rooks’ death while pointing to the league’s developing health maintenance focus:

“Like so many members of the NBA family, I was deeply saddened by the sudden loss of Sean Rooks. Sean was beloved around the league as a friend and a coach, and he was an important mentor to many young players. Our thoughts and deepest sympathies are with his family. His tragic death due to heart disease is yet another reminder of why cardiac health and screening remains an extremely high priority for the league, the Players Association and the Retired Players Association.”

The first of these screenings was held in Orlando, Florida, on June 21 and the next will be in Detroit on Friday. According to the Orlando Sentinel, nurses drew blood to measure HDL, LDL and triglyceride levels, and echocardiograms and carotid artery ultrasounds were also performed. A cardiologist was also on hand for the 15 retired players who attended.

Former NBA center Kevin Willis told The Undefeated: “I’m glad the union did that. They’re trying to take it to the next level.”


Center Sean Rooks, No. 45 of the Los Angeles Clippers, shoots over center Vlade Divac, No. 21 of the Sacramento Kings, during the NBA game Jan. 2, 2002, at Arco Arena in Sacramento.

Rocky Widner /NBAE/Getty Images

Several former NBA players close to Rooks also said they were shocked by the late assistant coach’s death, primarily because was in very good shape after losing 40 pounds. He interviewed for an assistant coach job with the New York Knicks hours before his death and recently had been offered the Charlotte Hornets’ D-League head coach job.

“I just saw Sean when he was coaching for Philadelphia, last season, and they came down to Atlanta,” said Willis. “He was a real cool dude. Always respectful and cool. It’s just crazy. All of these guys are dying because of something with the heart. Every one of them. It’s bananas.”

Golden State forward-center Marreese Speights took somber notice of Rooks’ death and is familiar with the trend of former NBA big men dying from heart complications. The 6-foot-10, 255-pounder believes that today’s NBA players are blessed with state-of-the-art evaluations before every season to ensure their hearts are fit.

“Nowadays they do a lot of testing before you get on the court,” Speights told The Undefeated. “They give you a stress test and all kind of other things to make sure everything is right with your heart. They can find out anything they want today in this league. Back in the day when those guys were playing, they probably never had any of that stuff, so they probably never knew.

“But hopefully with the technology we have now, when everyone in the league now gets older they will be all right. But that’s something you can’t really control. You got to be blessed and cherish every moment. You never know when it’s your last.”

Former Cleveland Cavaliers athletic trainer Max Benton, now the associate head athletic trainer at Cleveland State, said cardiac screenings have improved over the past 10 years in the NBA.

“Cardiac screenings in the NBA now are pretty extensive with examination by primary care physicians consulting with their team cardiologists,” Benton said. “The players receive a full stress echo where they run on a treadmill and record how your heart is performing.”

Deaths due to heart complications remain the leading cause of death in America, with higher percentages of African-American men and women. Prescription and over-the-counter painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs are said to raise this risk (the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is looking to strengthen label warnings), which makes the league, union and the Retired Players Association’s joint screening and monitoring efforts important.

“Part of the [National Basketball Players Association’s] NBPA’s effort is to both educate and support former players about the risks they face related to their hearts,” players union executive director Michele Roberts told The Undefeated via e-mail. “The news about Sean underscores how significant an issue this is and fuels our desire to keep folks talking about and listening to the need to prevent this from taking more lives well before their time.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.