It's easy to forget that, given the kind of language we usually use when talking about basketball. "Muscle" is used mostly as a synonym for physical strength. A player grabs an offensive rebound and muscles it back up. Countless players add 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason. Kevin Durant's lack of muscle was considered his primary weakness prior to the 2007 NBA Draft.
"Heart" is treated differently. It's a metaphor for a kind of intangible desire. Players who hustle, but lack the pure athletic abilities of someone like LeBron James, are said to play with "a lot of heart." A player can be called the "heart" of his team. When a player makes a buzzer-beating shot to cap a huge comeback, he's said to have ripped the "heart" out of his opponent.
But the heart isn't an intangible thing. It's a physical object, a muscle just like a calf, quad or bicep. And like those other muscles, it's capable of getting injured.
The last few days have served as a sobering reminder of that, as both Jeff Green and Chuck Hayes will be forced to miss the entire 2011-12 NBA season due to heart problems that were discovered during physical exams required as part of their new contracts.
As a basketball fan, I'm old enough to remember the horrifying image of Hank Gathers crumbling to the floor in a West Coast Conference tournament game. In fact, the subsequent NCAA Tournament -- when Bo Kimble shot the first free throw of every game left-handed as a tribute to his fallen teammate -- is the first one I truly remember watching. It was just three years later when Celtics star Reggie Lewis collapsed during a playoff game against the Hornets, then died later that summer after suffering cardiac arrest during an offseason practice.
More recently, Jason Collier died during the summer of 2005 due to an enlarged heart, Cuttino Mobley was forced to retire in 2008 due to a heart problem and Robert Traylor died earlier this year due to an apparent heart attack.
Heart problems are nothing to mess around with, and we can only hope that Green and Hayes will be fine long-term and be able to resume their careers next season.
This can also serve as a helpful wakeup call for those who've been putting off a physical or getting a health problem checked out. I bring that up only because I'd recently been doing so, until this past weekend when I'd experienced chest pains that were finally bad enough that I couldn't ignore them. I had blood work done, along with X-rays and a CT scan, and the whole time I was thinking of Green, who at that point was still being held out due to what was then an undisclosed health issue.
As it turned out, my chest pains were caused not by a heart problem, but, ironically enough, by a strained pectoral muscle. But the outcome could have certainly been much worse, as the situations with Green and Hayes remind us.