The first reaction [to the late-2011 news that I needed heart surgery] was shock. At first you ask, “Are you serious?” because you don’t wanna hear anything like that. But it was shocking because I didn’t have any symptoms—didn’t have any shortness of breath or anything of that nature. I was kind confused because I was in great shape. I didn’t have any trouble breathing. I couldn’t believe the words the doctor told me. You never think anything like that could happen to you.
I asked him, “Will I be able to play again? Am I gonna be at full strength ever again?” That was the biggest concern of mine.
When I woke up, the nurse told me some of the guys called to check on me. Danny [Ainge] sent me some edible arrangements. When I was able to leave the hospital I had moved back to DC and I was able to see the guys because they played the Wizards around that time. When you have surgery, you don’t want anybody to feel sorry for you, and they made me feel like I was still part of the team, like nothing happened. They made me feel good, and that’s all you can ask for. They were there for me.
The hardest part about recovery was just waiting for my body to get back to almost normal. Waiting. Not being able to play. To watch the Celtics take Miami to Game 7 [in June of 2012], and knowing that I could be out there and helping, and then having to wait the first half of the summer before I could pick up a basketball and having my body adapt to the physical play of basketball and the strenuous activities of running, weight lifting—my body had to adapt. That took almost a year until I was able to be comfortable with doing everything and my body reacting the way I wanted it to.
That was the longest I’ve ever sat out by far. It made me appreciate the game a lot more—it makes you realize how much you love it. It made me appreciate the whole camaraderie of having teammates, coaches, of being a professional. The team that was there at the time: [Rajon] Rondo, Paul [Pierce], Kevin [Garnett], Keyon Dooling, Chris Wilcox (who also had the surgery)—those guys were there for me through the whole surgery and made sure I had everything I needed. I owe a lot to them and the whole organization.
The first full game I played was over in Turkey, during the preseason. That was pretty cool. Being out for the year and coming back, just stepping back on the floor is a blessing. My first real official game was against Miami, when they got their ring. I played the same team in my last game [before surgery] and then my first official game back—a lot of people don’t know that.
The game against Cleveland was wonderful because at the time when I was in the hospital, my doctor’s assistant, he’s a big Cavs fan and he always said, “You should come to the Cavaliers. You’ll be one of my favorite players, but I’m still rooting for the Cavs when you guys play them.” So for my doctor and his assistant to be at that game, and for me to [hit the game-winning lay-up], especially after they’d seen me at my worst—not being able to walk or stand up under my own power—I think that was good for them.
Just getting on the floor with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce is a moment from this season that sticks out because those guys are future Hall-of-Famers, and they’ve done a lot, and I was able to be a part of their careers. They conquered a couple milestones this year as far as Kev with rebounding and points and Paul with points, so that was one thing. But games against Miami, even though we lost—I had a pretty good game [on April 12], had 25 points. There was numerous occasions that I won’t forget—all the dunks, on Al Jefferson, Jermaine O’Neal, Chris Bosh, in Orlando some of the dunks I had were pretty cool. There were a lot of things that I can look back on and say, the first year after heart surgery, I had a pretty good one.
The doctors told me it takes a year and a half, almost two years until you feel mentally and physically at your best. It was a year on January 9, and probably a year and a half at the end of the season. So I kind of felt good—I had my moments when I felt good and I had my moments where my body would fatigue easily. For me, I know I always said there’s a positive light at the end of this, and I’m gonna get back some way. I won’t ever know—it’s just a feeling you get. I’m thankful to just be able to play the game again.
People look at athletes being guys who take care of their body and eat right and work out so much that they think nothing can happen, but I’m living testament at that [not being true]. I eat right; I work out a ton. If the lockout wouldn’t have ended [and I wouldn’t have needed a physical], who knows what would’ve happened to me? It could’ve been fatal. I hope the situation can help bring awareness to the importance of getting check-ups and trying to make sure your body’s OK, because you never know what’s going on inside.
Who knows what’s gonna happen next year as far as the team goes, so my goal is just to come back a lot stronger and add something new to my game. It’s gonna be a big summer for me, because I think I established myself as a premier player towards the end and I just gotta keep it going. Once this season ended, next season was already on my mind. Individually, I like to win as much as I can—become an All-Star, Most Improved Player, whatever it takes. I think I have the abilities and the skills and the game to become an All-Star. That’s what I’m working toward. I just want to continue to prove to people that you can come back from heart surgery and continue to have a successful life.