CLEVELAND, Ohio — Jeff Green wished himself a happy anniversary.
On Jan. 9, the Celtics forward Tweeted, “A year ago my life changed…#1-9-12 #blessed to see another day and thankful for my family and friends. LOVE Y’ALL!!!”
Later that day, he scored 14 points in 25 minutes in the Celtics’ victory over Phoenix. It was the one-year anniversary of his surgeryat the Cleveland Clinic to repair an aortic root aneurysm.
“I don’t cry,” an emotional Green told reporters after the game that night. “But it was … I’m just glad to be here, glad to be alive, glad to be playing basketball.”
Tuesday, Green returns to Cleveland for the first time since that surgery as the Celtics face the Cavaliers at The Q.
“My feelings for Cleveland are a little bit different because there’s always the memory of me having surgery here,” said Green, whose recovery was monitored by doctors in Boston. “Cleveland is a special place to me now because it’s a place that helped save my life.”
He admits there are times he can hardly believe he is back.
“Occasionally you have a chance to reflect on the whole year and what I’ve been through,” he said. “It is still amazing to me that I’m able to play and play at the level I’m playing at, having the success that I’ve had. Nobody would have thought that I’d come back and produce the way I have.”
Actually, his surgeon at the Clinic, Dr. Lars Svensson, thought Green would return — and told him so at the time of his diagnosis.
“My expectation was that about two months after the surgery he could start playing casual games and start working on getting back into shape mentally and physically,” Svensson said. “I expected that he was going to be able to do that.”
What neither Svensson nor Green expected was that two months after Green’s surgery, teammate Chris Wilcox would need the same operation by the same surgeon at the same hospital.
“It was weird,” Green said. “I remember telling my best friend, ‘I’d never wish this on my worst enemy.’ So, two months later to get a call from one of my good friends saying he had to have the surgery was tough to hear.
“It helped me in a way to just be there for somebody and to help them go through everything. It’s a tough process. For us to be there for each other, it was a good thing. Mentally, it helped us.”
Svensson recalled the story from Wilcox’s point of view.
“Chris told me the story than when Jeff first came to play for the Celtics, it was an emotional situation,” Svensson said. “He replaced a popular player in Boston [Kendrick Perkins, who was sent to Oklahoma City in a trade]. He was a young person coming onto the team and Chris was asked to sort of mentor and help him settle into the Celtics and make him feel at home.
“When Chris had the surgery after Jeff, Jeff was very kind and returned the favor to Chris, and he sort of mentored him through the surgery and what to expect and was calling him at a regular basis. It was a very nice little twist to the experience and their friendship.”
According to Svensson, both players had the same problem. The part of the aorta near where the aortic valve is seated had grown in size to the point where it was potentially life-threatening.
“It involves some of the pumping chamber of the heart,” said Svensson, who has done about 400 of these surgeries. “It’s in a critical area of the heart and the electrical supply to the heart. It’s a very important area of the heart apart from the risk of this bursting and causing an aneurysm.”
The surgery takes about six hours, and the heart is stopped about an hour or 75 minutes. Green said his recovery and return went almost exactly as Svensson said it would. He took things slow, not returning to the basketball court until June. Then, as he drove to the basket during one of his first pickup games at his alma mater, Georgetown, he got hit in the chest — and nothing happened.
“I just continued to play on,” Green said. “After that, I felt like I’d be OK just to go out there and play and not worry about anything else.”
That’s what Svensson likes to hear.
“I think the message here is that both of them had very serious conditions, and both of them had them taken care of and they’re back again playing at an extremely high standard,” the doctor said. “When people get appropriate care, they can get back to playing at that super level again.”
“For anybody who goes through the surgery, to come back 110 percent is possible,” he said. “I’ve talked to so many people. I’ve talked to so many kids. I tell them, ‘Don’t allow the surgery or the procedure to hold you back from doing what you want to do. If you look at me, I’m in the NBA, I had the surgery and six months later I’m back on the court, playing full throttle. A couple months after that I’m back on an NBA court, doing what I love to do. I’m happy and there’s no setbacks. You’ve just got to take it in stride and be passionate about whatever it is you’re coming back to.’”