Jeff Green couldn't bring himself to tell his mother he needed open-heart surgery after receiving the news from doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital on Dec. 9, 2011. The Celtics forward knew his mother, Felicia Akingube, would take the news the hardest in his immediate family of four.
Green takes after his father, Jeff Green Sr., a man whom the Celtics forward describes as much like himself, "calm and relaxed." Green's mother is a different story -- a fiery, self-described "woman of strength" who attended every Georgetown home game during Jeff's three years there. Her larger-than-life personality won over the Georgetown student section so much that before each game from 2004 to 2007, the students welcomed her to the arena with the chant, "Jeff Green's mom," until Felicia Akingube acknowledged the fans with a wave.
So when the 26-year-old Green, a Cheverly, Md., native, learned that he had an enlarged root aortic valve, a diagnosis that would require open-heart surgery with a worst-case scenario of death on the operating table, he couldn't find the right words for his mother. Hours turned into days. Days turned into a week. Eventually, 10 days after learning he'd put his NBA career on hold for a year -- at best -- Green finally broke the news to his mother.
"Everybody knew but me," Akingube says. "That night, Jeff called and said, 'Mom ...' I said, 'What's going on?' He said, 'I've got something to tell you.' I said, 'Uh oh.' He said, 'I've got to have surgery.' I figured it was a sprained finger or ankle. He said, 'No, I have to have open-heart surgery.' I just lost it. After that, I took it one day at a time."
Even in her most optimistic day-to-day forecasts, Akingube never imagined her son would work himself back to becoming a big part of the future of the Celtics, the player coach Doc Rivers called upon for the final shot in Wednesday night's victory over the Indiana Pacers, less than 15 months after open-heart surgery.
'I'm her only boy'
Green returned from the lockout in December 2011 after signing a one-year, $9 million contract with the Celtics. He had no history of heart issues and no symptoms when he was summoned for a meeting along with Celtics Executive Vice President Danny Ainge by a cardiologist at MGH after a routine physical. Green's agent, David Falk, joined the meeting by conference call.
Green learned he had a bulging aortic root, which could result in a fatal dissection. His contract was voided due to the fact that it was contingent on his passing a physical. Green was referred to the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, where one of the top heart surgeons in the nation, Dr. Lars Svensson, would perform the surgery.
Green remained silent for 90 minutes after hearing the news. In the days after the meeting, he told his father and older sister, Mia, of his diagnosis. His father, who remains best friends with his mother even after their divorce, helped soften the blow of the news for his mother.
"I think it was something I had to deal with myself before I was comfortable telling my mom," Green says. "If she sees me break down, it would make her more nervous. I'm her only boy, so she took it the hardest. It was hard to see her son in the condition I was in."
Green told his mother about a week before Christmas. Dr. Svensson attempted to schedule Green's surgery just before Christmas, but the patient chose to wait until after the holidays so he could be with his family. He insists he never considered that it might be his final holidays with his family.
"They didn't tell me the part about possibly dying on the surgery table," Green says. "They just said I needed surgery to get better. I'm glad they didn't tell me because it would have freaked me out more. I always think positive. I always think I can come back stronger, but I never thought I'd be having this type of season at such an early stage of recovery."
'I go over the risk of death'
Green scheduled the surgery exactly a month after the date of his diagnosis. His entire immediate family flew to Cleveland to be with him during the procedure, as did his best friend, Willie Jennings, and a girlfriend with whom he has since parted ways. The night before the surgery, he stayed up all night with Jennings playing video games. Svensson met with Green prior to the procedure to explain the risks.
"For these types of operations, I go over the risk of death," Svensson says. "We've done some 400 of these procedures, and I haven't lost a patient. I always say there's a 1 percent risk of that happening. There's also a 1 percent risk of stroke, a 1 percent risk of failure of other organs, and there are smaller risks like needing a pacemaker. The area we operated on is where everything joins up in the heart. It's where the four valves attach. It's the electrical system to the heart."
For other less-invasive heart procedures, Svensson operates through what he calls "a keyhole in the chest." Green's procedure was not in the "less-invasive" category. Svensson made a 10-inch cut in Green's chest, separated the breast bone, and stopped his heart for what he estimates to be an hour and 15 minutes. Svensson connected a heart-lung bypass machine to provide oxygen to Green's organs during repair. He then provided a new valve in the aorta, closed the heart, and closed the breastbone using stainless steel wires.
Green was then sent to the intensive care unit, and per the doctor's treatment plan, remained unconscious until the next morning.
"That was the longest day of my life," says Green's mother. "I was just sitting and waiting. I'd walk back and forth to my hotel room, get something to eat, then I'd go back to the hotel room. The Cleveland Clinic was wonderful keeping me up to date with what was going on. But I wanted to see for myself."
Once Green was moved to the ICU, his mother was granted permission to see him. At the time, he was unconscious while attached to a breathing tube, three drainage tubes through his chest, three IVs, and a catheter.
"I think I passed out," Akingube says. "I couldn't take it. When I came to, I saw my child on life support. I couldn't take it. That was a very devastating time in my life to see my child like that."
Green's surgery started on a Monday morning, and he didn't wake until Tuesday. By that time, all of his visitors had departed from Cleveland, honoring their return flight commitments. Green remembers being on "heavy, heavy meds," and he had his own hand-held trigger to increase the dosage of pain medication. Green says the low point in his rehabilitation process came in the first day after the surgery, when he was confined to a hospital bed. He woke up with saliva in his throat, and couldn't muster up the strength to cough it up.
"Everything was so weak in my chest," Green says. "I woke up choking, and the nurse had to put pressure on my chest."
Green, who stands 6-foot-9, dropped 10 pounds from an already lean 235-pound frame in the week following surgery. Five days after his surgery, the nurses took him for a walk down a corridor in the hospital. Green walked a total of 10 steps in 20 minutes.
'I try to be inspirational'
Green's mother moved in with her son in the Boston area after his surgery, and she says she was with him "the whole time" throughout his rehabilitation. He didn't touch a basketball until May 2012, more than five months after surgery. Green says it wasn't because he didn't have interest in returning to the NBA. In fact, that return was the biggest motivating factor during his rehab. However, he had to take baby steps, first teaching himself to walk, then jog, then run.
"He had a good attitude about everything," Akingube says. "I knew he would overcome it and jump back on board because that's what he's supposed to do. That's what he did. Today, I can honestly say he's the bomb."
Green says the hardest part of his rehab was not the fear of injuring his repaired heart, but putting back on the weight he'd lost. Eventually, he not only replaced the 10 pounds he lost, but added another 10 of muscle to help his post game. Svensson says Green is actually less likely to incur a heart injury than before. The long scar that runs down Green's entire chest is not a sign of weakness, but rather a strength.
"I joke with him and say he could drop a shoulder and take on Shaq O'Neal, and he'll be fine," Svensson says. "There's a buildup of extra bone tissue there that makes it even more solid."
The Celtics' commitment to Green through his rehabilitation was unwavering. Even after the player missed an entire NBA season, Ainge matched his previous commitment to Green (1 year, $9 million), and multiplied it by four (4 years, $36 million) last summer. Ainge believed Green added to his value by making his way back to the court after open-heart surgery.
Perhaps Green has become a better player through the experience. Green initially seemed to justify Ainge's commitment in the preseason when he averaged 13.9 points in 29.3 minutes. The start of the regular season did not go as swimmingly. The Celtics opened against the Miami Heat, and Green drew the responsibility of matching up against LeBron James during some of the Celtics forward's 23 minutes on the floor. Green was 0-for-4 from the floor, and scored just three points.
"The preseason is different," Green says. "You don't really get the full effect of what the NBA really is. Coming back against Miami, I realized it would take a while to get back into rhythm. Going against LeBron, he's coming at a high level."
Through the first half of the season, Green averaged 9.4 points and 3.1 rebounds, numbers that over an entire season would have been the lowest of his six-year career. He was also shooting a career-low 42.5 percent.
Since that time, Green has emerged as one of the building blocks for the future on a Celtics team that is one of the oldest in the NBA. In the 15 games since February 1, Green is averaging 15.3 points and 4.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks while shooting 50.6 percent from the field. The Celtics are 11-4 in those games. With an improving low-post game and range from 3-point land, Green has proven to have one of the most versatile games of any forward in the NBA during the stretch. In a victory over Phoenix on Feb. 22, he tallied 31 points, seven rebounds, four assists, five blocks, two steals, and shot 3-for-5 on 3-pointers. Wednesday night against Indiana, Green got the call on the final possession, darting to the basket through a Paul Pierce screen, only to make a contested, game-winning layup with 0.5 seconds on the clock. Afterward, Green said, "I wanted the ball."
The scary part for Celtics opponents is Green believes he has yet to return to full strength.
"Not yet, I still have days where there's a little pain," Green says. "I feel like I'm close to 90 percent. I wouldn't say I'm 100. The doctor said I won't peak until a year or two after."
Green has maintained a friendship with Dr. Svensson after the surgery. The player recently mailed the doctor an autographed No. 8 Celtics jersey that Svensson plans to frame and display in his TV room. Svensson attended the Celtics-Cavs game in Cleveland on Jan. 22 and spoke with Green courtside. The doctor remarked to the player how much more muscular he looked compared to the last time they'd met.
Svensson, who is proud to list Green as one of his former patients on his website, will also attend the next Celtics game in Cleveland, on March 27. The doctor says he often uses Green as an example to other patients facing open-heart surgery when they need inspiration that a full recovery is possible. For example, Celtics teammate Chris Wilcox looked to Green for support when he became the sixth NBA player to return to the league this season after undergoing a heart procedure last March.
"That's nice to hear; I try to be inspirational," Green says. "It's a tough thing to go through. There are people who go through a lot less that get down when they have to come back from it. People see me playing at this level after heart surgery, and it can be inspirational. But I've had plenty of opportunities to be inspired. Plenty of little kids have gone through this before me. It works both ways."