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For Jeff Green, heart health is very, very personal

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Brooklyn Nets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

For Nets fans, Jeff Green is a big surprise, a veteran player who’s been around ... and can still play at a high level. Yes, he played with Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City and the Nets are his 10th team. To them, for the most part, that’s Uncle Jeff’s narrative.

But perhaps the thing that’s most surprising about the 34-year-old’s history has nothing to do with basketball, but with what happened on January 9, 2012. On that day, he underwent open heart surgery. It wasn’t just his career that was at risk. So was his life.

“It just made me appreciate the game of basketball way more. It made me appreciate life way more,” Green told Brian Lewis recently.

How’d it happen? Lewis recounts how Green learned he had a problem and how he dealt with it.

Green had been working out two or three times a day for three months during the 2011-12 lockout, before a physical with Boston revealed an enlargement of the valve to his aorta, the body’s main blood vessel. It’s a condition most people only find out about after the aorta ruptures, which is usually fatal.

Moreover, there is a great deal of medical research on how very tall men are susceptible to sudden cardiac death —five former Nets have died from the condition. A 2016 study by Dr. David Engel of Columbia University on behalf of the NBA found basketball players have the highest incidence of sports-related sudden cardiac death among all athlete groups.

And so on that Monday morning nine years ago, Green found himself on an operating table at Cleveland Clinic trying to avoid the worse case scenario. The surgery offered a big surprise to the cardiologist. Green’s aorta was “paper thin” and in danger of rupturing. The surgery took five hours. His heart was stopped for an hour.

“When you have the surgery, it’s a chainsaw to the ribs that’s cutting through the whole nervous system,” Green recalled to Lewis. “After all the nervous shock to your whole body, then you have to train your lungs again. You have to learn to do everything. It’s basically starting from scratch.

“Training your lungs to take one deep breath — not two, one powerful deep breath — was the hardest thing ever. That’s why I tell people it’s like being a baby. Taking that first breath is probably the most difficult thing ever.”

So his recovery and rehab took a long time. Green missed the entire 2011–12 season. KD dedicated his season to Green and Green used his downtime to complete his coursework at Georgetown, graduating in May 2012 with a degree in English and a minor in theology. He missed a total of four games with the Celtics in the three years after surgery. In fact, he’s played more than 800 games in the last decade.

So that brings us to Brooklyn. A local nonprofit, Harboring Hearts, reached out Green to help their mission. He happily agreed to help out, laying out his experience on social media.

Green still has a legacy of his surgery, a nine-inch scar down the center of his chest. He’d like to leave another part of that legacy in New York.