When local nonprofit Harboring Hearts reached out to Jeff Green about working to bring awareness to heart-surgery patients, he jumped at the chance to help. For the Nets big man, it wasn’t about philanthropy or virtue signaling. For Green, it was personal.
It became personal on Jan. 9, 2012, when he was cut open and had his heart stopped for an hour, surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm that had threatened to end not just his career but his life. For him, every month has become heart month.
“It just made me appreciate the game of basketball way more. It made me appreciate life way more,” Green told The Post. “[Harboring Hearts] reached out to me to do a collab, and I jumped at the opportunity. I thought it’d be important to bring recognition to [the issue], and help in what they’re trying to accomplish.”
Green comes at every practice with such gratitude and maturity it’s easy to see why he’s already earned a Nets leadership role during a career year.
“We’re lucky to have him,” Kevin Durant said.
And while many have expressed thanks at having survived heart surgery, Green has expressed gratitude it happened at all.
“I should’ve had the surgery a year or two before, but I didn’t,” said Green, 34. “So I’m happy it was [found] and caught before it was too late, before something tragic happened, something I couldn’t have come back from.”
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.
As Green lay on an operating table at the Cleveland Clinic drifting off from the anesthesia, Dr. Lars Svensson reassured him he’d play again. But when the country’s top aortic valve surgeon opened Green’s chest, even he was shocked at the aorta being so paper-thin and on the verge of rupturing.
“Fortunately we operated on him before that happened,” Dr. Svensson told Cleveland 19 News. “When that does happen, saving patients is really difficult.”
The procedure lasted for five hours, with Green’s heart stopped for an hour of it. But the rehab was far, far longer.
Durant — who grew up in Prince George’s County (Md.) at the same time as Green, and played with him in Seattle/Oklahoma City — visited him after the surgery. And it was an arduous road to walking and even breathing, much less running and jumping.
“When you have the surgery, it’s a chainsaw to the ribs that’s cutting through the whole nervous system,” Green said. “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.”
Now Green still has a long 9-inch scar from his neck to the top of his abdomen, and three sewn-up holes from tubes that’d been inserted during the surgery. But he’s owned those scars and reimagined them as badges of honor.
Spencer Dinwiddie has always had a love for Iron Man, but now Green is the Nets player that most embodies the hero with shrapnel in his chest and surgical scars.
“Me and the character have a lot in common,” Green said. “After the surgery I did a PSA with some kids, and I asked one, ‘What’s something that helps you? Family?’ He said, ‘No, I viewed myself as being different, as being a superhero.’
“And that was the thing that stuck with me. Iron Man — boom. I loved the movie already, but it made me more attached to it. It stuck with me and I ride with it. It helped spark that motivation to keep wanting to be better, see myself as different.”
Green not only joined Etan Thomas and Ronny Turiaf among the few to return to the NBA after open-heart surgery, but now he’s leading a Nets team that should contend for a title.
Hitting a career-high 42.2 percent from 3, he’s also a locker-room leader. His postgame address after a loss in Detroit helped spur an NBA-high six-game winning streak. And off the court, he’s looking to do his part as well.
“We’re in talks to figure out the next step,” Green said of Harboring Hearts. “Whether that be auctioning shoes, jerseys, tickets, anything that can help the families. So we’re in talks trying to figure out ways that can help.”
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