Retired player Willie Davis talks with cardiologist Richard Ammar, M.D. (far right), and other healthcare providers at the National Basketball Players Association health screening in Dallas.

Retired player Willie Davis talks with cardiologist Richard Ammar, M.D. (far right), and other healthcare providers at the National Basketball Players Association health screening in Dallas. (Photo by Maggie Francis)

Twenty years after he retired from professional basketball, Morlon Wiley still looks like somebody you want on your side in a pickup game. Lean and fit, he eats right, works out and goes to the doctor for checkups.

But he recently turned 50, and he knew too many former players who didn’t make it out of their sixth decade. “We’ve lost some great guys too young, and it hurts,” he said.

So when the National Basketball Players Association invited Wiley to a free, comprehensive heart screening, he didn’t hesitate. “I’m pretty sure I’m OK, but I wouldn’t miss this,” he said. “It’s great that the current players are doing this for us.”

Wiley, a 6-foot-4 point guard who played for five NBA teams over seven seasons, is one of about 150 former players who have undergone the screenings in a nationwide program about to complete its first year. The players association launched the effort to safeguard former players’ health and compile data about what dangers they may face.

About a dozen NBA vets, including Wiley, came to the latest event, in the Dallas Mavericks locker room at the American Airlines Center, where doctors and technicians set up shop amid the weight machines, massage tables and plush locker stalls. The ex-players shared stories, ate a healthy lunch and took turns in the makeshift exam rooms behind black curtains.

“It’s like a mini-reunion,” said Joe Rogowski, who organizes the screenings. “With heart doctors.”

Rogowski was a trainer and strength conditioning coach for two NBA teams before taking over as the players’ union director of sports medicine and research last year. He was tasked with developing a program to keep retired players heart-healthy.

“This was one of the big issues the current players brought to the table,” Rogowski said. “They wanted to do something for the retired guys who laid the foundation for them.”

The issue took on added urgency with what seemed to be a spate of premature deaths of well-known former NBA players, including Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins, Jerome Kersey and Dennis Johnson. Malone was 60 and the other three were in their 50s. Kersey died of a blood clot in his lungs; the other three were heart-related.

Rogowski said there had always been interest in educating former players about taking care of their health, helping them do so, and researching whether retired athletes face distinctive problems.

“But there wasn’t really a system in place to do this,” he said.

There is now.

The first screening was held last December at the Houston Rockets arena, followed by six more at NBA venues around the country. The Dallas event in late October will be followed by one in New York in November, completing the initial series.

“We’ll try to do a city every month and come back once a year,” Rogowski said. “It’s not cheap, but the NBPA and the players think it’s worth it.”

The screening includes a full blood workup, electrocardiogram, echocardiogram, carotid ultrasound and blood pressure check. All the results are recorded on a memory stick for the former player to take back to his doctor. But first he faces a team of cardiologists recruited for the day.

“We go over the results, we talk about diet, we point to getting appropriate follow-up,” said Richard Ammar, M.D., an interventional cardiologist in Denton, Texas. “The message is you’re not immune because you’re an athlete.”

Ammar said the men at the Dallas screening “are pretty healthy, and I’m not surprised. One fellow is a little nervous about something that we’re going to look into further, but in general they’re taking care of themselves.”

Rogowski said that mirrors results from around the country. While most of the former players check out well, he said, “I can’t name names, but they have found things that needed to be addressed.”

Even for people who go to doctors and monitor their health, the heart screenings can be especially useful, Ammar said. That’s because many conditions that cause heart disease, such as high blood pressure and atherosclerosis, give no hint that anything’s wrong.

“These guys are mostly asymptomatic,” the cardiologist said. “They would not have gotten some of these tests if it were not for a screening environment.”

As the screening program reaches more people, Rogowski said, the results will have a greater impact.

“We have over 150 guys now, so we can start looking at the data,” he said. “We’re going to be working with research cardiologists to look at norms for this population. They say basketball players’ hearts are larger when they’re playing. What happens when they’re finished playing?”

Willie Davis, an American Basketball Association alumnus who lives near Dallas, is happy to contribute to the bigger picture, though he is already meticulous about his health.

“I already know about a couple of issues that need to be addressed, and I’m doing that,” said Davis, who’s 71 and looks at least a decade younger. “I’m using this as a second opinion. And I’m really happy to be a part of this, have this fellowship with my brothers and support this great cause.”

He also has a message for the current NBA players who made it happen.

“There are some guys who really don’t have good health coverage, and this is huge,” Davis said. “It’s a wonderful gesture by the current guys who want to recognize the people who paved the way for them. We’re just thankful.”