VIDEO: Remembering Jack Haley
Jim McIlvaine never much worried about his body or the toll his NBA career was taking on it. When the 7-foot-1 center from Racine, Wis., walked away from the league in 2001 after seven seasons with Washington, Seattle and New Jersey, it was a decision driven by his heart, not for his heart.
But Jack Haley‘s unexpected death Tuesday at age 51, reportedly from heart disease, as the latest in a series of recent NBA alums who have passed away, had McIlvaine feeling unusually mortal. And blogging about it, one way he spends his time when not working as a broadcast analyst for Marquette University basketball or with Optima Batteries in Milwaukee.
It wasn’t long ago that McIlvaine ran into Haley, the journeyman who played nine seasons with the Bulls, Nets, Lakers and Spurs, on the Las Vegas Strip:
What I do remember is that Jack looked great. He looked fit, he looked happy and during our conversation, it sounded like everything was going well for him. That was just a few months ago. Fast forward to this evening and I noticed a tweet from Detlef Schrempf in my feed, mentioning Jack’s passing. It seems like just the other day I was blogging about the passing of Jerome Kersey and now I find myself asking the same questions- How could it happen? Why Jack? Why now?
McIlvaine turned his distress over Haley’s passing — along with others such as Kersey, Anthony Mason, Dwayne Schintzius, Yinka Dare and a few more — into a mirror to assess his own post-NBA retirement days. His verdict? Not horrible but not great either.
I know people die young all over the world for a multitude of reasons, but I guess I don’t expect it to happen so often among guys who were some of the world’s elite athletes. I’ve put on some weight since retiring, but 20 pounds is easy to hide on a seven-foot frame. The greater concern for me is my heart. While I had what I would consider an “active” lifestyle for most of my life, in recent years, I’ve become more sedentary. That, combined with some advice from my doctor several years ago, has heightened my awareness for my physical well-being.
I was actually working out with Marquette, when I went in for a physical and was told my cholesterol level was higher than my doctor would’ve liked. She encouraged me to exercise more and I thought to myself, “How much more can I exercise, than chasing around a bunch of college kids?!”
McIlvaine took up triathlons and got so heavy into biking that he required hemorrhoid surgery. It hit him how difficult it is, with a body battered by years of pounding and general basketball demands, to maintain a level of activity like typical 30- and 40-somethings.
With Jack’s passing, it got me thinking about the first time the retired NBA players held their annual summer meeting in conjunction with the current NBA players. It was an eye-opening experience for me and one that I felt gave me an opportunity to look into my own future as a retired player, at least from a physical standpoint. There were guys at that meeting in their 50s (and maybe even 40s), who were hobbling around like they were in their 70s or 80s. I didn’t want that for myself and decided I wouldn’t continue playing until my body would no longer allow it. I know I’m not alone in that regard and when I see guys like [NFL 49ers linebacker] Chris Borland walk away from professional sports, I’m only surprised that it doesn’t [occur] more often.
Adding Jack’s passing to the growing list has made me re-evaluate how I’ve dealt with moderately-high cholesterol in much the same way I did when I first met the retired NBA players. Up until now, I’ve preferred to make dietary adjustments, pop red yeast rice tablets and try to exercise more. The first two efforts have gone well and made a significant difference, but I never seem to find enough time to exercise consistently. I’ll be making a renewed commitment to exercise more, but perhaps more importantly, I’ll be calling my doctor tomorrow for the Lipitor perscription she’d previously-suggested.
McIlvaine, 42, is nine years younger than Haley. He left the NBA at a much younger age (28) than Haley (34), as much for how poorly it fit him psychologically as for any physical toll. At 7-foot-1, he just happened to stand eyeball-to-eyeball with Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan and the league’s other big boppers; that didn’t mean he enjoyed it.
Between the rigors of the league and the hypercriticism he faced over a then-staggering seven-year, $33 million contract he got from the Sonics in 1996, McIlvaine lost his taste for the NBA.
But he hasn’t lost his zest for life in general and Haley’s passing, along with the others, has prompted him to do something about it.