Former NBA player discusses past career, athletics-induced health issues on campus

Fred Hoiberg’s condition is hereditary, but many athletes risk injuring their bodies down the road.

Fred Hoiberg has been through a lot in his days – NBA drafts, zone defenses and a heart condition that threatened his life.

The Minnesota Timberwolves assistant general manager and former NBA player spoke on campus Thursday night, discussing his career and the health problems that ended it.

About 30 to 40 people attended the speech, which was part of the University’s Design of Medical Devices Conference.

Hoiberg recounted his basketball career, from his college time at Iowa State to guarding Michael Jordon as a rookie for the Indiana Pacers to playing alongside Kevin Garnett with the Timberwolves.

When he needed surgery to repair his aortic valve, Hoiberg’s heart went out of rhythm, requiring him to get a pacemaker.

“In order for me to lead a normal life, it’s because of my pacemaker,” he said. “I can lead an active, normal lifestyle even though my heart doesn’t beat on its own.”

Although Hoiberg attempted to play again, his heart condition forced him to retire, two years ago Thursday.

“You think you’re invincible sometimes as an athlete, but it can happen at any time,” he said.

Hoiberg’s condition is hereditary, he said, but athletes face other health problems, University orthopedic surgery professor Robert LaPrade said.

The most dangerous health risk college athletes face is doing damage to their bodies down the road, LaPrade said.

“The biggest problem they have is the loss of function later because they develop arthritis or have other injuries that limit their function,” he said.

The most common injuries leading to this include knee and shoulder joint problems, LaPrade said. These injuries can affect health later on in life.

He said there are more than 500,000 operations to remove or repair the meniscus – cartilage in the knee – each year.

LaPrade said he has seen patients in their 30s come to him complaining of knee pain, only to find out they have advanced arthritis stemming from their athletics.

“It’s shocking to them because they’re still relatively young and they have young children and they want to play sports with them,” he said. “At that point, it’s pretty difficult to do something.”

Director of athletic medicine Moira Novak said the athletics department takes a number of steps to ensure the safety of athletes, including disqualifying athletes should their health make it unsafe for them to play.

Many health conditions warranting disqualification stem from injuries, she said.

“All of our student athletes have come to terms with the risks involved in sports,” Novak said.

According to the NCAA, for every 1,000 injuries sustained in college sports, wrestling has the highest rate of injuries requiring surgery – 2.8 percent warranted a procedure, compared to 2.6 percent in football.

“There’s a downside in terms of risk of injury,” Novak said. “Many of the experiences we have include some degree of risk.”

Even still, Novak said the benefits outweigh the risks for student athletes.

“They are better off in terms of long-term health, for having played than if they were just sedentary during their collegiate years,” she said.

When Hoiberg tried to play again, team doctors told him the same thing – take into account his family before attempting to a comeback, he said.

LaPrade said he agrees.

“It’s better to look long-term than to look short-term,” he said.