Chris Weisheit found it hard to digest, at first, that his days of playing basketball could be over. Here he was, having come all the way from Cologne, West Germany, to the University of Maryland to play basketball. He's 7 feet tall, 18 years old, bright and, basically, without a worry in his head. Until last week.
That's when Weisheit was examined by a cardiologist and a Johns Hopkins University specialist and told he had Marfan's Syndrome, a dangerous disease that affects the aorta, a major blood vessel, among other things, sometimes to the point of being fatal. One Maryland basketball player, Chris Patton, died of Marfan's Syndrome in 1976 while dunking a ball during a pickup game.
Weisheit, who was probably going to be red-shirted his first season, was shocked. "I was scared as hell," he said yesterday, his frame stretched over two rows of chairs at a dark Cole Field House. "We could be playing a game, I could dunk a ball, and just collapse. The doctors told me that I could just be practicing, and my aorta could pop. And in three minutes, it would be all over.
"Right after I first heard that, I wondered if I was going to live a normal life and I wondered how much time I had; five years, 10 years? I wanted to play basketball . . . it's the only real hobby I have," he said. "I can't imagine what it will be like to not play . . . But life stands a lot higher than basketball."
There is a bright side for Weisheit. Dr. Victor McKusick of Johns Hopkins, one of the nation's leading specialists in medical genetics, said yesterday that Weisheit is "extremely fortunate" that his condition was detected early enough that an operation might not be needed. Right now, Weisheit is being treated with medication "which makes my heart calmer." And he can go to his classes and live the life of a fairly normal student, as long as he doesn't push himself physically.
McKusick said he told Weisheit last Wednesday (after the examination and prescription for medication) that he might be able to play in another year or so if the medication did its job and slowed down the dilation of the aorta, the main vessel that carries oxygen-filled blood away from the heart.
Weisheit clearly was hopeful of that yesterday. But McKusick said, "I'm afraid I was being a little too optimistic. I didn't want to pull the rug completely out from under him. There is some chance (that he can play again), but it's too early to tell much of anything right now."
Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell said yesterday that Weisheit is welcome to stay on scholarship and work as a team manager while working toward his degree.
If Weisheit had been attending almost any other school in the nation, he'd probably still be playing basketball, practicing for the upcoming season, lifting weights and running -- physical stress activities that would tend to enlarge his aorta to the point to which it ruptures and almost certainly causes death, as it did in Patton's case.
But since Patton's death, Maryland coaches -- Driesell, especially -- have been on the lookout for Marfan's Syndrome, which usually goes undetected in routine physical examinations.
Team physician Stanford Lavine conducted a routine preseason examination on Weisheit early last week and grew suspicious that he had what cardiologist Irwin Ardam called "some of the classic Marfan's symptoms." Lavine suggested that Weisheit see a cardiologist. It was Ardam who confirmed that Weisheit did, indeed, have Marfan's Syndrome, and that he should not play basketball.
Ardam suggested Weisheit see McKusick, who told Weisheit he was fortunate Maryland was so careful.
"If he had gone on and played this year, with his aorta at the point where it is now, he'd probably get through the season all right," McKusick said. "That's this year. But by the end of the season, he'd have a very large aorta, and would have done great damage to himself. And the next year, a very great straining for all you're worth, full physical exertion . . . well, it could have been pretty grim."
Weisheit still was a little shaken yesterday, but certainly not grim. He thought back to the time a few years ago that a physician examined him in Germany. "He said he heard an abnormal sound, but nothing that was serious. Nobody told me it was all connected with my bad eyesight and height (two of the obvious symptoms).
"I called my parents right away, and they were pretty worried," he said. "They were wondering the same things I was. But after the visit to the specialist in Baltimore, they felt better. I'm happy I'm not going to die. I'm glad they found out early . . . It's shocking to hear that if you keep playing, in a year or so you could just collapse and die. And it's even more shocking to hear that somebody died of the same disease right here at this school."
Just a couple of days ago, Weisheit was standing on the basketball court in Cole Field House, watching Keith Gatlin shoot. Weisheit said he didn't think it would take too much exertion to throw up a couple of shots, so he did. Driesell happened to be coming out of his office, saw what was going on, and grew pretty shaken himself. "He told me to stop, immediately, and I did," Weisheit said.
Weisheit said he hasn't yet figured out what to do in the immediate future. Like Uwe Blab, first of Indiana and now the NBA Dallas Mavericks, Weisheit left Germany and went to Effingham, Ill., where he played one year of high school basketball. He has been considering a career in international marketing, and has fallen in love with Washington, D.C.
Weisheit said he will see McKusick within the next few days, then probably will go home and see his parents and a doctor in Germany within two or three weeks.
"I really don't know what I'm going to do," he said. "If I stay here, I might be able to play after a while, or maybe not . . . the doctors told me that the chances of that improve. I could sit around asking, 'Why me?' But that doesn't do any good. Life doesn't stop for me now. I've got to keep going to school. There's just no running or lifting weights.
"The thing I'd like to say is that every university, every school, should have people -- like Maryland did -- check its players for this. I could have been playing a game on national television, made a basket, fallen down and died. And if a kid knows he has it, and still plays, it's at his own risk. Living is too important. It stands above everything."