Sporting a modest navy T-shirt, a gaudy diamond-linked chain and a pair of shorts that drooped so low that they hung just three inches above his socks, Larry Hughes strolled through the hallway of MCI Center with a confident swagger two days after the Washington Wizards were swept out of the playoffs last month.
The free-agent-to-be knew that he had secured a lucrative contract this summer, following his best season as a professional basketball player and the Wizards' unlikely playoff run. Forward Antawn Jamison, the Wizards' highest-paid player, spotted Hughes and asked, "Can I have a loan, dawg?" Hughes chuckled as he slapped hands with Jamison.
He left the building shortly thereafter, preparing to go home to St. Louis in a few days and looking forward to finally entering an offseason in which he wouldn't get ribbed about playing on a miserable team. "I'm going to enjoy the summer," Hughes said, smiling. "I'm going to be like that Waldo guy. I'm going to be everywhere."
Within a few days, however, Hughes's strut became unsteady, his desire to be seen and heard changed into a need to be alone, and the exciting prospect of millions of dollars was outweighed by fear and anxiety. His foundation was shaken when his 19-year-old brother, Justin, began experiencing complications with his heart for the first time since he had a life-saving transplant more than eight years ago.
On May 20 -- less than a week after Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning ended the Wizards' season by blocking Hughes's driving layup in the closing seconds of the Eastern Conference semifinals -- Justin Hughes was hospitalized after his annual heart examination revealed that his body had begun rejecting the organ. And he was developing kidney problems.
Being the big brother, the family protector and the provider since he was a teenager, Hughes couldn't leave Justin's side as Justin rested in the intensive care unit at Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital in St. Louis. Hughes, 26, waited for word following every test, kept his brother encouraged and tried, unsuccessfully, to maintain his own cool. "Through all the tests, through everything he was extremely worried," Hughes's mother, Vanessa, said of her oldest son. "I could tell he was kind of panicking. I kind of wanted him to get away to ease his mind because I know he was taking on a lot."
When reached by phone recently, Hughes spoke briefly about how he was dealing with his brother's plight. "I just really take it day by day," he said. "I know things happen and they happen for a reason. I can't try to figure out the reason why. I just have to think, 'What can I do to make the situation better?' "
When Justin was released from intensive care a week later and appeared to be improving, Hughes, worn down from angst, decided to heed his mother's advice and escaped to Miami. But before he left, Hughes told her that he had a vision. "The last thing he said before he went to Miami, he told me, 'Don't worry. Everything is going to be okay. I saw it. I saw it last night. Everything is going to be all right,' " Vanessa Hughes said.
She recalls Hughes using those same words -- "Everything is going to be okay" -- when Justin had his heart transplant. Vanessa Hughes didn't have any reason to doubt her oldest son. "Eight years later, Justin has been fine -- up until now," she said.
A Transplant, but Not a Cure
Justin Hughes was born with a congenital heart defect that amounted to having a backward heart with switched vessels. An operation 10 months later temporarily addressed the problem, but doctors informed the family that his life expectancy was 10 to 13 years.
Late in 1996, Justin twice experienced cardiac arrest and was given a pacemaker before being placed on a heart transplant list on Dec. 31 of that year. Three days later, he received a new heart. The Hughes family never had any illusions about Justin's condition: They realized that the transplant wasn't the cure. "It just gave him a new lease on life," Vanessa Hughes said.
Each year, the family celebrates the date of Justin's transplant -- Jan. 2, 1997 -- much like a birthday or Christmas. It also maintains a close relationship with the family of Dana Spencer, the 16-year-old girl who died in a car accident and provided the heart for Justin. Pattie Spencer, Dana's mother, was a regular visitor of Justin's hospital room last month. "Her parents are right there with us," Vanessa Hughes said. "Justin calls Pattie 'Mom.' "
Hughes heads the Larry Hughes Foundation to support families in need of organ transplants. The foundation usually holds a fundraiser each summer, but Justin's condition has put those plans on hold.
Justin spent most of his life looking up to Larry, but the feeling was reciprocated by the brother who is seven years older and always was impressed with the courage of his little brother. During the time that led up to Justin's surgery, Hughes got a tattoo on his left shoulder of the Grim Reaper to remind him that nothing in life is a given. "It was tough," Hughes said of that time, which was during Hughes's senior year of high school. "It never really sunk in, what was going on. I knew the situation. But it never really hit me that he wouldn't come out okay."
Earlier this season, the brothers were spotted wrestling and laughing in the hallway outside the Wizards' practice facility. Justin, who is in college in St. Louis, showed up at a handful of games throughout the season, including Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in Miami.
After Justin was hospitalized, Hughes quickly went into a shell, turning off his cell phone for almost a week and even blocking out those in his inner circle. Hughes is known for his quiet nature, but his silence this time was the result of his desire not to discuss the most pressing issue in his life. He shut down instead of expressing the pain.
His cousin and personal assistant, Abe Givins, who attends every home and road game, called Vanessa Hughes to inform her that Larry wasn't handling the situation well. Vanessa Hughes would call and leave updates about Justin's health on Larry's answering machine. Then Larry would call back, always requesting to speak to his brother.
Justin Hughes was released from the hospital on June 4, and more tests are scheduled today to see if stronger doses of anti-rejection medication can stabilize the heart, Vanessa Hughes said. "Once an organ gets that old, there's not a whole lot you can do, but just try to keep it protected," Vanessa Hughes said. "That's what they are aiming at."
The last alternative is for him to receive a new heart, which is a challenge because of the difficulty in finding a match; plus it carries the risk of similar problems down the road. Hughes said Justin was getting better but added: "I want to get past it. This is going to be the last time I'm going to talk about what's going on with him. At the time we figure everything out, I'll let people know."
Vanessa Hughes had Larry at age 21 and "we kind of like raised each other," she said. Hughes's father was in and out of his life until he was about 11, but he is never discussed. "He isn't there, hasn't been there, and that's brain cells we use for something else," Vanessa said. When she had Justin, Larry realized that his little brother needed much more attention, so he stayed out of the way, never bothering to make requests his mother could not fulfill. In turn, his mother gave him the freedom to figure out life on his own, which he credits for developing the philosophy of life tattooed on his back, "God's World, My Way" -- one of the "18 to 19" tattoos that cover Hughes's body.
But Hughes's way usually meant never drifting too far from home. He spurned scholarship offers from powerhouses Kansas, Syracuse and Illinois to stay at home and play for basketball lightweight Saint Louis University so that his family, especially Justin, could attend games. When he was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers at age 19 a year later, his mother and brother lived with him during his rookie season.
"No question. That's been his rock," said Western Illinois Coach Derek Thomas, who coached Hughes in high school and was on the coaching staff at Saint Louis University, where Hughes played for one season. "Ask anybody around him. That's kept him going. You've got to give those two credit for helping him get to where he is at."
Hughes may have never played organized basketball at all if his mother hadn't encouraged him at age 12. He has always embraced his role as family guardian, realizing that what he provided his family was merely a reflection of what they meant to him. "It comes easy to me. Everything that I do is for my family," said Hughes, who is married with three children. "Me doing well makes them happy. At the same time it makes me look good."
After averaging career highs in scoring (22.0) rebounds (6.3) and assists (4.7), leading the league in steals per game (2.89), earning first-team NBA all-defensive team honors and helping the Wizards win a playoff series for the first time since 1982, Hughes could command a multiyear contract this summer with a first-year salary more than double what he made last season ($5 million).
Hughes is considered among the top players entering the free agent market, along with Seattle's Ray Allen, Milwaukee's Michael Redd and Phoenix's Joe Johnson. The size and length of Hughes's contract will depend largely on when and if the league and the players' union can settle on a collective bargaining agreement. "I'm sure he'll be coveted," TNT basketball analyst Steve Kerr said. Ernie Grunfeld, the Wizards' president of basketball operations, has repeatedly said that he doesn't intend to let Hughes go anywhere and Hughes has expressed a desire to stay, although he intends to test the market.
A lockout seems likely, since the sides don't appear to be close to agreeing by June 30, but Hughes said it doesn't bother him that he may be forced to wait longer before signing a deal. Hughes was drafted in 1998, when the league last had a lockout. "I've made a lot of money, more than what I thought I'd ever make. I think the sides will get together and they'll fix things. And when it's time for me to sign my deal, it'll be a done deal."
While Hughes's contract could secure his family's financial future for generations, Justin's setback has provided a stark reminder of life's uncertainties.
"Given the cards we were dealt, we as a family have been used to adversity, have been used to prevailing through adversity," Vanessa Hughes said. "When you have a sick child, no ball can be thrown at you that you can't handle. For us, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. Even if you have to go through it. That's how we've looked at life. We value life more than anything else."