BLACKSBURG, Va. — Last month, Allan Chaney spent the better part of an hour trying to prove why he should be allowed to play college basketball again. He talked of pickup games he had played — against doctors’ orders — at a Virginia Tech rec center. He said he had recovered from surgeries that left one scar on the side of his ribcage and two more on his chest.
“How about this? This is what I’m down to,” Chaney said. “You don’t have to let me play in the games. Just let me practice. Let me practice with the team so I can help. I can help in practice.”
On April 21, 2010, Allan Chaney collapsed and lost consciousness while completing drills on the Virginia Tech practice floor. Over the next year, he visited specialists up and down the East Coast, some of whom said his basketball career might be over. This past August, Virginia Tech’s sports medicine department announced it would never allow Chaney to practice or compete with the school’s basketball team because of complications from viral myocarditis, an infection of the heart that causes inflammation and, in some cases, can be fatal.
That didn’t deter Chaney: In early November, he had a new type of defibrilator implanted, one that recognizes irregular heartbeats and shocks the heart back to normal. But even the University of Pennsylvania cardiologist who oversaw the procedure can’t be 100 percent certain Chaney’s heart won’t falter again.
For Chaney, though, this journey isn’t about risking his life. Hellbent on becoming the only person in the country to play Division I basketball with a defibrillator in his chest, this is his life.
“It hurts bad because I’m so close but this far away,” Chaney said. “I think right now with somebody actually coaching me and working me out, I’m ready to go play professional with men. But I want to play in college. I just hope somebody will give me a chance.”
Since transferring to Virginia Tech from Florida in May 2009, Chaney had wowed his new teammates in practice (NCAA transfer rules prevented him from playing in games). Coach Seth Greenberg was convinced that the 6-foot-9 forward “had a chance to become a first-round pick” in the NBA draft.
But about 45 minutes into that fateful April offseason workout, Chaney stepped to the free throw line and “couldn’t breathe.” At first he thought it was just from being out of shape. But when Chaney couldn’t catch his breath, he walked over to the sideline and sat down.
A manager asked if he wanted some water, and Chaney’s last memory is responding, “Yes.” Chaney then fell from his chair with the ball still in his hands, and “someone told me I was making noises even though I was passed out.”
Trainer Amy Kunigonis administered CPR to revive Chaney, and doctors initially thought it was simply a case of severe dehydration. But following a day of cardiac tests, they determined Chaney had viral myocarditis.
“But to me, I felt okay,” Chaney said. “I didn’t think that I had a problem because I didn’t have any symptoms. I wasn’t feeling sluggish and down.”
Itching to play basketball again while home in Baltimore in August 2010, Chaney went to a local YMCA to play a pickup game. But he passed out again.
Other than some light shooting with the team, Chaney didn’t play basketball again for more than a year as his heart healed. Periodic visits to a heart specialist at the University of Virginia revealed he needed an ablation procedure to remove scar tissue and to prevent future inflammation. But the doctors in Charlottesville couldn’t guarantee Chaney wouldn’t experience any more irregular heartbeats.
December 2010 brought more bad news. Chaney traveled to Boston and met with renowned cardiologist Mark Estes, a member of the “Dream Team” that consulted on the case of former Boston Celtics guard Reggie Lewis before he died from sudden cardiac arrest on the practice floor because of scarring caused by a virus in his heart.
Estes said no doctor would ever medically clear Chaney to play basketball again.
“I took it like, ‘Damn, he’s telling me it’s a wrap,’ ” Chaney said. “I cried a little bit. I was upset. But afterwards, I figured there’s gonna be ways around it. Technology is crazy.”
When Francis Marchlinski first met with Chaney in his office outside Philadelphia in early 2011, he said he never would be 100 percent certain Chaney wouldn’t suffer another cardiac episode. But he did mention a new kind of defibrillator developed in Europe, one that would be less subject to wear and tear during an extreme physical activity like playing college basketball.
Marchlinski, a cardiologist based at the University of Pennsylvania, gave Chaney hope, telling him “I can get you back to where you can play, where you can get to your normal life,” Chaney recalled.
So last May, Marchlinski performed an ablation procedure on Chaney, because at that point he was still “at an incredibly high risk of having rhythm abnormalities that could not only cause him to pass out but could clearly end his life,” Marchlinski said last month.
In July, with no complications from the ablation, Marchlinski met with Chaney; his father, Arthur; Greenberg; Mark Rogers, Virginia Tech’s team physician; and team trainer Dave Dietter in Philadelphia. Marchlinski laid out his plan for Chaney, how a backup defibrillator would need to be implanted just in case the ablation didn’t hold. But if everything went right, Marchlinski indicated he could one day grant Chaney medical clearance to play basketball again.
Chaney distinctly remembers Rogers asking Marchlinski, “If Allan gets this defibrillator today, will you clear him to play?” Chaney says Marchlinski responded in the affirmative. After talking more with Rogers, Chaney left that meeting feeling as if his career had been resurrected, that “it’s over a 70 percent chance I could be cleared or I could have a chance to prove that I’m okay,” he said.
“We were all optimistic and noticeably, collectively happy,” said Arthur Chaney, a Philadelphia firefighter.
But on Aug. 10, Virginia Tech’s sports medicine department made its ruling. Rogers has offered no other explanation to Chaney or his family, and did not return several messages seeking additional comment for this story. Greenberg said he has “nothing to do with medical decisions.”
“It’s easier for the team to be more conservative, and I don’t blame them,” said Marchlinski, who hasn’t yet cleared Chaney to play. “Nobody wants anything to happen, and no one wants anything to happen on their watch. There’s nothing about this defibrillator that makes it different than any defibrillator and that’s why everyone does soul-searching.”
Greenberg kept Chaney on scholarship even though his playing career in Blacksburg was over. But Chaney says the timing of the school’s decision left him in a bind: When he spoke with Temple Coach Fran Dunphy about transferring there to be closer to Marchlinski, all of the Owls’ roster spots were filled. Chaney now feels misled by Rogers and Virginia Tech’s sports medicine department.
“For them to turn me down a week before school starts in August, it’s kind of like you already knew you weren’t gonna clear me. You should have told me that back in July or June,” Chaney said. “It’s nothing against them, but they put me in a bad place.”
To the naked eye, there is nothing wrong with Chaney. He still looks like the 6-9 specimen with the 38-inch vertical jump and silky-smooth jump shot who showed up uninvited to a recruiting showcase in Philadelphia during the summer of 2007 and became a top recruit overnight because of his performance.
Before getting his defibrillator in November, Chaney spent many fall afternoons playing pickup basketball on campus for the first time since his initial collapse in April 2010. He dunked and ran the floor, albeit against inferior competition and without the knowledge of his doctors.
Chaney says he encountered no problems and plans to remain in Blacksburg through the summer, when he’s scheduled to earn his degree in apparel, housing and resource management. He still sits on the bench during most Virginia Tech men’s basketball games. He would be a redshirt junior this year.
“He’s a special talent, but my biggest thing is his long-term well-being, for him to have a long and prosperous and fulfilling life. I don’t know if he can have that without at least knowing he can play or not,” Greenberg said. “The problem for whatever school is the risk-management side of the university is absolutely going to have to clear him. When you hurt your ACL, you know it’s going to be about a year. But dealing with Allan, this is such uncharted waters for all of us.”
Brenda Pletcher, Chaney’s mother, gets emotional now that this unfortunate journey has reached 20 months, especially as she ponders the question of whether the youngest of her three sons will ever get another chance to prove what his heart is made of these days.
“I feel like he’s been let down. Just like Allan has been courageous throughout the whole deal, I feel that some of the people that made this decision for him, that changed his life, they could’ve been a little more courageous. I just believe it takes people like that to beat the odds,” she said.
“Allan is 21 years old. Defibrillator or no defibrillator, he’s going to be doing something out there that’s going to cause him to exercise. I don’t know what they’re so afraid of. Why be afraid? It’s like being afraid of living.”