Hall of Fame point guard Tiny Archibald knew the health statistics of retired professional basketball players were alarming, but what prompted him to probe his own medical history was far more personal.
"Everyone around me kept dying," Archibald says. "And they were all younger than me."
There was Moses Malone, struck down by a heart ailment at 60. Darryl Dawkins, a heart attack at 58. Dwayne "Pearl" Washington -- who, like Archibald, refined his game on the blacktops of New York City -- gone from cancer at 52.
Archibald felt confident he had no major health issues -- other than, of course, the residual aches and pains of an Achilles tear, a separated shoulder and arthroscopic surgery on both knees, all accumulated over a 14-year career. But the 6-foot-1 former guard was 68 years old. And knowledge, he figured, was power.
He perused the numbers from the free screenings conducted by the National Basketball Players Association: More than 35 percent of retired players aged 40 to 59 had high blood pressure; nearly 50 percent of players over the age of 40 were prediabetic; more than 30 percent of the players screened were considered obese. And then there was this: 20 percent of the players over 60 had overt diabetes, and all of those players were African-American.
"So I decided to go in,'' Archibald says. "I'm thinking, 'OK, ordinary, routine blood work.' I came out in shock mode."
Archibald's tests revealed there was an issue with his heart. It was the kind of result that has been a hallmark of the program, alerting aging players to conditions they didn't know they had. In some cases, those issues require simple steps to improve or eradicate the problem.
Yet, in a cruel twist, the disease that had seeped into Archibald's heart was different.
His condition -- amyloidosis -- was incurable.
IT WAS DECEMBER 2016 when Archibald learned of his diagnosis, during a free screening at the New York offices of the NBPA. And now, more than a year later, he's still reeling from the news.
"What I have is really rare,'' he says. "There's no pills, nothing they have found that works. I'm being tested all the time, just hoping, you know?
"My [heart] could go any minute. But I'm not ready for that. I want to be around for a long time."
According to the Mayo Clinic, amyloidosis occurs when a substance called amyloid builds up in organs. An abnormal protein produced in bone marrow, amyloid can be deposited in any tissue or organ. In Archibald's case, it was deposited in his heart. As a result, according to Dr. Michael Emery, a cardiologist at Indiana School of Medicine who serves as a consultant for the players' association, it reduces the ability of Archibald's heart to fill with blood in between heartbeats.
"It makes the heart very stiff,'' Emery says. "Instead of a pliable heart muscle, your heart doesn't relax well enough to let blood in, as well as pump blood out."
If a human heart doesn't pump properly, it can lead to fluid in the lungs. And, as if his diagnosis wasn't sobering enough, Archibald was told his type of amyloidosis could be hereditary, which meant he had to inform his aging brothers and sisters that they also may be facing an uncertain future.
"What's happening is my heart is beating too fast and too hard,'' Archibald says. "There's blockage in there and we gotta find a way to dissolve some of it. My heart is taking a pounding, and that blockage is going to cause it to malfunction."
The medical community has had little success solving the riddle of amyloidosis. For those who suffer from it, aside from participating in clinical trials, or the possibility of a heart transplant, which at Archibald's age may not be viable, there isn't much that can be done.
IN JULY 2016, just five months before Archibald's screening, NBA players, in conjunction with the NBA, voted to set aside millions to fund health insurance for retired players with at least three years of NBA experience. Coverage began in January 2017.
In addition, the players' association set up free nationwide health screenings, which unearthed numerous cases of hypertension, atrial fibrillation, high glucose and cholesterol levels, sleep apnea, diabetes, even Marfan syndrome.
"If I saw Chris Paul, LeBron, D-Wade and those guys, I'd give them a squeeze," Archibald says. "I would love to thank them personally, but I'm sure they don't even know who I am. I was playing before they were born.''
He's wrong, of course. Ask around in today's NBA, and you find many stars well-versed in the story of Tiny Archibald -- an undersized talent in a big man's game. A second-round pick, he became, during the 1972-73 season for the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, the first player in league history to lead the NBA in scoring (34 PPG) and assists (11.4 APG). Archibald won his only championship in 1981 with the Celtics alongside a forward by the name of Larry Joe Bird.
When asked about Archibald, Heat guard Dwyane Wade rattles off a number of his attributes, punctuating it with, "He's one of those little guys that nobody could stop." It's a history that the new generation of stars -- almost universally better-compensated than their NBA forefathers -- insist they value. And so, Wade says, the decision to assist the retired players with health benefits was never a question of "if," but "when."
"When you start coming to end of your career, you start thinking about your legacy," Wade says. "LeBron and I talked a lot about these great players who came before us, and how they paved the way for us to have such amazing and successful careers. So it becomes something you'd like to pay forward."
Wade says it was Heat president Pat Riley who first exemplified to him why the health-care initiative was so critical to retired players. Riley maintains impeccable conditioning and requires all Heat players to undergo regular body-fat testing. Yet even he couldn't fend off the pounding his body absorbed as an NBA journeyman.
"Pat wasn't a superstar or anything, and he didn't even play in the league all that long," Wade says, "but I've watched him deal with all the ailments as he's gotten older. He would tell us, 'I'm lucky. I can afford to have these procedures done by the best doctors. Many of the guys I played with don't have the means for that.'"
When Archibald retired, he resolved to avoid the pitfalls of obesity by staying active and watching his diet. He delighted in his contemporaries telling him, "You look like you could still play.'' Now his health regimen includes making regular visits to New York-Presbyterian Hospital and volunteering for clinical trials designed to find a cure -- or at least a treatment to corral the disease.
"If not for today's players," Archibald says, "I don't think a lot of us old guys would be here today. It used to be when someone passed, it was, 'Oh, he died,' and that's it.
"Now we're able to pinpoint why they are gone and realize, 'This could have been avoided.' I want to thank them for that. They are saving us.''
ON FRIDAY, THE NBPA set up a free screening for its members at the L.A. Hotel Downtown to kick off All-Star Weekend. It was the first-ever free screening at an All-Star Weekend. According to Joe Rogowski, director of sports medicine and research for the NBPA, 35 retired players attended.
Archibald says that his mission now is to encourage his retired brethren to take advantage of the comprehensive health care that is available to them.
"I went to one of the [clinical] trials recently,'' Archibald says. "I gave them nine vials of blood. I want to help them find a cure, if not for me, then for the next person."
Knowing what he knows now, Archibald is asked if he regrets undergoing the screening. His answer is a resounding "no." Emery says even though there is no cure, there is value in diagnosing amyloidosis.
"If not for today's players, I don't think a lot of us old guys would be here today." Hall of Fame point guard Tiny Archibald
"The earlier you find out, the better you can manage it," Emery says. "If you didn't know you had this and you got too far down the line, there's a point of no return. Even if we were able to develop something, you might not benefit from it."
Today, Archibald says when people discover he is dealing with an incurable heart condition, they ask him what's on his bucket list.
"I tell them I wish I had better health,'' Archibald says. "Sometimes I feel good, sometimes I don't. I want to be around a long time. I have grandchildren. I need to be here to see them grow up.''
He knows some retired players would rather not know if they have serious health concerns. That, he believes, is shortsighted.
"In our [New York-New Jersey-Connecticut] tri-state area, we send out about 70 emails asking retired players to get checked, but how many show up? Not even 10 of them,'' Archibald says. "They don't think it's important. They say, 'I don't need screening. I feel good.'
"Well, you know what? That's what I used to say."