When Richard Jefferson was 12, he had a bad asthma attack. It was severe enough to land him in the hospital, and from then on, his life and daily routine were haunted by the possibility of another attack. His inhaler was always within reach. His parents always had a phone nearby, in case of an emergency. The simple act of traveling to a new place became ridden with anxiety, in case the atmosphere triggered another attack.
Jefferson eventually did travel, though it was for the benefit of his condition. His family moved from Los Angeles to Phoenix, where the dry air and scarcity of vegetation markedly improved his breathing. Jefferson stayed home to play college hoops at the University of Arizona, but when it came time to enter the NBA Draft, he gave up his freedom to choose his location.
Jefferson ended up in New Jersey, where he played for seven seasons before being traded to the Milwaukee Bucks in 2008. The following season, the Bucks turned around and traded him to San Antonio, and it was there, in the heart of Texas, that the forward’s asthma made its unwelcome return.
“I started to feel my asthma slowly start to come back,” Jefferson said. “I had to start searching for alternative things to try and help it.”
Being a professional basketball player who struggles to breath is akin to being trapped in the trunk of a car. In San Antonio, Jefferson’s numbers declined dramatically as his asthma worsened, reaching a point where he knew he needed to find a solution or risk putting his NBA career in jeopardy.
“The fatigue you feel in the fourth quarter or in an overtime game? Asthmatics will feel that in the first quarter,” Jefferson said. “Your body isn’t getting enough oxygen. And that’s the key thing for athletic performance.”
Jefferson tried everything he could to keep his asthma in check. He ran through medications like Advare, Prednisone and Medrol Dosepak, and he started using a ventolin inhaler. None of it worked. And as his game suffered, he became afraid to reveal what was actually going on with his body, leading to questions of whether his career was simply coming to a natural conclusion.
Knowing his situation was dire, Jefferson began doing research behind the scenes. That led to a recommendation from a doctor in San Antonio for him to undergo Bronchial Thermoplasty (BT) surgery, a procedure which, according to its website, removes the “excess smooth muscle” that forms around and restricts the airway of people with asthma. When Jefferson was traded to the Golden State Warriors in 2012, he found himself near the city where the doctor who had performed the most BT procedures in the country practiced. Coincidence or not, Jefferson took a leap of faith, drove across the bridge to San Francisco and had the procedure.
“I was super nervous, mainly because I was the first pro athlete to [have the procedure],” Jefferson said. “I didn’t consult with any team, I didn’t consult with anybody. This was something I did for myself.”
Jefferson emerged from the procedure reborn as an NBA player.
“The biggest thing was just being able to breath again,” he said. “Having my lungs open and being able to run up and down the floor as fast as I knew I could and being able to jump and do all these things. All of that is because I had the procedure.”
Jefferson joined the Utah Jazz in 2013, playing in the high-altitude atmosphere that once wreaked havoc on his immune system. He ended up averaging more points per game than he had in the previous four seasons. After a one-year stint with Dallas, Jefferson landed in Cleveland, where he played 18 minutes off the bench, shot almost 40 percent from deep and played a key role in helping the Cavs win their first NBA championship.
Jefferson credits BT procedure and his newfound love of yoga and beach volleyball as the catalysts for the resurgence of his NBA career, but he would be remiss if he did not point to another key factor that extended his career into his 16th year in the league.
“Playing with LeBron James,” Jefferson said with a laugh.
As he prepares for what he hopes will be another long and fruitful playoff run with the Cavs, Jefferson will continue to credit the procedure that placed him in this position.
“I’m speaking out for this procedure five years later because I’ve seen the results and I’ve felt the results,” he said. “I didn’t want to speak on it too early without having felt what the residual effects were. And now I’m the biggest advocate for this, because I know how having severe asthma can affect your life and can affect your family.”
Photo Credit: Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images